JACKSON, Ohio — Now that’s finishing what you started.
The Eastern girls basketball team snapped Waterford’s six-year reign at regionals Saturday night during a hard-fought 47-43 victory in a Division IV district final at Jackson High School in the Apple City.
The Lady Eagles (18-5) stymied the top-seeded Lady ‘Cats (20-4) through three periods with an aggressive 1-3-1 zone, which allowed second-seeded Eastern to claim its biggest lead of the night at 45-31 headed into the finale.
Waterford, however, made one ferocious charge down the stretch — as the hosts held EHS scoreless for over seven minutes while gradually whittling away at their deficit. WHS went on a 12-0 run to pull within 45-43 with 2:38 left in regulation, but ultimately never came closer the rest of the way.
Sophomore Erin Swatzel ended the Lady Eagles’ scoring drought after sinking a pair of clutch free throws with just 7.7 seconds left in the game, giving EHS its only points of the fourth and an all-important two-possession advantage.
Waterford’s Hannah Brown was fouled while attempting a three-pointer around the time of the buzzer, which would have given WHS a chance to pull within one point at the charity stripe. After a brief discussion by the officials, they deemed that no time would be put back on the clock — making the pending three free throws irrelevant.
With that, the game was called because the clock was at all zeros — giving Eastern its second straight district championship and fifth overall in program history.
After losing in the regular season by counts of 55-44 and 50-44, fourth-year EHS coach John Burdette noted afterwards that his troops never felt intimidated by the eight-time defending TVC Hocking champions — who also finished the season as the No. 6 ranked team in the final Division IV AP poll.
“I don’t think there was ever a doubt in any of our kids’ minds that it couldn’t be done,” Burdette said. “We worked on stuff this week that we hadn’t done all year, and we executed well for three quarters. Luckily, it gave us enough of a cushion to hold on down the stretch.”
The ‘stuff’ that Burdette referenced was a suffocating 1-3-1 zone that ultimately held WHS to just 20 percent shooting in the contest.
Sixth-year Waterford coach Jerry Close said the key to the final outcome was Eastern’s defensive approach, specifically early on.
“I felt like we let Eastern dictate what we did in the first half. We got out of sorts against their zone, and they did a nice job with that, but we haven’t seen a lot of zone defenses this year,” Close said. “We have had success against zones this year because the teams weren’t as good, but when somebody good bumps you around a little bit in something you are not use to — you can struggle. I think that showed tonight.”
The Lady Eagles took a quick 3-0 lead a little over a minute into the game, but Waterford countered with eight straight points for their biggest lead of the night at 8-3 with 4:24 left in the opening period. Eastern countered with 10 straight points and closed the quarter on a 10-1 surge, giving the guests a 13-9 edge after eight minutes of play.
EHS, which never trailed the rest of the way, followed with a pair of 16-11 runs over the next two stanzas — giving Eastern leads of 29-20 at the break and 45-31 headed into the fourth. The Lady Eagles’ biggest lead in the first half was nine points.
Facing elimination, the Lady ‘Cats responded like a program that had made six straight regional appearances — as the hosts forced seven of Eastern’s 15 turnovers down the stretch. Those mistakes allowed WHS to complete a 12-0 surge over 5:22, pulling the hosts to within 45-43 with just over two minutes left.
Neither team could find the basket over the next two minutes, and Waterford had a chance to take the lead late in the contest following a timeout with 17.5 second left. The hosts ran Brooke Drayer off a screen at the top of the key, and the junior let a trifecta fly that ultimately rimmed out and into the hands of Swatzel.
Swatzel hauled in the rebound and was fouled with 7.7 seconds remaining, then the sophomore calmly sank both charity tosses to wrap up the four-point decision.
The victory secures a date at Pickerington High School North and the regional tournament on Thursday. The Lady Eagles will face Mansfield St. Peter’s in the first semifinal at 6:15 p.m.
Waterford’s magical six-year run as district champions started at Jackson High School back in 2006, when the Lady ‘Cats won a 44-39 decision over Eastern. This will also be the first postseason that WHS will not be at regionals with Jerry Close as head coach.
Close noted afterwards that despite being down 14 points headed into the fourth, he never thought that his squad was out of contention. He also said that WHS had its chances, but the Lady Eagles found a way to get it done.
