COLUMBUS — Pinch yourself, Toledo.
It really happened.
The Rogers girls basketball team is state champions.
One by one, Zia Cooke and her teammates climbed the ladder Saturday night at Value City Arena, their ascent to slice down the net steeped in symbolism.
Rogers' Zia Cooke kisses the state championship trophy after the Rams beat Gilmour Academy in the Saturday, March 17, 2018, Division II state championship matchup at Value City Arena in Columbus.
For the past 28 years, so many special teams in a proud basketball city that once breathed greatness had reached the penultimate rung.
Since the Scott boys won the 1990 big-school title, 30 boys and girls teams from Toledo and the immediate area — defined for our purposes as Lucas or Wood County — forayed to the state semifinals.
Eleven of them — loaded with the enduring names of Maleeka Kynard, and Natasha Howard, and Kaayla McIntyre, and NeShaun Coleman, and Brian Roberts, and B.J. Raymond, and William Buford, and Nigel Hayes — reached the championship game. Great teams, all of them: St. John’s Jesuit (1993, 1996, 2004), Notre Dame (2015, 2017), the Libbey (2008), Whitmer (2012), and Rogers (2013) boys, and the Start (2009), Waite (2010), and Rogers (2015) girls.
None won the big one, the eternal hope giving way to heartache and the state’s most confounding drought.
Toledo is the Second Hoops City no more.
And how wonderful it was.
Rogers' Tanaziah Hines embraces Cossiana King (12) after the Rams beat Gilmour Academy for the state title.
When it was over, and a 33-point tour de force from Cooke and Rogers’ 51-37 victory over Gilmour Academy in the Division II final were in the books, the delirious scene as the Rams spilled screaming — and, in one case of unabashed exuberance, bloodied — onto the court was worth both a million words and none, the players at a loss.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m dreaming right now,” senior Lauren Smith said.
“Unreal,” Cooke said.
For so many, the night offered sweet validation, including coach Lamar Smith and his most gifted star yet in a line of them.
OK, we lied. Cooke required no validation. Everyone knows about her, most of all the line of big-name coaches who have made the five-star prospect — rated by ESPN as the No. 7 overall player in the 2019 class — the apple of their recruiting eye. (Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff took a break from his own tourney prep to take in the show each of the last two nights.)
But legacies are shaped when the lights burn brightest, and nobody gleamed brighter here than Cooke. All night, in every huddle, she implored her teammates, “We have to take it! We have to take it!”
And all night, she took it, delivering nothing short of one of the finest big-game prep performances anyone here had seen. Cooke kept the Rams in it early — they trailed Gilmour by three at halftime — then hoisted the team on her shoulders. Cleaving drives through three defenders. Impossible floaters. Dagger 3s. The defending state champions had no answer.
“She showed tonight,” Smith said.
In a different way, so did Smith. In his eight years at Rogers, he has sent 18 players to college programs, including 11 to Division I, leading to the cheap knock in some circles that he — despite two trips to states in the past five years — that he simply rolled out the balls.
But that’s trash, and it showed Saturday, the team and its star — who could have easily chosen to play for one of the city’s fine Catholic schools — playing hard and joyously and together. Think the Rams are an all-star team thrown together? Sorry, then you haven’t seen them play, especially on defense. All Rogers did was hold Gilmour to 26 percent shooting.
Give credit where it is due.
“All we’ve been hearing is it’s been 37 years,” Smith said, referring to Toledo’s last girls state champion. “And I’ve been hearing it as a coach. Can he get it done? ... Well, everyone can always talk about coaches can’t coach, but that’s why they’re in the stands. I don’t listen to it. My players don’t listen to it. People are going to say what they want to say and you can’t get caught up in that. The only thing you can do is just keep working hard, believe in yourself, and believe in your players. It’s about my players. As long as they believe in me, that’s all that matters, and they did. And the people can’t say anything anymore, because we’re bringing [the title] home.”
So, yes, this night belonged to Smith, too. He repeatedly pumped his fists as he made his way to the locker room afterward.
But above all, the victory belonged to Rogers and Toledo, the longest of climbs at last leading to the top.
Well overdue, it is time to party.
“We’re going to get back with the mayor and have a parade and celebrate this,” TPS Superintendent Romules Durant said through a wide smile. “Everybody in Toledo should be proud.”
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