They're back and looking to make it back-to-back-to-back titles.
The Ohio University Eastern women's basketball team will begin that quest today on the campus of OU-Lancaster as the annual Ohio Regional Conference campus post-season tournament continues.
The Lady Panthers (17-7), the two-time defending champions were given the No. 3 seed and will meet the winner of Saturday's OSU-Lima vs. Wright State-Lake at 5 p.m. today in Lancaster. The Lakers are the sixth seed.
"I am particularly proud of what this team has been able to achieve this season," veteran head coach E.J. Schodzinski said. "Think about it, we lost three 4-year starters to graduation in Savannah Burke, Allie Doan and Kristina Velkovich. Then, we lost two projected starters just before the start of school. Alexa Isaly, who started every game as a freshman and was named to the All-Tournament team during our championship run last year, was seriously injured in an off-court accident and not able to play this year. Rachel Benda decided to leave school when an opportunity arose to attend the state police academy. This was a tough decision for her, but her goal was always to become a state trooper.
"As a result, we got off to a slow start. We opened up with a very good Penn State-Beaver team that beat us 90-69. In our second game at Franciscan, we found ourselves down 37-16 at the half," he continued. "We lacked confidence but not determination and proceeded to come back from 21 down to win 59-55. Looking back now, that was one of the games that defined our season.
"Things haven't been easy, or always gone our way, but we never give in and always fight to the finish. Nobody is picking us to three-peat. Then again, no one picked us last year either. Our next goal is to make it to the Final Four. We know from experience that anything can happen once you are there."
The Lady Panthers' roster still resembles a who's who of OVAC basketball as all 10 ladies played in the conference, with all but one - John Marshall's Hanna Gossett - starring in either Belmont or Monroe counties.
Leading the way is Alex Kuhn, a 5-5 guard from Monroe Central. She averages 20.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.4 steals per game.
"Alex is a special player. She can shoot, pass and defend. At times, she has carried us this year," Schodzinski noted. "On any given day, Alex can be the best player on the court. We need her to be at her best in the tourney."
Shadyside alum Kelsey Holloway averages 18.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals.
"Kelsey is a gamer. She has increased her scoring over the course of the season and has the potential to have another great post-season.
"She has done it before, evidenced by the fact that she was named MVP of last year's state tournament championship. We want the ball in Kelsey's hands at the end of the game."
Sarah Neavin, another Shadyside product, nets 7.5 points and 6.2 rebounds, while Beallsville's Julie Bilyeu scores 8.2 points and grabs 6.8 rebounds.
"We are going to need Sarah and Julie to play big inside if we are to have a chance in the tournament," Schodzinski said. "We are a little undersized, but they have the ability to get the job done."
Union Local's Alexus Davis averages 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds.
"Alexus has come a long way this year," Schodzinski added. "She has started every game as a freshman and has the ability to guard most anyone on the floor. Her quickness and athleticism is special."
Monroe Central's Casey Digity and Barnesville's Jessica Hunkler provide guard play off of the bench. Martins Ferryb grad Shae Moreland and Gossett provide forward play off the bench.
Natalie Perzanowski, a St. John Central grad, joined the team at the break and has made a difference.
"Nat was the point guard on our 2011 championship team," Schodzinski, who is 155-51 during his tenure.
"She went to Athens last year as part of the requirement for special education majors and is finishing up her degree this semester at OUE.
"She is a tremendous defensive player and leader who is getting more comfortable with each game. She sets the tone for us on defense and has made our team better."
Should OUE win, it would move on to the Final Four at Akron-Wayne on Friday against the winner of OU-Chillicothe/OU-Zanesville or No. 2 seeded Miami-Middletown.
North can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org