VERSAILLES — Jacki Stonebraker doesn’t want to look ahead to next year, but it’s already in the back of her mind.
With nine seniors on the Versailles girls basketball team, the Lady Tigers will have a lot of spots to fill after this season. That will become an issue in the future, but in the present it creates strength for the Lady Tigers, strength they hope will help them through the rest of their Ohio High School Athletic Association tournament run.
“It’s good and bad,” Stonebraker said about having nine seniors. “As a program head, the head of the program, you say, well, you have nine seniors, you should have a lot of leaders on your team. But all those nine seniors go away next year. Not that I’m looking ahead to next year but you’re always looking to make sure your program stays healthy and stays solid.
“But for this year, it’s great. I’ve never second-guessed keeping all nine seniors on this team. They all contribute in some way. It just depends on match ups. We can match up against any team because we’ve got so many different combinations that we can throw at them.”
The nine seniors — Emily Harman, Katie Heckman, Rachel Kremer, Kayla McEldowney, Brooke Pothast, Courtney Prenger, Olivia Schlater, Chloe Warvel and Amanda Winner — form the core of Versailles’ roster.
The team also has juniors Lauren Bruns, Tami Groff, Shelby Hyre, Christa Puthoff and Taylor Winner plus sophomore Lauren Monnin to round out the roster, creating depth that matches or exceeds just about any team.
“I don’t think a team can go much deeper than what we have,” Stonebraker said. “I feel comfortable playing 12 girls at this point. And even our scout team, our girls that we brought up like Lauren Monnin, she plays a heck of a game for us in practice every single day to get us ready. We just go so deep. I could throw all of them out there I feel, and they would know what to do at this point because they’ve all had varsity experience.”
In addition to Stonebraker feeling comfortable with her players, the girls feel comfortable with each other as a result of coming up through the program together.
“It’s nice because we all kind of already have that bond from when we’ve been playing with each other since like fourth grade,” Heckman said. “So we know how we play with each other, and you can kind of depend on each other, know where they’re going to be on the floor.”
Those bonds could be tested in the regional tournament when the crowd gets loud and the Tigers have to rely on their experience together as communication gets tough.
In order to prepare for the atmosphere of a regional tournament game, Versailles had recorded crowd noise coming through loud speakers and four radios blaring music in practice this week.
“We struggled against Arcanum in the sectional because of how loud the gym gets,” Stonebraker said. “What we rely on defensively is our communication. And when you can’t communicate because you can’t hear each other, that’s when we struggled.
“We decided this week to bring some loud music in to kind of simulate the crowd noise and to kind of work around it, use our play calls by hand instead of by mouth, just to get into that moment.”
Not only does Versailles have a team full of upperclassmen who are familiar with each other and communicate well, the girls have played varsity ball throughout their high school careers. The Lady Tigers had just one senior in each of the past two seasons so the roster has looked very similar each of the past three years.
“I think as we keep playing we keep getting better as a team,” Warvel said. “We know what each of us can contribute to the team. We can rely on each other. And every game we just get stronger and better.”
The Tigers’ depth and camaraderie have been tested this year as Versailles has just five girls who played in all of the team’s games this season.
“They’ve had a tough struggle throughout the whole year with as many injuries as what we had,” Stonebraker said. “At one point we had three starters sitting on the bench because of injuries. It just tells you how these girls stuck together through thick and thin. And we got them all back now, and everybody’s playing and taking their role to the best of their ability.”
The Lady Tigers’ ability to overcomes injuries has helped guide them to their most successful season in years. After winning the Midwest Athletic Conference championship, they won their first district tournament title since 2010 this season.
“It’s really exciting to get this far, especially as a senior knowing that in our past years we’ve got … like last year we made it as far as Anna and we wanted to make it farther and we fought and fought and fought throughout the whole thing,” Pothast said.
While it’s the first regional tournament trip in basketball for any of the girls, they’re accustomed to success as most of them were part of the cross country, golf or volleyball teams in the fall that all made the state tournament.
“(It) gives us a feeling that, hey, we have some of those girls who made it to state in other sports,” Pothast said. “We can surely do it, too.”
Versailles’ opponent in tonight’s regional semifinal game, Miami East, is accustomed to success, too. This is the third consecutive year the Vikings have made the regional tournament in basketball.
Miami East also won volleyball state championships in 2011 and 2012. The Versailles volleyball team beat Miami East in the 2013 regional semifinals en route to winning the state title.
“It’s just the knowing how to win,” Stonebraker said. “It doesn’t matter what game it is. If you know how to win and have that competitive edge, you’ve got that probably 20 percent up on the other team already just knowing how to win. I think both Miami East and Versailles are programs that know how to win.
“That competitive edge, that wanting to win, is probably what’s going to win this game.”
Versailles hasn’t had much success recently against Miami East in basketball. The Vikings won the teams’ regular season match up each of the past four seasons and won a tournament game between the teams in 2011.
“We’re all sick and tired of losing to them,” Pothast said.
This year’s regular season match up on Feb. 1 ended with a 49-47 Miami East victory in overtime.
“I see it going the same way,” Stonebraker said of tonight’s rematch. “I don’t see them changing much because what they did against us was successful. We’ve changed a couple things inside and outside. I see them being able to just play the same game, us playing about the same game. I think it’s going to go toe-to-toe. I think it’s going to be a great regional semi.”
The winner of tonight’s regional semifinal will advance to Saturday’s regional final with a trip to the state final four on the line. The Lady Tigers hope to keep winning and avoid the disappointment they’ve felt the past couple years in the tournament.
“Every time you get beat you have that feeling in your stomach that you know you don’t like that feeling, and we just don’t want that feeling again,” Warvel said. “It’s just a goal to make it as far as we can and keep working hard.”