“Our kids never quit and we never count ourselves out of any game. We ran a nice set play late to win it and it rimmed out,” Close said. “We didn’t shoot particularly well tonight and we seemed a little hurried when we did get a good look, but a lot of that was also because of Eastern’s defense.”
And speaking of the Lady Eagles’ efforts, Burdette felt proud of what his troops accomplished collectively Saturday night.
“The best thing about tonight was seeing everybody contribute to the win,” Burdette said. “Everybody on the floor chipped in something big, and everybody on the bench was into the game — talking to the players, trying to keep them up. Seeing everybody do their part tonight was something truly special for me.”
Eastern connected on 16-of-40 field goal attempts for 40 percent, including a 5-of-15 effort from three-point territory for 33 percent. The Lady Eagles were outrebounded by a sizable 36-20 margin, but also forced eight of Waterford’s 13 turnovers in the opening half.
Jenna Burdette led EHS with a game-high 15 points, followed by Jordan Parker with 14 markers. Savannah Hawley and Erin Swatzel both chipped in six points apiece to the winning cause, while Kate Keller and Brenna Holter rounded out the respective scoring with four and two points. Eastern was 10-of-12 at the free throw line for 83 percent.
Waterford made 13-of-66 shot attempts overall, which included a 6-of-22 effort from three-point range for 27 percent. The hosts were also 11-of-19 at the charity stripe for 58 percent.
Brooke Drayer paced WHS with 12 points, followed by Kaitlin Pottmeyer with eight markers. Emily Brown and Hannah Brown both chipped in seven markers apiece, while Chelsey Paxton and Olivia Sprague rounded out the respective scoring with six and three points.
The setback also marked the final game for seniors Emily Brown, Olivia Sprague, Kaitlin Pottmeyer and Alicia Donahue in Wildcat Green. Those losses, according to Close, will be difficult to overcome.
“Emily’s a one thousand point scorer, and you just don’t replace that the next season. Olivia, Alicia and Kaitlin have all been a big part in what we’ve done here over the years as well,” Close said. “They are good kids and have been great to coach. They will definitely be missed.”
Burdette, Drayer and Emily Brown — a trio of All-Ohio honorees a year ago — all went without a single point in the fourth quarter. Brown had six of her seven points in the opening quarter, while Drayer’s dozen markers came in the middle periods. Burdette had seven of her 14 points in the second canto and also tacked on four points apiece in the first and third stanzas.
As much as this victory means to Eastern right now, Coach Burdette says that the real test comes Thursday when the Lady Eagles make another trip to the Sweet 16. Having been there just last winter, Burdette believes the experience will be very valuable this week in preparation.
“I don’t think we’ll be overwhelmed by going back to regionals, but I also don’t think anybody else there will be either,” Burdette said. “We just have to be mature and take care of some things that we didn’t do so well tonight, but I am truly proud of them for getting back to Pickerington.”
Eastern 47, Waterford 43
E13-16-16-2 — 47
W 9-11-11-12 — 43
EASTERN (18-5): Brenna Holter 1 0-1 2, Savannah Hawley 2 0-0 6, Jordan Parker 4 4-4 14, Jenna Burdette 6 2-3 15, Kate Keller 2 0-0 4, Hayley Gillian 0 0-0 0, Maddie Rigsby 0 0-0 0, Erin Swatzel 1 4-4 6. TOTALS: 16 10-12 47. Three-point goals: 5 (Hawley 2, Parker 2, Burdette). Field Goals: 16-40 (.400). Rebounds: 20. Turnovers: 15. Team Fouls: 16.
WATERFORD (20-4): Olivia Sprague 1 0-0 3, Chelsey Paxton 2 2-4 6, Brooke Drayer 4 2-2 12, Alicia Donahue 0 0-0 0, Hannah Brown 1 5-8 7, Emily Brown 2 1-2 7, Taylor Hilverding 0 0-1 0, Kaitlin Pottmeyer 3 1-2 8. TOTALS: 13 11-19 43. Three-point goals: 6 (Drayer 2, E. Brown 2, Sprague, Pottmeyer). Field Goals: 13-66 (.197). Rebounds: 36. Turnovers: 13. Team Fouls: 15.