VERSAILLES – The Tigers don’t need to talk about it. Every year when they begin the season it’s simply understood that making the state final four is one of their goals.
And now that they’ve achieved that goal for the fourth time in the past five seasons, the Tigers are turning their attention to another goal that eluded them a year ago: winning a state championship.
“It’s an unstated goal,” Versailles girls basketball coach Jacki Stonebraker said of making the state final four. “I feel like right now with these girls, last year coming so close to getting that gold medal, I knew we had that taste in your mouth of you know you want to get back. It’s not something we ever state, but it’s something that everybody knows.”
Last year Versailles fell just short in the Ohio High School Athletic Association Division III state championship game, losing 56-54 to Gilmour Academy. Now the Tigers are two wins away from finishing off this season with a state title.
“Last year was a little sad how we came up short, but definitely going to take care of business this year, hopefully,” senior Kami McEldowney said.
In order to win the state championship, Versailles first will have to get by Elyria Catholic. The Panthers are one of the rare teams that can match the Tigers’ size as three of Elyria Catholic’s top four scorers are taller than 6 foot.
Elyria Catholic will try to pound the ball inside with coach Eric Rothgery, who also led the Panthers to the state final four in 2011, telling The Chronicle-Telegram: “After that first game we wanted to commit to being a team that pounds the ball inside, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. At the beginning of the year we had a couple of rough spots, but today, the way we got back in it, pound it, pound it, pound it.”
Versailles will look to counter Elyria Catholic’s size by playing fast up and down the court.
“We haven’t had a team that big play against us, but I do feel as if they’re going to challenge us inside,” Stonebraker said. “Hopefully we can get some shots to fall on the outside whether that be against their zone or against their man. We do want to run them up and down the court. That’s going to be a goal of ours is to see if we can get some transition baskets up and down the court, and hopefully we can maybe make some moves underneath the basket so that we’re quicker than them instead of just settling for the jump shot.”
Senior Danielle Winner, who at 6 feet 2 inches is one of the Tigers’ tallest players along with her 6-foot 2-inch sister Lindsey, said Versailles’ post players can adjust to the quicker pace.
“We’re going to need to be strong and get out and run against them and really use our speed against them and just be smart,” she said. “It’s just something you have to adapt to, and you have to find a way to score and get around it.”
If Versailles can get past Elyria Catholic, it would advance to Saturday’s state championship game against either Columbus Africentric Early College or Ottawa-Glandorf, two teams that can match Versailles’ history of success.
Ottawa-Glandorf is making its fourth consecutive appearance in the state final four. The Titans fell to Versailles in the 2015 Division III state championship game then made the final four the past two seasons in Division II, bringing home another state runner-up in 2016.
Africentric is making its sixth appearance in the state final four in the past seven seasons. The Nubians won three state championships in that span, which includes a win against Versailles in the 2014 Division III state championship game.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Stonebraker said of the history of success in this year’s Division III final four. “The experience is awesome, but every team is different. You know there’s girls on this team who have never experienced this before so every team is different. I feel like we’ve just got to go out and play.”
Versailles has players including Kami McEldowney and Danielle Winner who are making their third appearance in the state final four. Other players including Elizabeth Ording, Ellen Peters and Lindsey Winner were key pieces on last year’s state runner-up team.
The Tigers then have some players who will see their first action in a state tournament game, such as senior Hailey McEldowney.
“It feels great to be able to contribute, to push my team forward and to help us succeed,” the Versailles senior said.
Versailles also has extensive history competing at state in other sports. Just this past fall basketball players including Kelsey Custenborder, Mallory Marshal, Caitlin McEldowney, Kami McEldowney, Ording, Peters, Danielle Winner and Lindsey Winner were part of Versailles’ state championship volleyball team.
Now the Tigers are looking for two more wins to add their second state championship of the 2017-18 school year.
“Just trying to make school history here,” Kami McEldowney said.
Versailles and Elyria Catholic will play in the first of two Division III state semifinal games beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday at The Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center in Columbus. The winner of that game will advance to the Division III state championship game, which will be played at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Schottenstein Center.
Kyle Shaner may be reached at 937-569-4316. Follow me on Twitter @KShanerAdvocate or get updates on Facebook by searching Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to dailyadvocate.com.