For the second time in school history (the other was in 2010), the Miami Trace Lady Panthers are going to the Ohio State Final Four.
Miami Trace (24-4) will play Hathaway Brown School (17-10) in a State Division II semifinal Thursday at 3 p.m. at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on the campus of The Ohio State University.
The first state semifinal will begin at 1 p.m. Thursday and features Ottawa-Glandorf (27-0, a team Miami Trace played and fell to earlier in the season, 57-46) and Archbishop Kettering Alter (26-2).
The Record-Herald interviewed three players, senior Tori Riley and juniors Tanner Bryant and Victoria Fleihman, as well as head coach Ben Ackley, to get their thoughts on this achievement.
“It’s amazing,” senior Tori Riley said. “I’m so proud of the team. I know we work really hard every day; basketball is like, 24/7, 365, you know. It’s amazing to be a part of the team.”
“I think we just went into both of those games knowing it wasn’t about those games,” Bryant said. “It was about the ultimate goal, which was state. Reaching that goal, for me, personally, it meant a lot because Kasey, my older sister, did it. It’s kind of cool to go through this with her.”
Kasey Bamberger is an assistant coach for the Lady Panthers.
“I love basketball and I’ve worked for it my entire life,” Bryant said. “This has been a dream ever since she went and seeing that class go through it.
“At the beginning of the year, at our team bonding, we said, ‘we want to go to state,’” Bryant said. “Now that we’ve done it, it’s really special to all of us. Especially with Kasey being a part of it, that makes it even more special.
“I definitely think there’s not as much pressure now,” Bryant said. “The goal was never to win state, it was just to get there. Now that we’ve made it and we’ve done it, we don’t want to stop now. You don’t ever want to lose. You don’t want to go in with the expectation to lose. I mean, we’re going to give it everything we have. At this point, winning state would be the ultimate goal, but I think just going through the entire experience is something that not a lot of kids get to do. We’re just taking it one day at a time.”
“It’s a dream come true,” Miami Trace junior Victoria Fliehman said. “Since I was in third, fourth, fifth grade, I remember going to watch the state championships and talk with my dad. We would talk about, do you think maybe one day you could get there.
“Every little kid thinks about that,” Fliehman said. “Now, it’s real; it’s happening. It’s kind of unreal right now. I think it’s still sinking in. With last year and the injury, that was pretty heartbreaking for me. Just to be able to come back this year and to have a six-game win streak now and now we have one, maybe two more games, it’s unbelievable.
“I’m just trying to take it all in and enjoy it,” Fliehman said. “Very, very few people get this experience and I want to make the most of it and enjoy my time up there. We made it, so the pressure is gone. We’ve completed our goal. Now that we’re there, one more game at a time. We might as well win this next one, work for it and prepare for it just like we have been doing this whole tournament.”
Ben Ackley, previously announced by the Associated Press as the Division II Southeast District Coach of the Year for 2016-17, was announced Tuesday as co-coach, or tri-coach of the Year in Division II for the entire state, along with Brindi Kandel of Perry and Andy Holderman of Tipp City Tippecanoe.
“This is very overwhelming and very humbling, to say the least,” Ackley said. “It is also very emotional. This hasn’t been an easy year for our kids. We’ve dealt with some issues and had some things come up during the course of the season. Our kids have handled everything very well. There are always trials and tribulations in every season.
“The four-game losing streak was hard,” Ackley said.
Miami Trace was 14-0 when they hosted Ross Southeastern on Jan. 19 and lost 54-50.
Their next game was Jan. 21, a 57-46 loss at Ottawa-Glandorf.
After that, Miami Trace hosted Chillicothe and lost, 49-34 and then went to Division I Reynoldsburg and fell, 41-33.
Since then, the Lady Panthers have won 10 games in a row, including six in the tournament.
“Our kids battled through and believed in what we wanted to do,” Ackley said. “We talked about going to the Final Four since the first day of practice. To actually do it was just incredible.
“As a coach, in some ways, I almost feel guilty when the likes of Gary Shaffer, Dennis Overstake, Rick VanMatre, just to name a few, that have won between the three of them probably 1,500 games in their careers and never got an opportunity to coach in the Final Four.
“I know Coach ‘O’ made it at least once (to the regional finals),” Ackley said. “I know Coach Shaffer made it twice because my brother (Kyle) and I were on those teams.
“I’ve been very fortunate to know them all and get to see them all coach,” Ackley said. “Coach Overstake was on our staff. It shows you how hard it is to get where we’re at. You have to have a lot talent and you have to have a lot of luck along the way.
“I feel very, very fortunate,” Ackley said. “It says a lot about our youth program, our junior high coaches, the coaches on our staff, the support staff; all of our coaches’ families that support us year ‘round.
“This is so much more than what you see on the surface,” Ackley said. “People see the 16 players and three coaches. It’s so much deeper than that. Coach Shaffer has roots in this, coach Mike Henry has roots in this, James Stutzman has roots in this; coach (Randy) Welsh has won a state title as an assistant baseball coach (in 2000 at Washington High School). We’ll really lean on him.
“Kasey played in the Final Four in 2010,” Ackley said. “I was fortunate enough to go to a Final Four in baseball (in 1999). We had a coaches’ meeting (Sunday) in Columbus. We got to go to the Schottenstein Center. When I walked out on the floor and look around, it was a little overwhelming. It really sunk in that this is real, that we’re going to do this.
“I’m so grateful for all of the support from friends and family,” Ackley said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people I’ve played with. I’m just very grateful and humbled by, not only the experience of making the Final Four, but just the outpouring of support. People don’t understand how great this community is. I’ve heard from Washington Court House people, I’ve heard from people from Greenfield, from Hillsboro people, people from throughout the state of Ohio.
“Our administration has gone above and beyond to help us,” Ackley said. “Letting school out (Thursday), getting the boys’ (district championship) game moved so our fans did not have to make a choice and they supported both teams very well.
“I feel very fortunate to be in a position to lead this program and to have so many great people around me,” Ackley said. “It’s really a dream come true. You don’t realize just how special it is until it happens.”
Ackley gave a capsule summary of Hathaway Brown School’s basketball team.
“They run a very deliberate offense,” Ackley said. “They have a 6-3 post player who will be attending Purdue next year on a full scholarship. They have another kid that’s six-foot and two more who are 5-11. They play a grind-it-out style. They want to get the ball inside. They’re very deliberate and patient on offense. They don’t score many points, but they don’t give up many points.
“We’re really going to have to do a good job of running our offense and executing on defense,” Ackley said. “Hopefully we can be in a position in the last four minutes to win the ball game. I think we’ve proven over the season that we can play with absolutely anybody. That’s why we scrimmaged Kettering Alter before the season and that’s why we went to Ottawa-Glandorf to play a game and Reynoldsburg to play a game. Our non-league schedule was very good, as well as playing in a very competitive league.
“Our kids will not be scared,” Ackley said. “They’ll certainly be excited. We’re going to give them every thing we have on Thursday and do everything in our power to make the school and our community proud.”
Editor’s note: Gary Shaffer did win a state championship when he coached in Maryland.
Reach Chris Hoppes at 740-335-3611, ext. 1104, or on Twitter @choppes1