By Joe Scalzo
One by one, they grabbed the brand new white T-shirts that read “Hoops we did it again” on the back — a tribute to Lowellville’s five straight district titles and a takeoff of a Britney Spears hit that came out when Lowellville freshman Courtney Conklin was still in diapers — but the Rockets didn’t get to this point without another T-shirt mantra: “Respect the past. Represent the future.”
You couldn’t read a story about Lowellville’s girls basketball team this season without seeing the phrase “after losing three 1,000-point scorers to graduation ...” and it was that slight, that unspoken assumption that they couldn’t match last year’s team, that drove the Rockets’ three senior starters to 23 wins (and counting).
“We really felt like no one thought we could do it,” said senior Kaye Solak after Saturday’s 44-29 victory over Lisbon in the Division IV district final at South Range High School. “Everyone thought last year’s team was as good as it was going to get.
“We knew we pretty much had something to prove to everyone.”
Added senior Madison Opritza, “We showed everyone we don’t need them this year.”
Then, realizing how that sounded, Opritza started laughing and said, “That sounds bad. I just mean, with everyone doubting us, we wanted to prove to everyone we could do it.”
For the first 16 minutes, it was no cinch that they could.
Lisbon trailed just 16-14 at halftime despite shooting 5 of 19 from the field and the Blue Devils’ zone was giving the Rockets fits.
But Solak hit three straight 3-pointers in the third quarter to stretch Lowellville’s lead to nine points with 1:16 left and Lisbon never again challenged.
“We succeed with our defense,” senior Rachel Durbin said. “I think after halftime we started to realize we have to go out and finish this.”
Solak scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds and Opritza added 11 for Lowellville (23-3), which will meet Maplewood in Thursday’s regional semifinal at Massillon Perry High School.
“All year long, these seniors had to hear about teams in the past and how, you know, every time we did something good ...” said Lowellville coach Tony Matisi, who has won seven district titles over the past 10 years. “These kids have done something nobody else has done — they’ve won 90 games. Not played in 90. They’ve won 90.
“They deserve the spotlight on them, not on years past. They deserve a day of their own.”
Lisbon senior Pam Pierce capped her terrific career with 10 points, six rebounds and four assists before fouling out with 1:37 left in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Tiffany Ketchum added 12 points for the Blue Devils (15-11).
But the day belonged to the Rockets, who out-rebounded Lisbon 32-17 and held the Blue Devils to 30 percent shooting.
“A Lowellville kid’s a special kid,” said Matisi. “They buy into it. On June 15, when it’s 90 degrees out or July 15 when it’s 90 degrees out, they’re with us. They’re working hard.
“Fifteen years of winning championships, that’s why.”