McDonald girls capture regional title

MASSILLON — Coming into this season, the McDonald girls basketball team had one thing in mind, reaching state tournament.

That became a reality Saturday, as the Blue Devils once again took control of a game from the opening tipoff, beating Shadyside in a Division IV regional final, 58-50, at Perry High School.

“This group is something special,” first-year coach Tony Matisi said. “They bought into everything we showed them, and every day they got better and better. I just don’t want it to end.”

McDonald has at least one more game left. They will face Waterford in a state semifinal game on Thursday at the University of Dayton.

This is the second time in program history that the Blue Devils have reached the state level. It’s been 30 years since McDonald has made it to the final four, where they lost to Fort Recovery, 63-58 in overtime, in the 1991 state final. McDonald had beaten Fort Loramie, 60-42, in a state semifinal.

Staff photo / Brian Yauger -- McDonald's Molly Howard takes part in the ceremonial cutting of the nets on Saturday night.

The Blue Devils got out to a hot start, outscoring the Tigers 21-12 in the first quarter. That pace continued as they scored 18 points in the second quarter to hold a 39-24 lead at halftime.

With 16 minutes remaining and a 15-point lead at the break, in the locker room Matisi reminded his players to keep their feet on the gas.

“We have 16 more minutes so we had to go out there acting like the score was 0-0 again,” senior Molly Howard said about the message to the team at halftime. “We had to just keep playing our game, stay focused and stay concentrated on our goal.”

While nerves kicked in in the second half, allowing the Tigers to creep back into the game, Matisi knew he had a group of kids he could count on, who have seen these battles before.

“The senior leadership, they’ve been through the wars. We’ve got three- and four-year starters there,” he said. “That helped tremendously, just settling down in how we answered every little run they put together. We got that bucket that helped, so senior leadership pulled us through.”

Staff photo / Brian Yauger -- The Blue Devils celebrate the Division IV regional championship, which clinched a berth in the state tournament next week.

That leadership was crucial in the team’s second trip to the regional stage, as McDonald went from losing in the regional semifinals last season, 44-39 to Buckeye Central, the Blue Devils instead won their two regional contests by a combined 40 points.

“We’ve been to regionals before, so having that experience under our belt is great,” Howard said. “Our senior leadership is insane. We’ve always got each other’s backs, we’re always pushing each other, always staying positive. That’s a big thing for us is to keep pushing each other, but in a positive way.”

Howard, while shaken up, was a key factor on both sides of the ball, scoring 16 points for the Blue Devils (18-2).

Sophia Costantino led the team with 17 points. Lucia Wolford scored 10.

Despite coming into the season with a new coach, the seven seniors on the McDonald roster didn’t waver from their goal.

“It’s surreal,” Howard said. “We’ve been working for this our whole careers. Our whole basketball careers, we’ve had this goal of making it to state and now we’re actually pursuing that, so I’m incredibly proud of our team and it’s surreal. I don’t even have words.”

Matisi, who has been coaching for 30 years, makes his first appearance at the state tournament.

He gives all the credit to his girls, who have been putting the work in to reach this moment for over a decade.

“I’m so fortunate to get hired and jump right in and fall into this,” he said. “It’s amazing, but the force behind it is the seven seniors who have been working for this since third and fourth grade, playing in the driveway, playing in the court down at the park. They just drive themselves, they’re so focused.”

Tipoff for the game against Waterford on Thursday is set for 2 p.m.


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