By Rob Kiser
There are a lot of similarities between the Versailles and Elyria Catholic girls basketball teams who will meet in a Division III state semifinal at 6 p.m. Thursday at Schottenstein Arena.
But, there is one key difference between the Tigers, 27-1 and the D-III state poll champion — and the 22-5 Panthers.
Versailles will be making its seventh appearance in the Final Four in Jacki Stonebraker’s 15 years as a coach — the Lady Tigers have a 6-4 record at the “Schott” and 4-2 in state semifinal games.
Not to mention, eight players were members of the team that won a Division III state chmpionship in volleyball this fall — and the seniors are looking to go to the state championship game for the third time in their four years.
On the other hand, Elyria Catholic is making just the program’s second appearance in the Final Four — losing in the D-III semifinals in 2011 to Oak Hill.
“Just trying to get my girls to relax,” Elyria Catholic coach Eric Rothgery said about one of the keys to the game. “This has been a regular thing for Versilles. I know she (Jacki Stonebraker) looks young, but I saw her coaching over her in 2007 (against Cleveland Central Catholic). She has a lot of experience and that is going to be a challenge.”
Stonebraker, whose team was state runnerup last year after winning the title in the 2014-15 season knows that could give her team an edge.
“I do think it works to our favor sometimes,” Stonebraker said. “We have had a lot of success in a lot of sports here at Versailles. I think it gives us an edge. There is a lot of pressure to excel. What I tell the girls is be persistent and enjoy the pressure. They have taken that and run with it.”
While Versailles will be a little shorter — which might be a first — than Elyria Catholic, the lineups are similar.
“This is one of the few times we have played a team that is taller than us,” Stonebraker said. “We are going to need to do a good job boxing out and rebounding, and we need to run the floor well.”
Inside, Versailles has a three-pronged attack with 6-foot-2 senior Danielle Winner, 5-11 junior Elizabeth Ording and 6-2 sophomore Lindsey Winner.
During the regular season, Danielle Winner averaged 10.8 points and 8.0 rebounds, Ording averaged 6.38 points and 4.3 rebounds and Lindsey Winner averaged 5.67 points and 4.3 rebounds.
Versailles unsung hero is 5-8 senior Ellen Peters.
She does all the things that don’t show up in a boxscore, whether is being a defensive stopper, grabbing key rebounds to keep possessions alive or coming up with a big steal or basket.
At one guard is 5-3 sophomore Caitlin McEldowney, who averaged 6.45 points during the season and was a 45 percent 3-point shooter.
And then there is the Versailles point guard, Caitlin’s sister Kami McEldowney, a 5-7 senior. The four-year started was on the team that won state her freshman year.
She averages 13.05 points, 2.3 steals and 4.1 assists, while shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc.
But, she is so much more than that.
“She is the floor general,” Stonebraker said. “It is so important to have that point guard. When you are looking for tpint guard, you are looking for a leader who is like another coach on the floor. That is Kami (McEldowney) and she is a fighter out there.”
Danielle Kunk, a 5-foot-7 sophomore, made seven 3-pointers in the regional tournament, while 5-6 senior Hailey McEldowney and 5-10 junior Kelsey Custenborder have also provided big moments in the tournament for the Tigers.
Elyria Catholic counters with a front line that includes 6-2 senior Megan Schelbelhut and 6-1 sophomore twin sisters Abby and Ally Winnen.
Schelbelhut averages 7.2 points and 6.8 rebounds, Ally Winnen averages a double-double with 12.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game and Abby Winnen averages 7.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
Abby Winnen had 19 points in the fourth quarter and three overtimes in a regional semifinal win over Newton Falls.
“Ally (Winnen) is more of a post player,” Rothgery said. “Abby will step out and likes to shoot threes. Megan (Schelbelhut) can do either. If she sees an opportunity, she will take it inside.”
The Panthers guards are 5-5 junior Faith Williams, who averages 10.8 points and 3.7 assists and 5-6 junior Reagan Schill, who aveages 2.3 assists per game.
“I heard coach Stonebraker talking about how important the point guard is and she is right,” Rothgery said. “And we have a good won in Faith (Williams). Reagan (Schill) is our defensive stopper. She will guard the other team’s best player on a regular basis.”
He found he had to change his style with this team.
“When we over here in 2011, we played a 1-3-1 zone team,” he said. “We liked to get up and down the floor. With this team, we are mainly a man (defense) team. We just play good halfcourt defense. We will pressure occasionally, or if we have to. With 6-2, 6-1, 6-1, you have to find a way to get the ball inside, so that’s what we do.”
Both teams regular season prepared them for any test.
That paid off for Versailles in the district final, when they rallied from 10 points down in the final seven minutes against Purcell-Marian.
“We are super excited to be back here (at state),” Stonebraker said. “We played a strong conference schedule and non-conference schedule. The Minster game (for first place in the MAC) would probably have to be our biggest game. We had 1,600 people there in our home gym. Just a huge crowd as I have seen for a regular season girls basketball game. That was really exciting.”
Elyria Catholic also owns a win over Minster — 44-41 in the Classic in the Country.
They also played last year’s D-III state champion Gilmour Academy — who has mover up to D-II this year — losing by 20.
That is part of what allowed them to win a triple overtime game in the regional semifinal and defeat unbeaten Doylestown Chippewa in the regional final.
“We tried to set up a schedule where we saw a little big of everything,” Rothgery said. “If you have never been down, you don’t know how to respond. We were down 7-0 out of the gate in the regional final and just did are usual thing.”
Now, they will try to find that success at the highest level against a team that has been there, done that in Versailles.
“My daughter (Tory Rothgery) is an assistant coach and was on that 2011 team,” Rothgery said. “None of the girls have experienced this before. We can try and prepare them.”
Which Versailles hopes can be the edge in a matchup of two teams with so many similarities.
Rob Kiser is Sports Editor for the Daily Call. He can be reached at (937) 451-3334.