WHEELERSBURG — Before a 55-45 win over Fairland on Feb. 23, Wheelersburg’s girls had a week to prepare for the Dragons. Then, before a 50-39 win over Eastern Brown, the Pirates had another full six days to scout the Warriors.
Both wins came with Wheelersburg’s season on the line. Wednesday’s Division III regional semifinal will have the same stakes … but the Pirates have had just two days to prepare for McConnelsville Morgan.
“It’s certainly not easy to do,” Wheelersburg coach Dusty Spradlin said. “It’s a quick turnaround. Our last two games, we’ve had a week to look at scouting reports for Fairland and Eastern Brown. Now, have two days of practice to get ready. [Morgan] is going to be rebounding the ball, they’re going to get out and run, and it’s been awhile since we’ve seen someone like that.”
The Raiders, who come into Wednesday’s game at 18-7 overall, use their speed to hurt opposing defenses. The team is led by a mix of Kaylie Apperson, Rilee Coon and Kara Hopkins.
Of that group, Apperson is the biggest scoring threat. She also brings a plethora of experience to the table as she’ll be playing in her 98th consecutive game.
But Wheelersburg is a battle-tested group. They’ve played against a program with a similar philosophy this season in Spring Valley [W. Va.], a contest they won 69-66.
“We struggled a lot, really in the first half, just trying to be in a position to guard Spring Valley,” Spradlin said. “So we can at least point back to, ‘We’ve had this experience before.’ We just need to do a better job of getting them slowed down initially, until we can all get back and guard the ball. But it’s a change of gears. Fairland and Eastern Brown didn’t play at that pace.”
So far this season, Morgan has earned quality wins over Tri-Valley, Zanesville, Tuscarawas Valley and Bellaire — coming in a Division III district final by a 46-44 final.
The Raiders’ seven losses have come to Maysville, Sheridan [twice], Fairfield Union, John Glenn and Tri-Valley … five teams with a combined record of 85-34.
Meanwhile, the Pirates have dropped just four contests at 22-4, falling to Alexander, Oak Hill, Vinton County and South Point. Three of those four losses have been by a combined five points.
This past weekend’s district championship was the program’s first since 2015. But according to sophomore guard Lauren Jolly, the Pirates aren’t satisfied just yet.
“We have a lot of motivation because for our seniors, Abbie Kallner and Karlie Estep, we want them to get as far as they can before they graduate,” Jolly said. “They make me want to get as far as we can and they push me to hustle and get rebounds out there.”
Jolly has given the team significant, valuable minutes off the bench alongside Lani Irwin, Isabella Hamilton and Ryley Grant.
But the Pirates’ starting five in Kallner, Estep, Ellie Kallner, Kaylee Darnell and Alaina Keeney have shouldered the brunt of the offensive load. Over the past two tournament games, when defenses focuses on Abbie Kallner and Darnell, Keeney has drilled bucket after bucket.
“We want this more than anyone,” Keeney said. “We’ve been doubted the whole season and we want to do this for our seniors because they’re our best friends. My teammates get me going. We always encourage each other and we pick each other up.”
Spradlin says Keeney’s elevated production, as well as Jolly’s and the rest of the crew, is needed more than ever come Wednesday evening.
“It’ll be huge for tomorrow and it’s been huge for us,” Spradlin said of his team’s balanced production. “You have to have multiple kids on the floor who can score at this point in the tournament. People are going to try and take away your best options and make other kids beat them. So, for us, the fact that we’ve had that through our tournament run is a big deal.”
Wheelersburg and Morgan have a scheduled 8 p.m. tip-off, Wednesday at Logan High School. A win for the Pirates would pit them against either Alexander or Berlin Hiland.
“We just have to try to be us,” Spradlin said. “That’s really what we’ve done all season long. We feel like we’ve played a good schedule and our conference is really good. We feel like that helps us be prepared [for Wednesday]. It’s helped us with everything we’ve seen so far. As long as we stick to who we are, I feel like we’re going to be OK.”