Bulldogs still stuck in postseason rut

EAST PALESTINE–The East Palestine girls basketball program has made great strides this season, but the Bulldogs’ quest to win their first tournament game in over a decade will have to wait at least another year.

In an intense defensive struggle, the seventh-seeded Bulldogs couldn’t quite muster enough offense against 10th-seeded Rootstown in a 40-34 loss in Wednesday’s Div. III sectional opener at East Palestine High School.

The Rovers (11-12) advance to play at second-seeded South Range in a sectional final at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Despite the disappointment in the East Palestine locker room, coach Will Franklin urged his players to keep things in perspective as the Bulldogs (17-6) close the book on their successful season since before anyone on the current team was born.

East Palestine’s 17 wins were the most for the program since 1990. The Bulldogs also nearly doubled last season’s win total of nine and took home a second-place finish in the Eastern Ohio Athletic conference.

“I just told the girls, that at the end of the day, we still won 17 games this season,” Franklin said. “For us and this program, things are moving in the right direction. I didn’t want them to lose sight of the success they had this year and how far they’ve come.”

Forward Jaliyah Mixon led the Bulldogs with 11 points and 13 rebounds. Joclyn Fristik added seven points, while Payton Sherry finished with five assists.

The tone for the game was set in the turnover-filled first few minutes when it became clear that both defenses were locked in and that every bucket was going to be crucial.

East Palestine held Rootstown scoreless in the second quarter, but the Bulldogs weren’t able to take full advantage of their stifling defense, as they only put up four points of their own in the frame. Their lead at halftime was a slim 16-12.

Franklin lamented the amount of missed opportunities his team had at the rim.

“We just missed too many easy shots in the first half and it carried over into the second,” Franklin said. “When you’re missing those easy ones, it’s tough to recover from. Their length bothered us a little bit, but if we just do a little better job finishing in the first half, we would have been set up a little better.”

The taller Rovers continued to make life tough for the Bulldogs in the second half, while Rootstown’s offense finally got on track.

Guard Karlie Duvall (who led all scorers with 19 points) shook loose for a pair of threes and a long two as the Rovers burst out of halftime with a 13-2 run to take a 25-18 lead with 3:31 left in the third.

“I think we only took 17 shots in the first half, so we had to make a couple of adjustments to get things moving,” Rootstown coach John Zelenak said. “Finally we were able to get some good looks in the second half and they started to fall.”

The Bulldogs never led for the remainder of the night, but stayed within striking distance.

Things looked to be slipping away when Duvall came up with a steal and layup to make the score 37-27 with 3:34 left, but the Bulldogs countered with a 5-0 run to cut the lead in half with just over a minute to play. However, that’s as close as they could get.

“Our defense was there was us all night, that’s what we preach,” Zelenak said. “It comes down to heart. Everyone likes to shoot and dribble out in the yard, but nobody ever goes out an practices defensive slides.”

The future is bright for the Bulldogs as they turn the page to next season.

They return four starters, with the only departing seniors being Sara Buskirk and Natalie Hamner. Franklin hopes Wednesday’s game serves as motivation for those coming back.

“Games like tonight are fun atmospheres that obviously we haven’t been a part of very much,” Franklin said. “Just playing under that pressure was a good experience for us. We’ll get back to work and get better from this.”

Game notes

¯The 1990 East Palestine team went 18-6 and advanced all the way to a district final that season before losing to East Canton.

¯The Bulldogs’ last tournament win came on February 21, 2004 when they beat Mineral Ridge 50-39 in a sectional final.

¯The only common opponent between Rootstown and East Palestine was Western Reserve, the number-two seed in the Div. IV Mineral Ridge district. The Bulldogs lost to Reserve 73-35 in the season opener, while the Rovers fell to the Blue Devils 54-42 on January 5.

¯Rootstown’s Kasidy Smith gave her team an unexpected boost when she banked in an overhand heave from just insode of halfcourt at the first quarter buzzer.

ROOTSTOWN: 12-0-15-13–40

E. PALESTINE: 12-4-9-9–34

ROOTSTOWN SCORING: Kasidy Smith 2-5-10, Karlie Duvall 7-2-19, Natalie Siglow 1-0-2, Nicole Bobbs 1-0-2, Shae Stefancik 3-1-7, Erica Moore 0-0-0, Marinna Atanmo 0-0-0, Savannah Stefancik 0-0-0. TEAM TOTALS: 14, 8-11: 40.

EAST PALESTINE SCORING: Jaliyah Mixon 5-1-11, Joclyn Fristik 3-0-7, Sara Buskirk 2-1-5, Kenzee Johnston 1-0-2, Payton Sherry 2-1-5, Paige Snyder 1-2-4, Jami Jones 0-0-0. TEAM TOTALS: 14, 5-13: 34.

Three-point goals: Rootstown 4 (Duvall 3, Smith), East Palestine 1 (Fristik).