ST. CLAIRSVILLE -They are back and looking to go back to back to back.
The Ohio University Eastern Lady Panthers once again completed a remarkable run last February in capturing the Belmont County schools seventh state title. But, it wasn't easy. OUE came roaring back from a second half double digit deficit in the semi-finals to defeat rival OU Lancaster in a 61-58 thriller, then continued the momentum in the state finals as they steamrolled tournament host Miami Middletown 79-62 to win their second straight state championship.
"That was quite a weekend," said OUE Head Coach E. J. Schodzinski. "We had only lost five times all year, but we were 0-3 versus OU Lancaster and MU Middletown in the regular season. As a result, most of the people at the tournament were surprised when we ended up cutting down the nets. To be honest though, we thought that we would be fine if we played our best."
Fast forwarding to this season, Schodzinski, who has accumulated an overall record of 148-44 at OUE, initially felt confident those dramatic tournament victories and the momentum that went along with a second straight state title would have a carry-over effect into the 2012-13 season. "I knew we had some very big shoes to fill with the graduation losses of seniors Savannah Burke, Allie Doan and Kristina Velkovich, but I also felt good about the talents of our returning veterans as well as a strong freshmen recruiting class.
Burke, the MVP of the 2011 state tournament and All-ORCC standout from Beallsville, finished her career as the fifth leading scorer in school history with 1,241 points and the second all-time rebounder with 687 caroms.
Doan, an All-ORCC performer from Barnesville, finished an outstanding career as the school's third all-time scorer with 1,411 markers.
Velkovich was a four year starter and fierce rebounder in the post out of St. John's.
"We will sorely miss Allie, Kristina and Savannah," said Schodzinski. "They each played a big part in our recent successes on and off the court and will always be a part of the OUE family. They set the standard high and consequently, we have some big shoes to fill."
"I am most pleased of the fact that Savannah has already graduated with a bachelor's degree in health services administration and that Allie and Kristina are in line to finish their degrees in exercise physiology and social work later this year."
While Schodzinski knew the seniors would not return, he was not prepared for the additional loss of projected starters Alexa Isaly and Rachel Benda late this summer.
Isaly, the returning starting point guard from River and All-Tournament selection at last year's state tourney, was severely injured from a two-story fall while helping a family member with a roofing project. "The scaffolding collapsed and Alexa suffered a concussion, broken wrist and shattered elbow," said Schodzinski. "Thank goodness her injuries were not life threatening and she has returned to school. Alexa continues to make good progress and we are hopeful that she will be able to return to the team in 2013-14."
Benda, a criminal justice major from Bridgeport, had planned on becoming a state trooper after graduation. The opportunity arose sooner than expected as she was recruited to the state police academy in early August. "Rachel was torn on this decision academically and athletically," said Schodzinski. "In the end she decided to enroll in the academy and take advantage of this career opportunity in an uncertain economy. Rachel has vowed to come back to school to complete her degree on a part-time basis once she begins her career as a state trooper. I plan on holding her to that."
All is not lost however, as the Lady Panthers return four key performers from last year's championship team.
Hanna Gossett, a 5'5" junior guard from John Marshall, is the lone upperclassman on the roster. She averaged 6.2 points and 3.2 rebounds last season. "Hanna's best asset is her versatility and her ability to guard every position," said Schodzinski. "She is a tireless worker who always tries her best on and off the court and continuously puts the team first. Consequently, Hanna is a terrific role model for our younger players."
The strength of this year's team lies in an experienced sophomore class that features three former All-OVAC performers. Kelsey Holloway, Alex Kuhn and Sarah Neavin were all key contributors as the team made its' annual tournament run last February.
Holloway, a 5'8" wing, joined the Panthers in January after spending the first semester at Ohio State in Columbus. However, much to the chagrin of her opponents, she did not lose a step as she averaged 11.2 points and 4.1 rebounds over the final 14 games of the season.
The former Shadyside great cracked the starting lineup just prior to the state tourney and promptly responded with a 25 point, 8 rebound performance to lead the Panthers in both categories in the state championship game in Middletown. She was named state tournament MVP for her efforts.
"Kelsey played with great confidence and was really dialed in on that particular day," said Schodzinski. "I hope that she will pick up where she left off as we are going to depend on her even more for scoring this season."
Kuhn came to OUE last year following a brilliant career at Monroe Central. The 5'6" shooting guard started every game as a freshman and averaged 13.6 points and 4.2 rebounds. She also made 55 three pointers to lead the team in that category.
"Alex is a very confident player with unlimited range," said Schodzinski. "She can score with either hand and can finish on the break too. However, I was just as pleased with her ability and willingness to defend last year. She is always working on her game and I expect her to continue to improve in all aspects going forward."
According to the coach, Alex will also assume the primary ball handling duties this year due to Isaly's injury.
Neavin, the 5'11" forward from Shadyside, also played a key role last season. Sarah was pushed into the starting lineup when Burke went down with a serious knee injury in December. She promptly responded by averaging 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds.
"Sarah did a great job for us last year," said Schodzinski. "She is a mature, dependable player who competed very well along the front line as a freshman. I have already penciled her in for one of the starting forward spots."
Schodzinski firmly believes the momentum from back to back championships carried over into the recruiting process. The proof is in the pudding as four former OVAC standouts signed on for this season.
"Success breeds success and it became clear to me during the recruiting process that people around the valley have begun to recognize the quality of our education, the affordable cost to go to school here, and the type of basketball that we play," said Schodzinski. "Why break the bank and pay to play at a more expensive school when you can have a better overall experience at Ohio University Eastern?"
The freshmen class includes Barnesville's Jessica Hunkler, Beallsville's Julie Bilyeu, Monroe Central's Casey Digity and Union Local's Alexus Davis.
Hunkler and Digity are competing for playing time in the backcourt, while Bilyeu and Davis are battling for front court positions.
"I really like our newcomers," Schodzinski continued. "They are all eager to learn and are grasping things quickly because of their work ethic. It is a big transition from high school to college, the game is a lot faster, and the 30 second shot clock plays a big factor, but I think this group is up to the challenge."
Schodzinski's Panthers open the season at home on November 13 versus Penn State Beaver and the coach insists the team's goals will remain the same despite the key losses. "We aim to achieve a 3.3 grade point average as a team in the classroom and advance to our fifth consecutive ORCC State Final Four on February 23 in Akron," said Schodzinski.
"Our road will not be an easy one as we have already experienced more than our fair share of adversity. We are also bound to experience more growing pains, particularly early in the season due our lack of depth and youth. However, we believe we can still achieve our goals and punch our ticket to the dance if we stick together and are able to play our best basketball of the season in February."
"We also know from firsthand experience that anything can happen once you are at the dance. We look forward to starting our journey."