CUYAHOGA FALLS - Tonight, when the United girls face off against the undefeated Smithville Smithies in a Division III regional semifinal at Cuyahoga Heights High School, the Eagles know they will have their hands full. But the Eagles know the Smithies will, too.
"This will be our toughest challenge to date, but we expect it to be," United head coach Sam Mathias said.
"That's what happens the deeper you go in the tournament, and right now we're one of the last 16 teams left in the state in Division III and we're taking the attitude of 'why not us'. We're no different than the other 15 teams left. Smithville is a good team, but so are we."
So just how good are the Smithies? Smithville comes into tonight's game at 24-0 and as the Wooster District champions. The Smithies won their sixth-straight Wayne County Athletic League title this season under head coach Mike Miller, who is 112-9 in the last five seasons. Smithville is also state ranked.
"They are third in the state in Division III," Mathias said. "They have a couple really good post players and nice shooting guards. From what I've heard from other coaches and from some articles I've read they are a solid team. But like I said, at this point in the season we expect that."
Smithville is led by Tara Schaffter - a 6-footer who averages 17 points a game - and guard Kylie Frizell who averages 14 points. Guard Macy McKelly has added 15 points a game.
While the trio, along with sharpshooters Adriana Fike and Olivia Besancon, can put up points, it's the play on the other end of the court that Smithville is known for. The Smithies' defense is high on intensity, but low in tempo. They want their opponents to play at their pace. It's been effective. Teams have mustered on average 30 points against the Smithville defense which reminds Mathias of West Branch.
"West Branch and Smithville are a lot alike," he said. "West Branch plays fundamentally sound, half-court defense and they like to slow down the game. Smithville plays half-court defense and likes to do the same thing. They want to slow the game down and wait for open shots. They're a mirror-image to West Branch in that way, but Smithville has a little more size that we have to contend with."
The Smithies will have to contend with a 21-3 Eagles squad that is still flying high from Saturday's 50-46 upset of top-seeded Youngstown Ursuline in the district final at Mineral Ridge.
"The girls were just so excited after that win," Mathias said. "On Sunday, you could tell they were drained both emotionally and physically, but they came to the court on Monday pumped back up. Everybody's still excited - the team, the school, the administration, the community. It's such a great feeling and all the support has been amazing. We're still riding high and we want to ride it as far as it takes us."
Some teams prefer to put big games, especially big wins, behind them. The excitement of big wins is at times too much and the letdown too severe. It's easy to get caught up in what you did and forget about what you have to do. But Mathias and the Eagles are taking the opposite the approach. They want to keep Saturday fresh in their minds.
"We know we have a big challenge, but if we play the way we did against Ursuline, we have a chance, we have a very good chance," Mathias said. "We need to play with the same intensity on the defensive end, make our free throws, keep them off the glass and knock down our shots. We need to remember the way we played in the district. That was our best game all season."
United opened postseason play with 55-53 win over Campbell Memorial. The Eagles next defeated Brookfield (55-33) and Andover Pymatuning Valley (47-36) before facing Ursuline in the championship.
Smithville, the top-seed at Wooster, began tournament play with a 63-23 rout of Rittman and a 72-27 domination of Jeromesville Hilldale. The Smithies next met No. 3 Canton Central and came on top of a 46-34 decision. They defeated No. 2 Orrville 70-54 in the district final.
The Eagles and United will face off at 8 p.m. following the other semifinal game between Burton (16-8) and Shaker Laurel (19-4). The regional final will be played Saturday at 1:30 p.m.