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Published: Thursday, 3/15/2012

SIDELINES BASKETBALL

Columbus is familiar place for Liberty-Benton’s Craft family

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Liberty-Benton’s Cait Craft, Ohio’s Division III player of the year, averages 21.4 points, 6.7 rebounds. The Eagles have reached the state semifinals for the third time in her career. Liberty-Benton’s Cait Craft, Ohio’s Division III player of the year, averages 21.4 points, 6.7 rebounds. The Eagles have reached the state semifinals for the third time in her career.
LAURIE CODY Enlarge

FINDLAY -- Whether bored during long summer days or freed up in the winter with a snow day, the Craft siblings could always be found in the gym shooting around.

Liberty-Benton senior Cait Craft could always count on her elder brother, Aaron, to play a game of pickup basketball.

"We grew up in the gym together," said Cait, a dynamic 5-foot-8 guard. "We'd disappear for hours. We'd shoot around and play competitive shooting games. That was all we did."

Cait has parlayed those hours into a memorable career and has led the Eagles to the Division III state semifinals for the third time in four years.

Aaron has become a key contributor for the Ohio State basketball team. The 6-2 sophomore guard is averaging 8.6 points per game and was named the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. He made an immediate impact on the Buckeye program last year when he was named to the Big Ten all-freshman team.

Cait will join her brother in Columbus when she becomes part of the women's team next season. Ohio State offered Cait a scholarship last November and she committed on the spot.

"I'm so excited to know I will be down there with him again," said Cait. "Aaron and I have a special bond. We still talk every day."

Cait said it was never hard for their parents, John and Wendy, to track them down.

"If we got bored, we went to the gym," Cait said. "Snow days were the best. We'd be there for hours. My mom would call and we'd say 'Yea, we're still here.' In the summer we'd go up there just about every day. We'd just hang out and shoot. But if you told us back then that we would both end up at Ohio State, we both would have thought you were crazy."

L-B coach Nate Irwin said the school's direct connection with Ohio State has created a buzz in the community.

"It is exciting," Irwin said. "It's nice to turn on a Buckeye game and hear Findlay Liberty-Benton talked about. We knew Aaron was special for years. It's the same thing with Cait. It's nice to see others recognize their talent."

Craft, who was named All-Ohio first team Tuesday for the second straight season and the player of the year, said her immediate attention is on Columbus. But that focus is on a Division III state semifinal game Thursday.

Liberty-Benton (23-2) takes on defending state champion Anna (26-0) at 8 p.m. at Value City Arena.

The Eagles were ranked seventh in the final regular-season state poll, while Anna was ranked No. 1.

"Anna has a very good basketball program. They've had a lot of success," Craft said. "It will take a lot of mental focus for our team"

Irwin said both teams play similar styles, focusing on aggressive defense.

The final four has become familiar territory for the Eagles under Irwin, who is in his eighth season.

Ohio State sophomore Aaron Craft was named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year. Ohio State sophomore Aaron Craft was named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

He led L-B to its first appearance at state in 2009. Then in 2010 when Craft was a sophomore, the Eagles went undefeated (27-0) en route to the program's first state title.

"We started winning games and that kind of carries over and the kids start believing in what you're doing," Irwin said. "We've been fortunate to have a great group of players like Amanda [Hyde] and Cait."

This season Cait, who led the Blanchard Valley Conference in scoring, has averaged 21.4 points per game. The athletic guard, who prides herself on her defensive abilities, also averaged 6.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 4.3 steals per game.

"Cait is a competitor. She does not like to lose," Irwin said. "She is a super smart kid and a good leader. She works extremely hard and has put endless hours in the gym to get better."

Irwin called Craft a versatile, complete player.

"She's our best scorer, rebounder, and defender," Irwin said. "She always defends the other team's best player. She can defend all five positions. She can guard a 6-2 center or a quick point guard."

Craft said she takes pride in frustrating the opposition.

"Defense is my strength. That is the one thing I can always control," Craft said. "I've developed my offensive game the last few years. I take pride in grabbing every rebound I can. I've heard people call me a complete player. But I'm not satisfied with my game. I won't become complacent. I still have a lot of things to work on."

Craft also has developed into a leader over the last two seasons. She is just one of two senior starters along with Samantha Rhodes, a 5-8 guard who averages 3.8 points per game.

Irwin, who was named coach of the year in the BVC after guiding the Eagles the title with an undefeated record, said he lost two players to season-ending ACL injuries.

"Sam is a great athlete," Irwin said. "She's all Ohio in hurdles and relays. Track is her best sport. She's had lot of success in running and in basketball. She is just a great kid. She is one of those players every coach needs."

Irwin starts two sophomores -- 5-7 Rachel Myers (13.8 points) and 5-7 Carrie Reynolds (5.1) and 6-foot freshman Katie Simon (8.0)

"When we went down to Columbus in 2009 our senior leadership was awesome," Craft said. "Now it is my job to show them what it is all about and that they can be a part of something good. Now I'm on the other side of things. I am very vocal."

After reaching state as a freshman and sophomore, the Eagles were bounced in the district semifinals last season by Genoa.

"We have that in the back of our mind. We have a chip on our shoulders," Craft said.

Craft poured in a game-high 28 points in a 61-47 victory over Centerburg in the regional final. She also had six assists and six steals, while scoring 24 points in the second half.

Craft said she often draws on the lessons she picked up while playing one on one with her older brother.

"He always beat me. He would never let me win," Craft said.

She said their shared goals were always to play in college at a major school.

"It's crazy. It hasn't fully hit me yet," Craft said. "Growing up in Ohio, it's always been my dream to play basketball at Ohio State. It will be very cool to be down there with him. I'm ecstatic about it."



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