By Michael Rich
For the sixth time in the last seven years, the Olentangy girls basketball team found itself playing for a district title … and for the sixth time in the last seven years, it took home the district runner-up trophy.
Sixth-seeded Newark started strong and held off every comeback attempt to knock off third-seeded Olentangy 69-54 Saturday afternoon at Alumni Hall on the campus of Ohio Dominican University in Columbus.
Being Central Ohio girls basketball’s version of the Buffalo Bills isn’t the worst thing in the world for Olentangy coach John Feasel.
“First of all, I think any team in the Central District would love to be in the district final six out of seven times,” he said. “That’s something in our program that I’m very proud of.”
It’s one of those good problems.
Olentangy was in Division II when the run began in 2010, and was a buzzer-beater away from making an appearance in each of the last seven championships.
Reynoldsburg is the only Division I school to make the district finals six times in that span, and the Raiders have won each time.
Eastmoor has done the same thing in Division II, which started with a win over Olentangy in 2010.
Olentangy has won 20 tournament games over the past seven seasons. Reynoldsburg (27), Eastmoor (24) and Gahanna (22) are the only three schools to top that feat.
Reynoldsburg appeared in the district final round in 2009 as well. Gahanna has four district titles.
Katie Shumate led Newark (19-7), which won its second consecutive district title, with 22 points and three steals. Emily Paul had 16 points, six assists and four steals, setting a new school career assists record in the process.
“My hat’s off to them, (Paul) made some tough (shots),” Feasel said. “I told our kids that we’ve got to get physically strong to compete because they beat us up in the first quarter, quite frankly. That’s what killed us, and we turned the ball over because of it. I sound like a seven-year broken record.”
Shumate, Carlee Street and Olivia Fox scored six points each and Takia Barrett scored the other four as the Wildcats ran out to a 22-8 lead in the first quarter.
“I think for three quarters, we played pretty good basketball,” Feasel said. “But in games like this, you can lose a game in the first quarter.”
Shumate scored on the first possession of the second quarter to push the lead to 16.
Olentangy (22-4) rallied to close within 10 points several times, getting it as close as seven on three occasions.
“We fought and we scratched — we had it down to where we probably could get it, but they made plays,” Feasel said.
Newark always had an answer. The Wildcats pushed the lead back over 10 each time, including a 9-0 run late in the fourth quarter that ended any drama. The Wildcats converted 7-of-8 free throws during the stretch.
“They’re a good team — when you get to this point, everybody is good,” Feasel said. “When we had a chance to stop them a couple of times, they made some shots.”
Chelsea Moore led Olentangy with 12 points and six rebounds to go with three steals. Olivia Margolies had 10 points, four steals and three rebounds, Allison Raiff added nine points and four assists and Emily Stephens pulled down six boards.
Kelly Meade, Olentangy’s all-time leading scorer, scored eight points to finish her career with 1,410. The program had never had a 1,000-point scorer before last season, when Morgan Horvath broke the barrier.
“She’s the all-time leading boys and girls scorer — she’s going to leave a huge hole for us to fill,” Feasel said. “When she wasn’t making shots during some games, we struggled.”
Meade also holds the record for single-game points, which she set a couple of times this season.
Olentangy won 80 games during Meade’s four years, losing just 22.
Olentangy loses seven seniors this season, including Meade, Moore, Stephens, Christina Baumann, Lydia Sanders and Celeste Clark.
“We’re going to miss our seniors,” Feasel said. “These girls played really hard, all the time. They’re a very loose group that had a good time and that’s good. That’s the reason that I enjoyed them so much. They liked to practice and play hard and they will be missed, that’s for sure.”
Feasel pointed to Margolies, Raiff, Grace Pennington and Molly Delaney as key pieces for next year’s squad. Delaney missed the last six games with an ACL injury.
“We’re going to have to find somebody to replace (Meade’s) 15-to-17 points per game,” Feasel said. “But, I said the same thing about Morgan and the same thing about Megan Beidelman. We have a good program, we’ll just battle and try to find someone to replace her.”
Newark will face top-seeded Pickerington Central in the regional semifinal round Tuesday night at 8 p.m. at Rike Center on the campus of Otterbein University.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.