After a pair of down-to-the-wire semifinal victories, No. 1 seed Bridgeport and third-seeded Frontier will square off for the Wheeling Hospital OVAC Girls Basketball Championships Class 2-A title.
The Ohio-ranked and undefeated Lady Bulldogs (20-0) punched their ticket to tonight's championship encounter with a come-from-behind, 50-43, decision over No. 4 Wheeling Central Thursday night, while the Cougars (15-4) upset second-seeded River, 50-46, a night earlier.
Bridgeport, which was ranked third in the latest Associated Press Division IV poll behind two of last year's state tournament semifinalists - Berlin Hiland and Reedsville Eastern - and Frontier meet in the final game today at Ohio University Eastern's Health and Physical Education Building. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m.
"This was one of our goals. We wanted to get into the finals, and we did," Bridgeport fourth-year head coach Rob Zitzelsberger said moments after his team defeated the Maroon Knights on Frank Baxter Court inside the packed John J. Havlicek Gymnasium. "Frontier has a quality team. I watched them beat River the other night, and River played us tough twice.
"The girls, coaching staff and student body are excited that we will be playing for the OVAC 2A championship."
Frontier head coach Scott Murphy, in just his second season at the Lady Cougars' helm, said his team is equally excited.
"As far as I know, this is the first time that a Frontier girls' basketball team has ever played for an OVAC title," he said. "That was a big win for us the other night. Very big. They (River) jumped on us early, but the girls settled down and fought back.
"One of our goals was to make the OVAC Tournament, and we were right there to host a home game (as the No. 2 seed) right up until the final day," he explained. "That was a bit of a blow, but we said 'now we've got to go on the road.' The girls accepted the challenge and went out and played what I thought was a pretty good game. We fought hard for all four quarters. It was two evenly matched teams and I thought it came down to foul shots."
Murphy knows that facing Bridgeport will be a tall task for his squad.
"We did a pretty good job of holding the (Jensen) Caretti girl and the (Landyn) Ramsay girl in check the other night, but Bridgeport has three weapons that you have to be aware of," he acknowledged. "That changes things. We know they are a good team, they have been for the last few years. We're excited about the challenge."
The Bulldogs are led by the three-headed monster of seniors Nicole Smolenak and Maclaine Murad, along with super sophomore Caitlyn Kroll. They combine for nearly 90 percent of Bridgeport's offense.
The 5-9 Kroll leads the team with a 16.2 norm. Murad, a 5-5 forward, adds 13.8, while Smolenak, the 5-3 floor general, checks in at 11.2. The other two starters are 5-7 senior forward Amber Millard (5.9) and 5-8 junior center/forward Briana Massey (4.2). Junior Keri Renzler (3.3) is the only player that sees considerable time off the bench as Zitzelsberger stays with his six-player rotation.
"Nicole is the engine that makes us go, both offensively and defensively," Zitzelsberger offered. "She's a 4-year starter that runs our offense. Defensively, she gets a lot of steals in our press that lead to easy baskets in transition for either her or a teammate."
It was Smolenak who sparked the Bulldogs' rally past the Maroon Knights. With her team trailing by two midway through the fourth quarter, she dialed long distance on back-to-back trips down the floor and Bridgeport never trailed again. She finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, both game highs.
"Maclaine and Caitlyn are both capable scorers," Zitzelsberger noted. "They both run the floor well and rebound well."
Murad, who scored 10 points in the semifinal victory, is just three points shy of the coveted 1,000-point milestone in her 4-year career. Kroll, who picked up two quick fouls against Wheeling Central, had eight points and 10 rebounds.
"Some times you just have to let them play," Zitzelsberger said of his decision not to bench Kroll with just three minutes elapsed. "She did a very good job of avoiding the third (foul) until the second half."
Massey and Millard both fill their roles as support players. Massey is the Bulldogs' top defender and a strong rebounder, while Millard can step outside and knock down the jumper when needed.
Frontier is led by seniors Kelsea Daugherty (5-10 center) and Corisa Fickiesen (5-8 guard). Daugherty, who averages 18 points and 10 rebounds an outing, tallied 17 in the win over River. Fickiesen, who scores eight a game, tossed in 11. They also combined to mesh 17 of 22 free throws against the Pilots.
"Corie has hit some really big shots for us this year," Murphy explained. "She also does a lot of the little things. She's stepped up and rebounded for us from the No. 3 spot and she leads the team in assists. She usually plays good defense for us.
"Kelsea is averaging a double-double for us," he continued. "She's been pretty consistent all year and we depend a lot on her."
Other starters include 5-9 freshman Lexi Brookover, who, according to her coach, usually draws the tough defensive assignment. The point guard is 5-5 sophomore Jenna Maston. Brookover averages 12 points and six rebounds.
"Jenna gets better every night we play," Murphy disclosed. "She handles the ball and runs our offense very well."
Rounding out the starting five is 5-6 senior Emily Hinton.
"She's our role player," Murphy said. "She does all the little things that don't show up in the boxscore. You need players like her to be successful."
Of the Cougars four losses, two have come to Ohio-ranked Fort Frye, one to River and the other to Magnolia.