COLUMBUS, Ohio — And they all lived happily ever after.
A fairy tale season came with the traditional ending Saturday afternoon for a half-dozen seniors on the Eastern girls basketball team, as the Lady Eagles captured the school’s first-ever state championship with a 49-38 victory over Zanesville Rosecrans in the Division IV OHSAA title game at the Ohio State University Schottenstein Center.
The Lady Eagles (27-1) completed the rarest of magical journeys for a Southeast District program, as the Green and Gold became just the second school from the region to ever win a girls basketball state championship.
It had been 20 years since Frankfort Adena lifted the girls basketball championship trophy high above its head for southeastern Ohio, as the Lady Warriors won the Division III crown in 1994. Adena also won the Class A title during the very first girls basketball tournament in 1976.
The Lady Eagles — who won their final 11 basketball games of the 2014 campaign — also became the first AP poll champions to ever complete the sweep by also winning an actual OHSAA crown. Oak Hill is the only other Southeast District program to ever win a poll title in girls hoops, doing so in Division III in both 2005 and 2011.
The Eastern quintet of Jenna Burdette, Jordan Parker, Erin Swatzel, Katie Keller and Maddie Rigsby completed the most remarkable of final runs, as the seniors became the first basketball team in school history to ever win 90 games (90-15) over a four-year span.
They were part of the first Lady Eagle basketball squad to reach a regional final as freshmen in 2011, and four of the five were returning starters from last year’s first-ever regional championship — which ultimately ended up being the first time since the inception of D-4 (1988) that a program from the Southeast District had qualified for state.
The Green and Gold seniors won four district titles and three TVC Hocking crowns over their four seasons together, with two of those league crowns being shared (2011, 2013) with perennial-power Waterford. This year, the Lady Eagles snapped the Lady Cats’ nine-year reign as league champs by clinching the title outright with an unblemished 16-0 mark — a first for both since 2001.
The upperclassmen were also part of teams that snapped Waterford’s incredible streaks of 48 consecutive league wins, six straight regional appearances and 60 straight home victories — which were respectively ended during their freshman, sophomore and senior campaigns.
A sixth senior with this group — team manager Hannah Hawley — has also been around to witness most of the great accomplishments that have transpired over the last few seasons. It also means that Hawley, who plays softball at EHS, probably has some of the best-kept secrets about how her classmates managed to reach the top.
When asked to describe what made these five girls so great on the hardwood, Hawley noted that it was chemistry that truly made them champions.
“We are really just a family and we are all together. It’s all about caring for each other. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen another team that is really that close together,” Hawley said. “Everything just seemed to work out for us because everyone was willing to try hard for one another. Not one of them ever tried to work hard just for themselves.”
Individually, the five Lady Eagle basketball players have experienced success in other areas away from the court. Each of the hoopsters have varsity letters in three different sports — and every member of the quintet has competed in another state tournament in a different varsity sport.
Swatzel, Rigsby, Parker and Keller all played key roles in helping get EHS volleyball to its first-ever Final Four appearance as sophomores in 2011, while Rigsby and Burdette have each competed in the track and field championships at Jesse Owens Stadium.
Both Swatzel and Parker have lettered in softball, and Parker also lettered during her first season of varsity track last spring. Burdette also lettered her freshman year in varsity golf, while Keller has qualified multiple times for regionals in track and field.
And yet, for all of those major athletic accomplishments, the Lady Eagles came up empty time and time again despite all of their efforts. That is, until Saturday in the D-4 finale.
“Most of us have been to state in volleyball, basketball or track, and we never won anything before this weekend,” Rigsby said. “Thursday’s win against Fort Loramie was the first time we ever won anything at the state level and it was so important for us. To win again today, it’s just amazing.
“If you’re willing to work hard and believe in something, things will pay off. That’s what happened for us this weekend.”
Given their respective interests come spring time, Saturday’s championship game also marked the last time that all six would be at the same place at the same time — focusing on the same goal.
It wasn’t the easiest of things to cope with, either before or afterwards, but going out as only one of four state champions did seem to help soften the blow a bit.
“It’s nice to know that we are going out with a bang, but there really is no way to describe this feeling,” Keller said. “It’s great that we are ending this with a win, but knowing that we will never play another game together is definitely a heartbreaker.
“It’s a sad day in some ways, but going out on top with a state championship does help. Only four teams in Ohio do this every year … and we are one of them. It’s not a bad way to finish a senior year.”
The Lady Eagles became the 15th team and 10th school from the Southeast District — male or female — to ever win a state championship since tournament play started for boys basketball in 1923. Of the dozen boys’ teams to accomplish the same feat on the court, only half of those eight schools are still in existence today.
Portsmouth leads the Southeast District with four state championships, which occurred in 1931, 1961, 1978 and 1988. South Webster (2006), Chillicothe (2008) and Oak Hill (2009) also have one OHSAA crown apiece in boys hoops.
Before closing permanently, Waterloo — which was near the Rio Grande area — won back-to-back crowns in the 1934 and 1935 Class B boys tournaments. Hillsboro Marshall (1928), Somerset (1942) and New Lexington St. Aloysius (1954) also captured Class B titles for southeastern Ohio before shutting their respective doors.
In fact, it is just the 10th state championship for a girls team from the Southeast District in any sport. Adena also owns state titles in both volleyball (1975 and 1976) and track and field (1975), while Alexander captured the 2008 volleyball crown in Division III.
Portsmouth Clay owns the only titles from the region in softball, as the Lady Panthers won Class A championships in 1980, 1981 and 1983. The Southeast District has never won a girls team title in either soccer, tennis or cross country.
A state championship is truly the rarest of feats for anyone in the Buckeye State, particularly in this neck of the woods. Yet somehow, these Lady Eagles found a way to get past the odds and claim something that so few down here get to experience.
A lot of effort went into making this goal a reality, and the final reward was something that proved to be far greater than most of them could imagine.
“It’s unreal because I don’t think it has hit me yet. I may never get that feeling of ‘oh my gosh we did this.’ For now, I’m just going to enjoy all of it because it is amazing,” Swatzel said. “We set this goal so long ago and took on some pretty good teams over the years, knowing it would help us get right here where we are today.
“We all worked for this and we did this on our own. Nobody can ever take this away from us and that is the best feeling in the world.”
With their place in the history books secured and a common goal finally achieved, it was easy afterwards to reflect on how hard work and determination paid off in the long run. It was also a nice thought to consider how Eastern High School will have a very different look in the near future — for all the rest of time.
“This means everything to be honest. This was our goal from day one and this was our last chance to get it. That is why this means so much to all of us,” Parker said. “People will walk in our gym and always look up and see that banner that says 2014 girls basketball state champions. Only a few people are ever fortunate enough to experience something like this.
“Dream big, because it is free. If you don’t dream big, nothing great can ever be accomplished. Once you start getting close to your goal, you’ll work even harder to get that much closer.”
Since the Southeast District isn’t always considered in the mix with the most dominant of areas for high school sports, being one of the chosen few from the region was a special way to close out five storied basketball careers.
It may take some time to get use to the title of state champions, but a certain region will more than help these Lady Eagles remember what they have accomplished.
After all, they are now the new standard for any southeastern Ohio team to aim for.
“It sounds awesome to be called a state champion. It doesn’t even feel real yet, almost — but it’s getting there. We wanted this, not only for ourselves, but for all of our fans — including the southeast Ohio area,” Burdette said. “The support from our community and the surrounding areas during this season has just been wonderful. It was awesome knowing that people were behind us.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from. If you work hard and set a goal, you can reach it eventually. It took us four years to reach it, but we kept working at it — and here we are.”