Kevin Colley, Staff Writer
PORTSMOUTH — 56-0.
In any sense, at any level, that’s an extremely difficult record to post.
That mark takes on even more impressiveness when you consider the numerous individuals that have come out of the SOC I’s girls basketball programs over the last four years.
However, Notre Dame’s girls have gone about obtaining those 56 wins, at times, like it was child’s play. And that is, in large part, due to a winning formula that has remained intact throughout J.D. McKenzie’s coaching tenure with the Titans.
The 2018-19 version of the Titans is arguably the deepest and most talented roster, from top to bottom, that McKenzie has ever had — and that’s truly saying something.
There’s a 23-1 overall record, with Notre Dame’s only loss coming to the third-ranked team in Division III, Waynesville [22-0], by a seven-point margin without a key starter in Taylor Schmidt in the lineup.
There’s the scoring margin — where Notre Dame has put up an average of 57.5 points per game while giving up just 26.3 points to its opponents.
Then, there’s the balance on both sides of the court, where four players are averaging at least six points per contest and five players are averaging at least 1.5 steals per night.
All play parts in what could be one of the best girls basketball units to ever be assembled in the Southeast District … by the time it’s all said and done.
“From the start of the season, we talked about being really good defensively with our speed and depth to where we could make it hard on teams to score, keep fresh legs out there, and keep pressure on the opponent for four quarters,” McKenzie said. “Pretty much all year, our defense has always shown up. We haven’t given up a lot of high scores to anybody and we haven’t given up a lot of easy looks to teams. When you talk about the unselfishness on the offensive end, we’ve had a bunch of different people lead us in scoring and have had four or five girls score double figures in various games. We haven’t had a bunch of 20-point outbursts from any individuals. We’ve had a couple here and there, but it’s just been consistency and effort across the board. That has been the two biggest things for us. It wasn’t a thing where you wondered which team was going to show up.”
What’s scary is the fact that Notre Dame looks to still be growing on a game-by-game basis. That’s certainly the standard that Notre Dame senior Clara Hash wants to continue to set going forward.
“It’s a great feeling knowing we have done something that is so rare,” Hash said of the team’s 56-0 mark in conference play over the past four years. “That’s a huge accomplishment for us. However, throughout each season, we don’t focus on being undefeated in the league or even undefeated overall. Our record isn’t our main focus. We do our best to take it one game at a time and don’t think too much ahead. As a team, we care more about our development and growth than we do our record. It’s always been about learning how to get better from the bad games and the losses, in preparation for tournament time.”
Notre Dame’s incredible discipline as a unit, coupled with a bench that consistently goes nine deep — a true rarity for most girls basketball teams — has led to miraculous numbers.
McKenzie’s teams, whose calling cards have tended to be on the defensive end dating back to his first season in 2010-11, have collected 14 steals, 5.9 blocks, and 19.2 defensive rebounds per contest, as a team, this season.
Four players, including Dettwiller [four blocks per contest], Schmidt [4.5 steals per contest], Ava Hassel [2.4 steals per bout] and Olivia Smith, could all vie for defensive accolades of some sort. But considering Notre Dame has only allowed more than 40 points in a game once in its 24 contests this year, it’s clear the entire team is full of defensive juggernauts.
“I keep going back to the defensive end of the court,” McKenzie said. “We spent so much time during practice and the preseason working on our defense individually and as a team. With our run and jump defense, our ball pressure, and Katie on the back end anchoring all of that, we can take a few more chances back there on the front end. The girls bought into it and they talked a lot about getting farther than we ever have before this year.”
That includes a trip to the Final Four.
They know there’s certain things they have to continue doing to have an opportunity to get there,” McKenzie said. “We haven’t overlooked an opponent and we’re not overlooking opponents now. You’re in the tournament scenario where it’s one-and-done. You have to go in and play each game like it will be your last. The girls have been really good about having a business trip-like attitude.”
Currently, Notre Dame has ripped off four consecutive trips to a district final before claiming the school’s first-ever Division IV district championship, last season, with a 53-29 victory over Peebles.
“None of us could be where we are right now without our coaches,” Hash said of the team and individuals. “Not only is coach McKenzie a great basketball coach, but he is an amazing role model for all of us. He depicts selflessness, perseverance, and hard work to the whole team, all while making it fun for us, teaching us life lessons, and doing the best he can to get us to where we want to go. Being a part of the basketball team has given me too many memories to count, and I could not be more thankful for our success and for my time as a Titan.”
As Hash correctly references, the success goes beyond the numbers.
Overall, what makes this season’s success so impressive is the fact that five different players on Notre Dame’s roster have suffered severe lower body injuries of some type; including Schmidt, Smith, Webb, Ava Hassel, and Sophia Hassel.
They’ve all continued to plug away, even with the latter missing the entire 2017-18 basketball season, the entire 2017 volleyball campaign outside of the season opener, and the past 15 basketball contests this year due to two separate ACL tears — one in August 2017, the other in December 2018.
The youngest Hassel had to have knee surgery following an injury suffered late last season, one that forced her to miss both her sophomore softball and volleyball campaigns. Schmidt, Smith, and Webb have also missed extended periods of time during pockets of their high school careers.
On each occasion, however, they have come back stronger.
During the time that Schmidt was out, Isabel Cassidy stepped to the forefront as a promising guard. The promising sophomore has become a strong 3-point shooter and continues to develop on a game-by-game basis, as her six points per contest and 1.6 steals per per game would suggest.
Additional hands, such as Cassie Schaefer, an effective 3-point shooter who stretches the floor, as well as Lauren Campbell and Claire Dettwiller, who have helped Hash and Katie Dettwiller in the post, have been critical as well.
Then, there’s Joyce Zheng, Chloe Delabar, Ashley Holtgrewe, Paetyn Collins, Mollie Creech, and Hailen Steele all behind them, who all continuously give the Titans necessary looks in practice to effectively piece together a game plan.
“It’s so unfortunate that we’ve had so many injuries, but we have learned to rise through the adversity that we are faced with,” Hash said. “When Taylor was out with her calf injury, she used that opportunity to make the whole team better by giving us her input while watching the game from the sidelines. With her absence, Isabel got the opportunity to get more comfortable in the varsity setting, and that has been so important for us because it has helped make our bench a little deeper with Sophia being out as well. Ava, Olivia, and Baylee have made great recoveries and we are so glad to finally have them back.”
McKenzie echoed those sentiments.
“They’re a special group of girls,” McKenzie said. “To figure that out, all you’ve got to do is just come to a game and watch the girls who aren’t on the floor during the game, and see the excitement they have when somebody makes a big play, takes a charge, or runs somebody down from behind and tips the ball away from them. They genuinely are excited for each other. It’s those little things that people do that we really get excited about. We rotate so many players off of the bench, every game, that you have to have some unselfishness in your heart and a team-first attitude. It doesn’t matter who scores or who does this or that. As long as they win and they’re executing what our game plan was going into it, that’s what they’re about and that’s what pleases them.”
What would also please the Titans would be a continued tournament run … one that stretches all the way to Columbus. Currently, Notre Dame is matched up with Reedsville Eastern in a Division IV district final.
That game is slated for a 6:15 p.m. tip time, Thursday at Jackson High School. The humble Titans are approaching it like every other game.
“I know I can speak for the whole team when I say that basketball holds some of the best memories and friendships we have ever had. To me, that’s what it’s all about, and that’s why I feel that we’re special,” Hash said. “Obviously, we do have big goals for this year and we want to make a deep tournament run. However, we know from past experiences that anyone has the ability to beat us any night. We use that to motivate us to show up every night and play like it’s our last game, because it very well could be.”