By Rob Centorani
The Daily Star
---- — Oneonta High girls soccer coach Jerry Mackey once described a supremely talented state tournament opponent by saying his squad would be venturing into the deep end of the pool.
It would appear that the Yellowjackets girls basketball team is about to jump headfirst into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
When OHS (20-1) and three-time defending state champion Irvington (21-2) meet at 10 this morning in a Class B state semifinal at Hudson Valley Community College, the Yellowjackets will be swimming in Division I-infested waters.
The Bulldogs’ starting lineup includes two players — 6-foot forward Lexi Martins and point guard Brittni Lai — who’ll suit up for D-I programs next season. Right now, they play for a squad that scores points with the same frequency that Titleist churns out golf balls.
Though Section One’s Irvington and Section Four’s Oneonta enter the semifinal ranked 1-2 in the state, respectively, the Yellowjackets no doubt are big underdogs for this one.
But, as OHS senior forward Kelsey Baker said Wednesday: “We’re not afraid of anyone and we’re not going to back down from anyone. We’ve played good teams, Horseheads and Penfield, and they’re great tests. I don’t think Irvington’s going to be the big monster that everyone has them built up to be.”
Today’s winner will play Section Five’s Waterloo (22-1) or Section 10’s Salmon River (17-6) at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Class B final. Waterloo and Salmon River will meet in the other Class B semifinal at 11:45 a.m. today at HVCC.
“You can’t give your opponent a mental edge before the game even starts,” OHS coach Matt Miller said of today’s game. “I know they have a great record, but I keep telling the kids they haven’t played us yet. I think our kids are pretty competitive. One of the traits I’ve grown to love the most about this team is they’re not afraid of anyone. They don’t get intimidated.”
Added standout junior point guard Mariah Ruff: “Last year, everyone thought we were going to get blown out by Binghamton (a 51-50 loss in the Southern Tier Athletic Conference final against the unbeaten Patriots). We thought if we go in there and play well, we’ll have a chance to beat them. That’s the exact same mentality we have for this game.”
So exactly what have these Bulldogs accomplished over the last three years? Well, they have three straight New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class B titles — the first coming with a 54-33 win over OHS in 2010 — and two Class B Federation championships.
En route to last year’s NYSPHSAA-Federation double, they beat everyone by at least 10 points — including a 69-42 victory over a South Jefferson squad in the public-school title game. South Jefferson eliminated Oneonta, 47-39, in a state quarterfinal last season.
In a 74-64 win over Long Island Lutheran in the Federation final, Martins finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, Lai had 18 points and four assists, Lauren Chafizadeh contributed 12 points, and Ryan Mahon finished with six points, four assists and three steals.
All of those players are back.
Those who remember the 2010 state final might recall how well the Bulldogs passed against Oneonta’s zone. They used three- or four-pass combinations that often led to layups or fouls in the paint.
“These kids snap the ball and they move it,” Miller said. “There’s not a lot of holding it and not a lot of dribbling it in their offense. Their passing in the half-court is hard to defend, but they also have a couple of girls on rebound outlets who can throw the ball three-quarter court — like a chest pass, too. Obviously, they like to run.”
In their state first-round game, Irvington beat Section Nine’s John A. Coleman, 86-49, and followed it with a 62-41 quarterfinal win over Section 11’s Southampton.
Over her last four games, Lehigh-bound Martins is averaging 25 points and 22 rebounds.
“She’s gotten stronger and bigger, and more versatile,” Irvington coach Gina Maher said of Martins’ game since she had 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks against the Yellowjackets in 2010.
Added Miller: “The one player that really concerns me is their post player, Lexi Martins. We’ve got a couple of defenses that will pay extra-close attention to her. She’s a finalist for Miss New York Basketball; she’s one of four candidates. She can hurt you in so many ways. She has like 17 threes, she can dribble and penetrate, and she’s a monster down low getting easy second-chance baskets.”
Marist recruit Lai had 18 points and five steals against Southampton.
“She is so fast,” Miller said. “She’s good about splitting defenses and getting into the lane.”
Oh, and those wondering about the two losses attached to the Bulldogs’ record. Both came to Ossining, which has UConn-bound guard Saniya Chong, who is closing in on 3,000 varsity points. Ossining will play Sachem East in a Class AA state semifinal at 6:15 tonight.
The Bulldogs lost, 90-84, to Ossining in the first meeting and 93-65 in the second.
Ossining beat Horseheads, 69-49, in a first-round state playoff game. Oneonta downed Horseheads, 57-56, in overtime to win the Southern Tier Athletic Conference championship last month.
“I think (Oneonta is) very well-coached and they play hard,” said Maher, who has 582 victories at Irvington. “It’s going to be a very competitive game.”
When the teams met in the 2010 state final, Irvington played almost exclusively man-to-man. Maher said this year’s team primarily uses various zones.
“We try to mix it up,” she said. “We’ll play zone and man.”
Miller and Ruff said ball security will be critical for the Yellowjackets.
“I think it’s important to make sure we don’t panic with the ball,” said Ruff, a junior who is also pondering numerous Division I offers. “We have to stay confident with the ball. Possessions really count, so if we keep the ball in our possession, we’ll run a good offense.”
Ruff, who’s averaging 18 points, has had three standout games this postseason. She had 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against Horseheads; 28 points, five rebounds and five assists against Waverly; and 28 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in Saturday’s 57-52 state-quarterfinal win over Utica Notre Dame.
“Absolutely, she’d be one of the best players in Section One,” Maher said of Ruff — 18 points shy of scoring 1,000 points in an OHS uniform. “She’s versatile, she’s strong and she’s smart. She’s only a junior and she has a lot of colleges looking at her. She’s very impressive.”
Natalie Vanderlaan-Meyering, a 6-2 senior center, is averaging 9.2 points for OHS. Classmate Baker is averaging 7.2 points, and senior guards Hayley Dower and Minnie Webster are averaging 6.9 and 6.3 points, respectively.
“The number of possessions we have is going to have to be darn-near similar to theirs and we have to take care of the ball,” Miller said. “Against this team, we cannot give up possessions and give them extra possessions. I think we’re going to have to shoot the ball pretty well. That’ll be a key — if we can hit a few of those (threes) early on and stretch the defense.”
Rob Centorani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.