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Rootstown defeats Orrville, returns to Ohio girls basketball districts for first time in three years

The Lady Rovers are headed to the district semifinals for the first time since 2021 with a win over Orrville

ROOTSTOWN, Ohio - In the last two seasons, the Rootstown girls basketball team has won the Portage Trail Conference, only to lose in the sectional final, and the Lady Rovers were tired of seeing last year's score posted everywhere they looked.

But with a 56-27 win over Orrville in the OHSAA Division III sectional final on Saturday night, Rootstown can erase those memories of the past two years and make new ones, these of a positive nature.

Rootstown (22-2) opened the game up early, going on a 16-0 run to take a 19-3 lead with just under two minutes left in the first quarter. As is status quo with the Rovers, they did it with defense as they forced 13 turnovers in the first quarter alone.

"A lot of us are really quick and we have quick hands, too," Rootstown senior guard Melanie Plecko said. "We all just get in there and get after it."

One of those turnovers happened early in the run and helped set the tone for the game. 

With Rootstown leading 9-3 after back-to-back 3-pointers by Abby White and Colbie Curall, Orrville's Abigail Gonzales had the ball on the left wing, where she was guarded by Curall, who poked the ball away. As Gonzales neared mid-court and reached down to grab the ball, Curall knocked the ball away, dove on the floor, secured the ball and then from her back threw a perfect pass over an Orrville defender to Sasha Nichols, who made the layup.

"I thought we kind of came out slow to begin with but I think those type of plays really get us going," Rootstown head coach Joe Leonard said. "I think Colbie when she does that, the girls feed off of that. It's contagious. When one girl does it, the next one does and the next one does it."

Rootstown ended up forcing 32 turnovers through three quarters, with one of the final ones coming in the last seconds of the third that led to a layup for Nichols to give Rootstown a 54-19 lead and institute a running clock.

Rootstown head coach Joe Leonard talks to his team before a sectional final game against Orrville on February 24, 2024

Rootstown head coach Joe Leonard talks to his team before a sectional final game against Orrville on February 24, 2024

The game was the final home contest of the season for the Lady Rovers, as every round of the tournament from here on out will be played at a neutral site, including Rootstown's district semifinal against Keystone at Lakeview on Wednesday, Feb. 28 at 7:30 pm. The crowd for Saturday's win was into it from the start, and the players felt it.

"We usually have a lot of fans, they have grown over the years because they have seen how good of a team we are and how much we have improved," Rootstown senior Brooklyn McIntyre said. "The student section keeps us going, the parents in the crowd, (do too), our energy is always getting fueled."

Speaking of the student section, Leonard let the students in for free on Feb. 14 for a game against Warren JFK and the students took him up on it as they watched Rootstown win 62-29. But since he couldn't offer free admission to this game because of it being an OHSAA tournament game, the head coach told the students the program would buy their ticket for the game if they showed up wearing navy blue to support the Rovers. 

"The students showed up (against JFK), they were massive there and they were loud, and it really energized us," Leonard said. "And so I said, you know what, we can't let you in for free for these playoff games but our program will pay for it. So we paid for the last two games. It's been great."

Nadia Lough led Rootstown on Saturday night with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds, White knocked down three 3-pointers and finished with 11 points, and McIntyre added 10. Kelsey Bittecuffer and Nichols each chipped in with seven points and Curall had five.

Senior Abigail Ankenmen led Orrville with 14 points. 

As for what happened last season, Rootstown thought the sectional final was a game they should have won, but they fell short with a 56-49 loss to Mentor Lake Catholic. They haven't forgotten.

"We've been talking about this from the end of last year," Leonard said. "I thought last year, that was a game that all of us in our locker room thought that we should have won. We thought we were the better team and it didn't happen that way." 

Leonard used that as motivation this week, knowing that most people believed Rootstown should beat Lakeview and Orrville to get to the district semifinals. Leonard didn't want the team to look past Orrville, who despite coming into the game with a 6-15 record, had played some close games against good competition.

"They lost by four points to CVCA (on Dec. 19) and they lost by four points to Triway (on Dec. 20)," Leonard said. "Those are two really good teams that are still playing and they competed with them and they have a tough schedule."

But at the end of the day, the Rootstown players didn't want to look at 56-49 any longer and they came out hungry on Saturday, taking control early and never looking back.

"The final score from last year's game (against Lake Catholic) was 56-49 and so we've had that plastered on every scouting report," Leonard said. "The girls are tired of seeing it."

Now the number 56 can represent a positive memory, as it is the number of points Rootstown scored to advance to the district semifinals. 

"Funny how that works out," Leonard said with a grin. "Hopefully on Wednesday, we can score 56 and maybe Keystone score less than that and we can move on from there." 

With the wins over Lakeview and Orrville, it is the first time in more than a decade that the Lady Rovers have won multiple playoff games in a season. But they are not ready to be done.

"That's a good accomplishment, but that's that's not what this is about," Leonard said. "We're where we're supposed to be but now we need to take the next step. We're happy about the PTC title, we're happy about winning these two games, but we're certainly hungry for more."

-- Ryan Isley | | @sblivepa