COLUMBUS, Ohio — They have spent a career preparing for this moment.
The time has come to show the rest of the Buckeye State what you have collectively learned.
Five seniors will wrap up one of the most storied four-year runs in the history of southeastern Ohio girls basketball this weekend when Eastern makes its second consecutive trip to the Division IV OHSAA state tournament at Value City Arena on the campus of the Ohio State University in Franklin County.
The Lady Eagles have participated in 103 games since the start of the 2010-11 campaign, when Katie Keller, Maddie Rigsby, Jenna Burdette, Jordan Parker and Erin Swatzel all made the jump to varsity basketball as freshmen. Some played more than others that season, but those early experiences help lay the foundation for what the quintet has accomplished since.
And it is through those group endeavors that EHS learned how to be successful on the court, by playing together one game at a time.
“It’s been a phenomenal run and it’s very hard to explain, but the last couple of years we have just developed a really good chemistry,” Swatzel said. “This year, however, it’s been perfect. We are a family and I think that is what has carries us through.”
Eastern (25-1) has amassed an 88-15 overall mark during the last four seasons, which has included four district championships and two regional titles to go along with three Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division crowns — including the program’s first outright and unbeaten league title since 2001 this past winter.
The Green and Gold — who went 59-5 in TVC Hocking play over the last four years — also became the first program from southeastern Ohio to ever qualify for the D-4 state tournament a year ago. The OHSAA expanded from three divisions to four divisions during the 1987-88 campaign, which was also the same year that the three-point line was introduced.
Although that first-ever trip ultimately ended in a 54-51 semifinal loss to Berlin Hiland, the Lady Eagles also learned that they could keep pace with the best teams in the state. That fact, along with having another year to get better, has Eastern more confident headed into its second trip to the Schottenstein Center.
“We are a lot more focused this year. We don’t seem to get nervous like previous years because these are things that we have done before,” Burdette said. “I think our experience and our focus has helped us through the whole thing. We know that if we play our game, we can win.”
In earning their second consecutive appearance in Columbus, EHS joins Logan (1991-92) and Sardinia Eastern Brown (2000-02) as the only programs to ever make back-to-back state appearances from the Southeast District. Both the Lady Chieftains and Lady Warriors — respectively led by Katie Smith and Micah Harvey — each finished as a runner-up in their second trips to the state tournament.
In fact, the Lady Eagles were the 28th team from the Southeast District to ever qualify for a girls basketball Final Four a year ago. This week, they will be joined by Division III qualifier Proctorville Fairland (22-3) in becoming the 29th and 30th programs to accomplish the feat.
For most seniors, finishing a career at state would be the accomplishment of a lifetime. For Eastern, however, it’s just another game while pursuing something a little bigger. It’s also a nice reward for all the hard work that’s been put in over the years.
“It’s exciting to know that we have another week of practices and games, but I think we would all agree that we are most thankful to just have another week of playing basketball together,” Keller said. “It’s great to make it to state in back-to-back years, and making it was a big goal last year. It’s a little different this time around.”
Eastern is one of only eight Southeast District teams to qualify more than once for the girls state basketball tournament. The Green and Gold join Logan, Sheridan (1988, 2004) and Adena (1976, 1994) as the two-time qualifiers from the area, with Adena winning championships in both of its trips.
Adena also owns a perfect 4-0 mark at the state level and has the only titles from the Southeast District. Eastern Brown, Oak Hill (2004, 2009, 2011), Unioto (1987, 1989, 1995) and Ironton (1980, 2005, 2010) have also been to state three times apiece.
Fairland joins Alexander (2007), Huntington Ross (2003), Southeastern (1986), Logan Elm (1994), Fairfield Union (1999), Peebles (1998), Portsmouth Clay (1980), Warren (1997) and Miami Trace (2010) as one-time state qualifiers from the Southeast District.
The region is a combined 13-15 in previous state semifinals and owns an overall mark of 15-26 at the Final Four. Nine programs — Adena, Oak Hill, Logan, Eastern Brown, Unioto, Huntington, Southeastern, Peebles and Warren — have at least one victory apiece at the state level.
Although its legacy is secure in some ways, Eastern is still hoping to add the one thing that has eluded this program over the last four years — playing in the state championship game.
“Over the years, our goals have consisted of winning league, winning districts and making it to state. This year, we all individually listed the same goal — and that was to win state,” Parker said. “We’ve worked hard at those goals in years past and we’ve worked even harder this year, and we’re not going to stop working hard until the job is done.”
The secret to Eastern’s success has been relatively simple. Play together on both ends of the floor and trust in your teammates to fulfill roles. The rest eventually takes care of itself.
“We’ve become so close through our experiences together and this year has been something truly special,” Rigsby said. “We are like sisters because we all love one another. We just want to win … and nothing else matters.”
The Lady Eagles — who set a school record for wins this season — will face defending state champion Fort Loramie (26-2) in the second of two D-4 semifinals at 8 p.m. Thursday night at Value City Arena. Holgate (23-4) and Zanesville Bishop Rosecrans (26-1) face off in the first bout at 6 p.m.
The two winners will battle for the D-4 crown at 2 p.m. Saturday.