By SCOTT COTTOS
FOR THE COURIER
NEW RIEGEL — Fittingly, Midland Athletic League girls basketball is not going away quietly.
Yes, the MAL will dissolve at the end of the current school year, with its members scattering to various other conferences. But its girls basketball history will include five trips to the state tournament and one championship — achieved by Hopewell-Loudon in 1999 — since the late 1990s, as well as a number of regional qualifications that didn’t bring state bids.
New Riegel, the MAL school that first went to state, in 1997, will be involved in one last go-around with a league opponent tonight when it takes on Carey in a 6 p.m. Division IV regional semifinal at the Elida Fieldhouse.
New Riegel, which returned to state in 2008, lost in both of its state semifinal games, but it owns a lengthy, rich girls basketball history. Carey has also achieved considerable success and was a state semifinalist in 2009.
“It’s too bad,” New Riegel coach Steve Lucius said of the MAL’s dissolution. “It’s been a heck of a league, as witnessed by the regional appearances and the state appearances by us, Carey and Hopewell.
“There have been a lot of strong teams and very good coaches. It’s been a powerhouse league in northwest Ohio.”
Whoever has the last say in tonight’s battle between a pair of 22-2 MAL teams will return at 7 p.m. Saturday to take on the winner of today’s 8 p.m. semifinal between Convoy Crestview (23-1) and Holgate (21-4). The regional champion will head to next week’s state tournament at Ohio State’s Value City Arena in Columbus.
The practices far outnumber the games at this point, but Lucius’ Blue Jackets wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I think it gives you something extra to practice for and something extra to look forward to each day,” senior Taylor Kirian said.
Kirian cracked a state-record 18 home runs last spring for New Riegel’s softball team, and she will head to the University of Akron in the fall to compete in that sport.
The softball team’s advancement to the regional final started a string of three consecutive regional bids for New Riegel girls teams. The Blue Jackets reached the regional semifinals in volleyball in the fall.
“That’s crazy,” junior Kara Scherger, a starter and all-MAL performer on all three teams said. “I didn’t even think of that. That’s awesome.”
Kirian and Scherger are joined in New Riegel’s starting basketball lineup by seniors Lauren Ladd and Morgan Noftz and junior Taylor Arbogast. All but Kirian, who did not play volleyball, have been members of all three regional teams.
“It’s a pretty special group coming through here right now,” Lucius said. “When they were in junior high and both (the seventh- and eighth-grade) teams were really successful, we were saying this group could be, if they stayed healthy, really special. Obviously, they’re doing well in all the sports. We had some high hopes, even back in the junior high days.”
Lucius and the players cited a camaraderie that has carried over from sport to sport, and is currently paying dividends in basketball.
“I think it makes us closer as a team, that we can all just have fun outside of basketball,” Kirian said. “We’re closer when we do play basketball.”
There are other factors, too, that have led to the success of this team, which has landed it in Elida for the second time in three years.
“We had three starters back,” Lucius said. “We had several kids that played on the regional-final team of two years ago, so we haven’t lost too many seniors in the last two years. There’s a lot of experience and it’s a very mature group — a hard-working group that’s had a lot of success in all the sports.
“We’ve pushed them pretty hard and they’ve accepted every challenge we’ve thrown at them. And I think we’re getting better. We’ve really seemed to be making strides here in the last two or three weeks, some real nice progress. But it starts with talent. We’ve got some talented kids. We’ve got some kids who are going on to play sports in college. They’re going to be successful in whatever they do because they’re hard-working kids who know what it takes to be successful.”
The Blue Jackets’ current tournament success has seen them win three times by an average margin of 25.6 points per game. Key in that stretch has been the opponents’ struggles to handle New Riegel’s full-court pressure on defense.
The Jackets’ ferocity and success in that regard easily prompts thoughts of coach Shaka Smart and his men’s team’s “Havoc” system at Virginia Commonwealth.
“We don’t do it all the time, but I’ve always tried to pressure full-court if we’ve had the athletes to do it,” Lucius said. “But you’re always looking for a fresh idea, and they do it pretty well (at VCU). We’ve tried to pick up on some things they do.”
New Riegel’s players enjoy slapping the pressure on an opponent.
“I like when they call time out because they’re scared, or when (the officials) call five seconds or something,” Scherger said.
Kirian said she likes for the Blue Jackets to press at the beginning of a game.
“I think it makes us more ready for the rest of the game,” she said. “It’s easier to slow down your pace than to speed it up, so if you start out as fast as you can, it’s always easier to finish the game that way.”
Offensively, the Blue Jackets have developed a number of scoring threats, led by 5-foot-5 point guard Scherger, who averaged 13.1 points per game during the regular season.
“For other teams, it’s hard to play defense against that, when you have scoring everywhere,” said Scherger, who also averaged 4.2 steals and 2.9 assists per outing.
Scherger was joined on the All-MAL first team by the 6-foot Ladd (11.7 points. 8.0 rebounds), while Arbogast (11.8 points) and Kirian (10.5 points, 6.0 rebounds), both of whom stand 5-8, were named to the second team.
Carey’s Blue Devils, whose 46-37 win at New Riegel helped them win the MAL title without a loss, are led by all-MAL sophomore guard Sydney Wentling (13.2 points, 4.7 assists).
Scherger said that when the teams met during the regular season, “we came out really, really flat,” and she expects that to change tonight.
“We have the passion this time, that’s for sure,” she said.
The fact that the regional opponent is league-rival Carey, however, makes no difference, she said.
“Not really, when you get to this point,” she said. “What happened happened during the league, so we’re kind of starting over now. It’s a new ball game now. Whoever we play, it doesn’t really matter. We just want to go out and play our best.”