By Rob Centorani
The Daily Star
---- — This one might fall on the shoulders of Oneonta High’s big people.
Seniors Natalie Vanderlaan-Meyering and Kelsey Baker will have decided height advantages inside when the Yellowjackets (19-1) face Section Three champion Utica Notre Dame (17-5) in a Class B girls basketball state quarterfinal at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Onondaga Community College.
“Their tallest girl is 5-foot-11 and other than that, they don’t have much size,” 6-2 center Vanderlaan-Meyering said following practice Tuesday at OHS. “I think (getting the ball inside) is going to be more important than it has been in other games.
“The guards are supposed to give us more looks, so we’re going through our plays seeing where the posts are open and (our guards) are trying to get it to us,” she continued.
Though the obvious story line is that each side possesses a potential First Team all-state selection in Oneonta’s Mariah Ruff and UND’s Emily Durr, this one could be decided by other factors.
The winner Saturday likely will get a matchup against three-time defending Class B state champion Irvington — a Section One school that played Section 11’s Southampton in a state quarterfinal Friday at Hofstra University — in a state semifinal Friday at Hudson Valley CC in Troy.
Irvington’s streak of state titles started with a 54-33 win over the Yellowjackets in the 2010 Class B state final. That marked OHS’ second straight loss in the state final — the first a 39-35 setback to Nanuet.
The past two seasons, the Yellowjackets haven’t cleared the quarterfinal hurdle. OHS lost, 62-58, in overtime two years ago against Cazenovia and then fell, 47-39, to South Jefferson last season.
Yellowjackets third-year coach Matt Miller said getting back to Troy was a preseason goal for his team.
“It’s certainly been a goal, there’s no question about it,” he said of a squad that won its sixth straight Section Four title last Saturday with a 41-33 triumph over Seton Catholic Central. “But I don’t think you can look at this season as a failure if we were to lose this weekend because the kids have accomplished to much.
“We would certainly be disappointed if we don’t make it just because we’ve been in this game two years in a row and we haven’t been able to get over the hump with these kids,” he continued.
To beat the Jugglers, two factors could be key: tempo and post play.
Miller said UND plays very much like Section Four Class A champion Maine-Endwell — a fast-paced team OHS beat, 50-34, in a Southern Tier Athletic Conference semifinal Feb. 13.
“I think M-E is a very good comparison,” he said. “Obviously, M-E doesn’t have an individual like the Durr kid, but they push like crazy, they try to defend, get up on you and create turnovers. I expect the tempo to be quick. They’re more of a guard-oriented team.
“They haven’t applied much full-court pressure, but they pick up real high in the half-court — right at half-court,” he continued. “It’s mostly man but they do play a 2-3 zone.”
Miller added that when OHS and Utica ND scrimmaged before the season, the Jugglers played man-to-man defense throughout.
“If they came and watched the Seton game, they played all man and we struggled a little bit, so I imagine that’s what we’ll see,” Miller said.
Ruff, a junior, said following the Seton game that she’ll need to protect the ball better.
“I think we need to work on free throw shooting, especially me,” Ruff said after going 5-for-13 from the line to contribute to OHS’ 18-for-36 performance against the Saints. “I need to clean up my ballhandling and my passes.”
It would also help if Ruff could replicate her performance in the STAC final against Section Four Class AA champion Horseheads, when she had 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in 57-56 overtime victory.
Ruff set up Vanderlaan-Meyering and the 5-10 Baker for easy baskets after penetrating and drawing defenders. If she can do that against UND, finding Vanderlaan and Baker should be easier.
Durr, a junior, is UND’s tallest starter at 5-11. After that, the Jugglers’ next tallest starter is 5-7.
“That was our emphasis on all of our plays we ran in practice (Tuesday) — getting it into the post,” said Miller, whose team has won seven straight since a 61-40 loss to Class AA Penfield on Jan. 28. “Their best post defender is Emily Durr, who is their point guard. We have to go to Nat and Kelsey because we want to go at (Durr) and see if we can get her in foul trouble. Whoever Durr is guarding, the other post is going to have someone 5-7 on them and we’ll go to her deep.”
As for slowing Durr, that doesn’t figure to be an easy task. She’s averaging 23.3 points and Ruff said she can score in a variety of ways. Durr and Ruff played together on the Albany City Rocks last summer, an elite AAU travel team.
“She can go to the rim easily, she can pass and she can shoot over anybody,” Ruff said of Durr, who has scored 1,747 points at the varsity level.
Guards Anari Harris and Jaclyn Hajec are averaging 10.5 and 9.9 points, respectively, for UND.
Ruff, who has scored 1,457 varsity points, leads OHS at 17.5 points per game. Vanderlaan-Meyering averages 9.1 points and Baker is next at 7.3. Senior guards Hayley Dower and Minnie Webster are averaging 7.1 and 6.3, respectively.
The combination of Ruff, Dower and Webster has made 85 three-pointers.
“I’m confident because of all the stuff we have accomplished this year, but you can’t be too confident,” Vanderlaan-Meyering said.
Tickets are $8. The game will be televised live on Time Warner Cable Sports Channel.
Rob Centorani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.