About 20 minutes after one of the more impressive streaks in Ohio high school girls basketball history came to an end, Pickerington North coach Dave Butcher was reminded — and agreed — that his string of 23 consecutive district championships could have ended 10 years and one day earlier.
On March 2, 2002, Pickerington — now Pickerington Central — trailed Independence 55-50 with 15.6 seconds to play in a Division I district final at Olentangy. But sophomore guard Marscilla Packer hit a 15-foot shot with 9.3 seconds left, was fouled and made the free throw, and after Independence’s Jessica Davenport missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with eight seconds left, freshman point guard Jenna Schone hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the game 56-55 and send herself, the team and Pickerington’s fans into delirium as the Tigers clinched their 14th consecutive district title.
“I’ve never been involved in anything like this, something so unbelievable, so purely magical,” Schone, who went on to start for three more years at Pickerington and Pickerington North and played at Miami University, said at the time. “When I looked at the clock the last time there were two seconds left, and when it left my hands I just knew it was going in.”
That seemed to be the way things went for the Tigers, and later the Panthers, in the district round for almost a generation. Central continued to enjoy some success after Butcher and all five starters from his 2002-03 team moved to North when it opened in fall 2003. Central beat North 54-47 in a regional final in 2006 in the schools’ first meeting — but the streak of district titles for teams he coached survived graduations, injuries, conference realignments and shifts in power among area teams until Gahanna defeated the Panthers 63-46 on March 3 at Hilliard Davidson.
After the game, Butcher, who ended the season with 669 career wins, two shy of current state leader Ed Zink of Beavercreek, took a reflective tone.
“That streak was maybe as special to my players as it was to me,” said Butcher, who is 669-79 to Zink’s 671-195. “You have to be lucky to do that. We were fortunate to do that and at times, we were better than other teams. But the kids somehow kept it on a roll. Out of anything I’ve accomplished, that’s actually what I was most proud of.”
It began Feb. 25, 1989, when Pickerington defeated Mount Vernon 63-52 at Grove City. Susie Cassell and Michelle Shade, two players who would become intertwined in Tigers history over the next few years and went on to play together at Bowling Green, were key in the win. Cassell scored nine of her 17 points in the fourth quarter and Shade added 10. A year later, Cassell would assist Shade on a buzzer-beating basket in a Division I state semifinal, when the Tigers defeated Canton GlenOak 47-45 one night before beating Cincinnati Mother of Mercy 61-42 to win the program’s first title since 1985 and the first of five in the 1990s.
Butcher agreed that sometimes, the Tigers won games before they ever took the court because of their reputation. From 1990-95, they won six district finals by an average of 42.3 points, the most lopsided being in 1991 against Franklin Heights (73-26) and 1993 against Watterson (89-36).
“There used to be teams that didn’t have one player who could handle the ball or some teams that just couldn’t handle a press,” former Butcher assistant Ken Schneider, who coached with him from 1989-2003 and succeeded him at Central from 2003-08, said in 2004. “You’d blow them out of the gym in the first half.”
North’s first district title came in a 64-33 win over Upper Arlington on March 6, 2004, which also was Butcher’s 500th victory. The next year, the Panthers defeated Gahanna 47-28 in a district final, but none of the next six district final wins were by more than 12 points.
“Winning them all at North has been difficult, and it’s something that gets harder every year,” Butcher said. “You have to coach harder and work harder. All those things are things people seem to overlook. We have not been the most talented team for quite a while.”
Gahanna coach Rick Hauser, who lost district title games to North in 2004 and 2008 as well as to Pickerington in 2000 when he coached Reynoldsburg, wasted no time reminding his players of the streak in the days leading up to the March 3 game.
“They told me they couldn’t have cared less about the 23 straight,” Hauser said of his players. “They said this was about them, that they wanted to win the game.”
Packer and Shade, now Michelle Sawyer, helped coach the Panthers this year, something Butcher says symbolizes the program as much as the streak.
“I think what’s special about our program — when we were one school and since we’ve been at North — is you’ve got people like Michelle Shade and Marscilla Packer on your bench and those two girls took (the loss to Gahanna) as hard as our players because they were part of it,” Butcher said. “I think that’s what’s special about the players who have played for me. They come back, they’re in the gym. Some of them say, ‘I was part of the 13th district championship’ or ‘I was on such-and-such team.’ They’re part of that history and they take a lot of pride in that.”