PORTSMOUTH — To take that next step, which the Lady Titans intend on taking, they must first repeat the one they already know.
After all, you can’t get to the ones up ahead of you…if you first don’t get past the one directly in front of you.
It’s no secret that Notre Dame’s girls basketball team has its sights set on the prize of an “Elite Eight” appearance —as the Lady Titans of the past two years saw their seasons end in the Division IV regional semifinals.
Naturally, with another talented team returning for this postseason, the Lady Titans’ time to reach the regional championship game — and even beyond — is now.
But first things first, an equally-eager Belpre Golden Eagle squad stands in the Lady Titans’ way — as the right to play in next week’s “Sweet Sixteen” takes place on Thursday evening at Jackson High School.
The top-seeded and 22-2 Lady Titans face fourth-seeded and 19-5 Belpre in Thursday’s Division IV district championship tilt —as tipoff is set for 6:15 p.m. with the winner advancing to next Thursday’s Region 15 semifinals.
Notre Dame, winners of 10 consecutive sectional championships along with another in 1984, is playing in its fifth consecutive district title bout — having won the previous two of course.
For Belpre, which has been both a Division III and IV program over the past decade but most recently in Division IV, it is vying for its first district championship since clear back in 1997.
That was the golden era of Golden Eagle basketball with Kathy Coyner, who is still the school’s all-time leading scorer and who went on to play at the University of Massachusetts.
As for the Lady Titans, and their senior class which sports a stellar record of 94-7 prior to Thursday, it is no doubt a case of been here —and done that.
However, the sport of basketball — broken down into its most simplest of explanations — is still all about making shots and putting more points on the scoreboard than the opponent.
J.D. McKenzie, the Lady Titans’ 10-year head coach, said his experienced club is excited about another district finals appearance —but reaching that level has become the program’s expectation of every year.
Notre Dame was first a district runner-up in 2011.
Several of the Lady Titans have played in not only three basketball district championship games, but also four volleyball district finals matches — along with district tournament games in softball.
“Experience is important, and I don’t believe the stage is going to be too big for us, but sometimes it’s overblown, because every game is different. When you are making shots, everything else works better. That’s going to be the same for every game you play. You can play great and not make shots and get beat. And you can play poorly, but if you make some shots, you’ll win,” said McKenzie, in an interview on Monday. “We’re excited, but we’re more grounded now. This is our fifth district finals appearance in a row. There is excitement there, but there is also anticipation that we want to get past that and go farther.”
In order to do that, they must defeat a Belpre team — coached by Chris Murray — that sports experienced seniors Kyna Waderker (5-11, forward), Kyanna Ray (5-9, forward) and Abbey LaFatch (5-8, guard) and junior Curstin Giffin (5-8, forward).
Halee Williams, a six-foot sophomore center, is also a key cog in the Orange and Black machine.
The Golden Eagles are a good size matchup for the Lady Titans, spearheaded by 5-5 junior guard Ava Hassel, six-foot junior center Claire Detwiller and 5-6 senior guard Taylor Schmidt.
Hassel — who averages 16.3 points per game — and Schmidt, incidentally on Tuesday, were named to the Division IV first team and second team respectively on the 2020 District 14 Coaches Association all-district list.
Schmidt, 5-6 defensive specialist Olivia Smith, fellow 5-6 guard Cassie Schaefer, and 5-9 forwards Lauren Campbell and Paetyn Collins are the five seniors — and make up the regular rotation along with 5-8 junior Isabel Cassidy.
The Lady Titans and Golden Eagles actually played each other in the previous two regular seasons — with Notre Dame defeating Belpre both times.
“A lot of their girls from last year are still there. I think they graduated one of their starters off last year’s team,” said McKenzie. “We’ve seen them quite a bit both on film and in-person, and they basically do a lot of the same things and run the same sets that they did last year. We’re going to try not to be surprised.”
Of course, as McKenzie continued, it’s a new game — in a much different atmosphere with higher stakes — come Thursday.
Belpre brings a size advantage, while Notre Dame has an edge in speed — and is a faster-paced defensive-oriented unit to begin with.
“One thing we are really concerned about is rebounding because they are bigger than us. I feel like we are quicker than they are, so we have to bring an aggressive tone to the game and dictate the pace of the game,” said McKenzie. “We have to make some early shots to get up in our press and put pressure on them and try to turn them over and get some easier looks. We have to knock down some outside shots, which sometimes has been a struggle for us lately.”
In the Lady Titans’ two losses, albeit against much larger schools in Spring Valley (W. Va.) and Ashland (Ky.) and on neutral floors (64-57 to Spring Valley at Fairland and 52-41 to Ashland at Ironton), they endured stretches of poor shooting, especially from three-point range.
They also fell behind following the first quarter to Manchester (11-4) in the district semifinals, before outscoring the Lady Greyhounds 35-16 over the final three periods.
McKenzie said the Lady Titans didn’t shoot well against Manchester, but that their defense did travel well — and expects it again to do so against the Golden Eagles.
Of course, it will help Notre Dame for it to make some shots, too.
“We scored 39 points against Manchester, and still win by double digits. Our defense came ready to play last week. If we come with the same type of effort and intensity that we did last week, we’ll be okay.” said the coach. “I think we’re a really good outside shooting team that just hasn’t been there all the time. You can’t rely on shooting 20 threes thinking you’re going to make 10. That doesn’t always happen. There are nights we make 15, there are nights we make two. You have to find different ways to win.”
One way, McKenzie mentioned, is to prevent the Golden Eagles from setting up in a zone defense — which would benefit Belpre’s height and length and make it easier for them to shade shooters and contest shots.
“The one thing that has me guessing is that I’ve never not seen him (Murray) play zone. I just have a feeling on Thursday we’re going to see some zone. But the best way to beat a zone defense is not let them get in it,” he said. “If we can get rebounds and turnovers and get out in transition and score in transition, that’s going to keep them from getting in their zone.”
Indeed, while Notre Dame is a perceived favorite given its pedigree, the Golden Eagles are perhaps not the most favorable on-the-floor matchup out of all of those that are possible.
Still, no matter the opponent along the tournament trail, it’s all about concerning yourself with the one directly in front of you —to get to the ones up ahead.
“In tournament time, the old cliche that it’s one game at a time is in fact what it is. You can’t have your focus looking somewhere else as bad as you may want to,” said McKenzie. “The girls are excited, but they expected to be here and know what it is going to take to move on.“
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved