That the Ursuline and Lowellville high school girls basketball teams are returning to regional competition is no surprise. Both were favored to win their district tournaments (the Irish in Division III, the Rockets in Div. IV) from the opening tipoff of the regular season.
The Valley's surprises are the larger divisions -- Rayen in Div. II and Boardman in Div. I.
What's that? Boardman, making its 13th regional appearance in 24 seasons, a surprise?
Well yes, considering who the Spartans sent on the court and how they won Saturday's district final -- 55-47 in double overtime over North Canton Hoover.
Boardman trailed the entire fourth quarter until freshman Courtney Schiffhauer scored five consecutive points to force overtime.
After a scoreless first overtime, junior point guard Colleen Mallis made the only basket and the Spartans added six free throws to earn their third win of the season over Hoover.
And they did it without Amber Bland, the Spartans' standout from 2001-04 who's now at Penn State.
Bland scored 2,190 points in her prep career but only made one trip to the regional, in 2001 as a freshman.
Minus Bland, Jessica Moore, this year's center, said the Spartans were doubted from day one.
"No one expected us to win," Moore said of the team's inspiration. "That's what makes this so awesome."
Coach Ron Moschella turned those sentiments to his team's advantage.
"It's been our motto this year," Moschella said. "It's been on our wall: 'We're never the best team -- we just happen to win.' "
That Moore, a first-team All-Federal League player, excelled against Hoover (12 points, six rebounds) is no surprise. However, no Spartans fan a year ago could have imagined the scoring leaders on Saturday: Schiffhauer (18) and Mallis (14).
Not long ago, Moschella thought Mallis would never earn varsity time. That's because Brittany Sirak had taken over for 2004 graduate Brittany Durkin at point guard after Durkin suffered a knee injury.
During soccer season last fall, Sirak injured her anterior cruciate ligament and missed much of this basketball season recovering.
In the Spartans' opening loss against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, Mallis said she played so badly that she feared she might not get a game two.
"That first game was horrible," Mallis said. "We lost that game because I kept turning the ball over."
Moschella stayed with her and the Spartans went on to win 17 of the next 18 games before losing to Ursuline in the regular season finale.
For Hoover, Moschella developed a scheme that would allow Schiffhauer to penetrate.
"We came up with some plays for clearouts to go to the basket -- that's what she does best," Moschella said.
"We decided to spread our guards out so they couldn't double on the big people."
Tuesday at 8 p.m., the Spartans (20-3) play Mentor at the Canton Civic Center. At the same time, Holly Seimetz's Rayen squad (19-4) will make its first regional appearance, playing Medina Buckeye (17-6) at Barberton High.
Guards Taniesha Holland (senior) and Brittany Taylor (freshman) were the keys in Rayen's district win over Salem, 51-33, at Fitch.
Holland produced 22 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four steals against the Quakers, the Metro Athletic Conference co-champions and a state semifinalist in 2004.
"She's probably the best player I've ever had," said Seimetz, who has been Rayen's coach for 12 seasons. "I believe she's the best player in the area."
Seimetz said the Tigers' 55-51 double-overtime victory over Ursuline was a turning point.
Because Rayen is joining the Steel Valley Conference, the Tigers and Irish played a home-and-home series for the first time.
"Playing well against them in our gym gave us so much confidence," Seimetz said. "That victory was big and kind of sent everything in motion."
Seimetz said losses to Mount de Chantal and Akron Hoban served as wakeup calls.
"We only lost at Hoban by three and we could have won," Seimetz said. "I think that my kids knew if we put it all together, we'd be all right."
Taylor had 13 points and six rebounds against Salem.
Since 1998, the Fitch district champion has won the regional four times: Poland in 1998 and 2000, Canfield in 2001 and Salem last year.
Holland says two more wins are her next goal.
"Rayen's never made it to state -- I want to make it real bad," Holland said.
After coaching Holland and forward Rilonda Neal for four years, Seimetz said she's happy her seniors get to experience regional play.
"Everything else after this is extra for us," Seimetz said.