Makenzie Spang had an idea of what to expect when the Johns-town-Monroe High School girls basketball team faced second-ranked Proctorville Fairland.
The 6-foot-2 junior forward had faced the likes of the Dragons' 6-4 Terra Stapleton, a Minnesota recruit, in practice the previous three days.
Coach Carl Dufford persuaded Johnstown guidance counselor Deb Merrill, a former women's basketball standout at Cincinnati and Ohio State who is 6-1, to help his team prepare for Fairland. The result was a 53-47 victory March 6 in a Division III regional semifinal at Logan.
"Ms. Merrill came in and did a great job of helping us prepare," said Spang, who finished with two points and eight rebounds as she focused primarily on post defense. "Coach Dufford said that if I could play against Ms. Merrill, I could play against (Stapleton)."
Stapleton entered averaging 15.4 points and 10.7 rebounds, but finished with 11 points and six rebounds. The junior center shot only 3-for-10 from the floor and scored only two second- half points, and that basket came with 1 minute, 42 seconds to play.
"Obviously our focus was on (Stapleton)," said Dufford, whose team was 23-4 before playing Beverly Fort Frye on March 9 in a regional final at Logan. "We told Makenzie to keep a body on her and don't worry about rebounds or anything else. We would let everyone else worry about the rebounds."
The Johnnies outrebounded the Dragons 49-26 as 6-0 sophomore forward Paige Cannon led the way with nine.
"It was like we had two bigs versus their one big," said Cannon, who scored 22 points. "We knew what we needed to do and we stuck with the game plan that we worked on all week in practice."
Cannon also came through March 2 against Fredericktown as the Johnnies won their first district title. She made the decisive free throws and blocked a potential tying shot in the final seconds of overtime in a 43-41 win at Worthington Christian Middle School.
Then against Fairland, the Johnnies took a 12-5 lead after one quarter as the Dragons shot 1-for-14 to start the game. Junior guard Chandler Fulks hit their first basket, a 3-pointer with 1:30 left in the first quarter, and finished with 11 points.
Johnstown led 25-17 at halftime, but the Dragons (23-1) rallied for a 39-38 lead entering the fourth as Fulks scored eight points in the third.
"We knew they had perimeter shooters that we had to look out for," said junior point guard Laiken Valentine, who scored 15 points and was 10-for-12 at the foul line. "We knew that they were capable of coming back like that."
Valentine and Cannon both scored six points in the fourth. All of Valentine's points came in the final 50 seconds when she made all six of her free throws. The Johnnies finished 20-for-27 at the line.
"Once I made the first two free throws, I knew I could make the others," Valentine said. "Then I just happened to have the ball when they decided to foul, and I was able to do what I could for the team."
Junior guard Natalie Carpenter added 13 points and was 4-for-4 at the line.
The Johnstown-Fort Frye winner plays in a state semifinal at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 14, at Ohio State against defending state champion and sixth-ranked Africentric, Bucyrus Wynford or third-ranked Archbold. The Nubians were 18-5 and Wynford was 19-6 before playing March 7 in a regional semifinal. Archbold improved to 25-1 by defeating Findlay Liberty-Benton 47-36 on March 6.
The state final is 10:45 a.m. Saturday, March 16, at Ohio State. Possible opponents include fourth-ranked Orrville (25-2 before March 7), ninth-ranked Beachwood (22-2), Anna (22-4), or Middletown Madison (23-2).
In the district final, Cannon had 11 points and five rebounds. She hit a pair of free throws with 1:06 left in overtime and then delivered on defense as third-seeded Johnstown held on to win.
"I really don't remember much other than blocking the shot (at the end of the game)," she said. "We didn't want them to shoot a 3, and if we were going to foul them we had to make sure they didn't make the bucket and then go to the foul line."
Valentine had 14 points and five assists, and Spang added eight points.
It was the third time Johnstown had beaten the fourth-seeded Freddies this season. The Johnnies also won 56-35 on Dec. 20 and 44-39 on Jan. 31.