JACKSON, Ohio — The very thing that rivalries are made of.
Both teams have plenty to prove as the Eastern and Waterford girls basketball teams face off in the Division IV regional semifinal, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, at Jackson High School.
The Lady Eagles finished ranked 10th in the final Associated Press Division IV poll and bring a five-game winning streak into the Sweet 16. Eastern enters its first regional tournament since 2014 with a 21-3 overall record, with two of its three setbacks coming against the Lady Wildcats.
Waterford — which enters the Sweet 16 at 22-3 with a three-game winning streak — is the defending Division IV state champion and hasn’t lost to a Division IV team since since the 2015 state championship game. The Lady Wildcats were the no. 4 team in the final AP Division IV poll and have won 16 of their last 17 postseason games.
Waterford is making its 11th regional appearance in the last 12 years and is looking for a third straight regional title.
Even with all of Waterford’s success, there is still one major hurdle the Lady Cats have to face. In the last three head-to-head postseason meetings, Eastern is unbeaten against Waterford, winning twice in the regional semifinal and once in the district final.
The last time the two Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division powers met in the tournament was the 2014 regional semifinal, at Jackson High School. Eastern won that game by a 47-30 final en route to its second straight regional crown and eventually its first-ever state title. That EHS win is its most recent victory over the Lady Cats.
Also at JHS, the Lady Eagles claimed the 2012 district title over Waterford by a 47-43 count. Eastern won the 2011 postseason meeting by a 65-54 margin, in the regional semifinal at Pickerington High School North.
The last time Waterford defeated EHS in the postseason was March 1, 2006. WHS topped Eastern by a 44-39 count in the district final at Jackson High School, giving the Lady Wildcats their first district title.
Together, Eastern and Waterford have represented Southeast Ohio in four consecutive state tournaments. Either EHS or WHS has been atop the TVC Hocking for 13 consecutive seasons, with the two teams finishing first and second, or tied for first in eight straight years.
The Lady Cats have won six straight games over the Lady Eagles since their last postseason meeting, winning by an average of 15 points per game.
In their first meeting of this season, the Lady Eagles hosted Waterford on December 17, in a game which WHS won 55-48. The seven-point margin was the closest EHS had been to Waterford during the Lady Cats’ streak.
Eastern bettered its performance on January 31 at WHS, but Waterford held on for a narrow 37-33 victory.
“One thing about it is, we have some film to watch,” said first-year Eastern head coach Jacob Parker, who was named AP Division IV Southeast District Coach of the Year. “Seeing them a third time, we’ll at least have a very solid game plan going in. You put two teams like that together in the regional semifinal game, the only thing that could be better is if they were playing in the state championship game against each other. I like Coach (Jerry) Close, his staff and everything they do over there. It will be a fun game and we’ll see what happens.”
In the first meeting Laura Pullins posted a game-high 21 points for the Lady Eagles, but the EHS senior was held to just six points in the second meeting. Jess Parker and Alyson Bailey both averaged eight points per game against WHS this season, while Becca Pullins averaged four and Elizabeth Collins averaged three.
In the first meeting, Eastern had the benefit of some depth, as senior Hannah Bailey and junior Madison Williams had yet to be lost for the season due to injury.
In both regular season meetings, Waterford has been led by the junior duo of Megan Ball and Alli Kern, who averaged 16.5 and 16 points per game respectively against EHS this winter. Kern was named AP Division IV Southeast District Player of the Year, and was joined on first team by Ball.
Another similarity between the teams is in their road to the regionals. Both teams cruised past TVC Hocking opponents for sectional championships, Eastern topping Miller 65-36 and Waterford defeating Trimble 51-24 with both games occurring at Meigs High School.
In the district tournament at Jackson High School, Waterford and Eastern advanced to their respective finals with decisive wins. WHS defeated Fairfield by a 48-17 count, while the Lady Eagles stormed past Glenwood by a 67-45 clip.
In last Thursday’s district final, Eastern needed a pair of overtime periods to knock off top-seeded Portsmouth Notre Dame by a 58-53 margin.
Later that night on the same court, Waterford slipped past South Webster by a 41-40 count in one overtime session. The Lady Jeeps had won back-to-back district titles prior to this winter, eliminating the Lady Eagles in both 2015 and 2016.
Experience is on the side of Waterford, which has eight players with state experience on its roster. In addition, 11th-year WHS head coach Jerry Close is entering his 10th regional tournament as leader of the Lady Cats.
Eastern has just one player with regional experience in senior Laura Pullins, who was a freshmen during the Lady Eagles state championship season.
Whichever team comes out on top on Thursday in Jackson, will advance to the regional final, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Pickerington High School North. Waiting on the victor will be the winner of Thursday’s regional semifinal at PHSN, between Danville (18-6) and Fairfield Christian (24-1).
“That other side of the bracket, Fairfield Christian and Danville both put up quite a few points,” Coach Parker said. “That tells me that either they’re tremendous offensively, or in my opinion, they’re probably tremendous defensively, getting run outs and steals, creating a lot of havoc on the defensive end.”
The Lady Knights of Fairfield Christian finished third in the final Division IV AP poll and were regional finalists last season. Fairfield Christian won the 2017 district title by a 56-18 count over the fifth-seeded Wellington School. Fairfield Christian is outscoring opponents by 55 points per game this postseason.
Danville won its district title over Granville Christian by a 49-31 count. The Blue Devils have surpassed 90 points twice this postseason and have an average margin of victory of 52.25 points per game.
Ohio Valley Publishing Sports Editor Bryan Walters contributed to this report.
Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.