ELYRIA — All the fans who packed the stands Thursday at the Elyria Catholic Coliseum would agree that Olmsted Falls had the best player on the court in its Division I district final against Avon Lake.
But in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, the Shoregals proved that teamwork, defense and fundamentals trump individual performance.
Avon Lake withstood a 26-point night from Bulldogs star Clare Kelly during a 52-48 victory. The Shoregals (22-3) went 8-for-8 from the free throw line in the final 1:36 and held Olmsted Falls to three field goals in the final 3:10 to secure the district championship, their first in 18 years and first as a Division I program.
“I’m just so proud of every girl on this team. We knew we wanted to make history and we’ve been working hard all year for this,” said senior Amber Achladis, who scored 12 points and made a pair of clutch free throws with seven seconds remaining. “This is redemption for us after our last game against Falls. We were a little bit hurt about that one so we took it to them tonight.”
Olmsted Falls (21-4) defeated the Shoregals twice in the regular season.
Avon Lake looked ready to run away with the game in the second quarter, taking a 26-13 lead on a 3-pointer by Achladis with 1:55 remaining before halftime.
But as she has all season, Kelly provided the Bulldogs a spark, making two 3-pointers before the half to make it a seven-point game.
Olmsted Falls carried that momentum into the second half, fighting all the way back to take a 33-31 lead on another Kelly 3-pointer with 58 seconds to play in the third quarter. Kelly, a Kent State recruit, finished with eight threes, many from well beyond NBA range, and averaged 27 points in the district tournament.
“This team has been so much fun and this year has been something to really remember,” Kelly said. “We beat them twice in the regular season but we focused like it was the first time playing them while still trying to use that prior knowledge to our advantage. Obviously it didn’t turn out the way we wanted.”
Junior Arianna Negron led the Shoregals with 17 points, including a 3-pointer with 2:06 remaining to put her team in front 44-41 and a pair of free throws with 21 seconds left in the game.
“It feels amazing. We showed them what we came here to do,” Negron said. “When we got the lead we knew we had to keep our intensity up. Coach even told us they were going to come back in the second half. We had a little slump there in the third quarter, but we kept our heads in the game and we never gave up.”
It was a balanced scoring attack for the Shoregals with Elizabeth Murdock scoring 11 points, Allie Heschel adding eight points along with stellar defense and sophomore Emma Knick, who finished with four points, stepping to the line and hitting a pair of free throws with the game tied in the fourth quarter.
“It’s like a dream right now. To win a Southwestern (Conference) championship is nice but to be a district champ is something special, something people always remember,” Avon Lake coach Dave Zvara said after winning his first district title in a coaching career that has spanned four decades. “The girls had a lot of energy coming out from the beginning of the game, they handled adversity well. That’s the thing about these girls — when they make a mistake, they don’t hang their heads. They hustle down the court and try to make up for it on defense. I’ve never seen one of these girls put their head down, except maybe when I’m yelling at them because they don’t wanna hear me.”
The Shoregals will play Canton McKinley on Tuesday in the regional semifinals at Norwalk High School. The Bulldogs defeated Wadsworth 54-32 in the Medina district final.
“I told my girls they should be really proud of themselves,” Olmsted Falls coach Jordan Eaton said. “Avon Lake forced us into some questionable decisions with their great defense but I was so proud of how we responded from 10 points down and took the lead in the third quarter.
“I feel like I can take a lot of the blame tonight. Coach Zvara does a great job with his girls and I think he had them a little more prepared than I did. I’m going to be thinking about that for a long time and I’m going to be working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Avon Lake 52, Olmsted Falls 48
AVON LAKE (52): Amber Achladis 3-4-12, Arianna Negron 7-2-17, Elizabeth Murdock 4-3-11, Allie Heschel 3-0-8, Emma Knick 1-2-4. Totals 18-11-52.
OLMSTED FALLS (48): Kaitlyn Hradek 1-0-3, Danielle Stevens 3-3-10, Allison Miiligan 2-0-4, Clare Kelly 9-0-26, Lauren Galaska 1-2-4, Jessica Holcomb 0-1-1 Totals 16-6-48.
Avon Lake 14 12 5 21 — 52
Olmsted Falls 8 11 14 15 — 48
Three-point goals: Avon Lake (Achladis 2, Heschel 2, Negron), Olmsted Falls (Kelly 8, Hradek, Stevens). Field goals: Avon Lake 18-41 (44 percent), Olmsted Falls 16-54 (30 percent). Free throws: Avon Lake 11-14 (78 percent), Olmsted Falls 6-9 (66 percent). Rebounds: Avon Lake 35, Olmsted Falls 32. Turnovers: Avon Lake 13, Olmsted Falls 10. Total fouls: Avon Lake 11, Olmsted Falls 15.