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A Toledo girls basketball team has become a familiar site at the Division I state final four in recent seasons, and Notre Dame's come-from-behind 55-51 victory over Wadsworth in the regional championship has continued that budding tradition.
With fourth-year coach Travis Galloway's Eagles (22-4) earning a state semifinal matchup against 10th-ranked Kettering Fairmont (22-2) 6 p.m. Friday at Value City Arena in Columbus, that marks five straight years a Toledo squad has achieved at least the state semifinals.
The Eagles follow Central Catholic (2008), Start (2009 and 2011), and Waite (2010) to state. Start (2009) and Waite each finished as runners-up.
"Fairmont is very good," Galloway said. "I saw them play Start in last year's final four. I thought I was watching a college team and I found out they were a bunch of freshmen. They're big, they're very physical, they're very well coached, and each player on their team understands what their strength is and what they bring to the team."
Galloway sees few flaws in Fairmont.
"They have a lot of weapons," Galloway said. "They're going to be tough to defend, and they're going to be tough to score against because they're so big and long."
Galloway banked on his team's upgraded nonleague schedule this season would eventually pay long-term dividends, and now they have.
The Eagles lost their season-opener 54-39 to current top-ranked and unbeaten Reynoldsburg (26-0), which will play defending D-I state champion Twinsburg (23-3) in Friday's 8 p.m. state semifinal.
ND also dropped games to eighth-ranked Middleburg Heights Midpark (61-55), to three-time defending D-II state champion Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown (49-44).
"We played some of the top teams in the state and kept coming up short and finally we got a big win [Jan. 15, 48-30] over Cincinnati Princeton, which was ranked No. 3 at the time," Galloway "I really think that was the turning point in our season because it gave our kids the confidence."
Leading Notre Dame's battle-tested, senior-dominated lineup will be fourth-year varsity player and University of Toledo-bound 5-foot-4 senior point guard Cat Wells.
Named to All-Ohio second team Monday, she averages 11.7 points per game, is a constant threat to penetrate and dish or get a defender off balance to launch a 3-pointer.
Leading the Eagles statistically has been 6-1 senior post player Michelle Holmes (12.3 points, 12.2 rebounds). Another potent weapon for ND is fourth-year senior Demy Whitaker, a sharpshooting guard who adds 10.2 points per game.
Rounding out the Eagles' starting five are a fourth senior, 5-10 wing Ashley Kynard (6.7 points), and the lone underclassman in the lineup, 5-10 sophomore forward Jayda Worthy (7.1 points).
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"Notre Dame is a very good team and is very well coached," said Fairmont coach Tim Cogan, who is 217-75 in 12 seasons guiding the Firebirds. "They've got quickness out front and they've got strength around the basket. They've got a lot to offer, and it's going to be a game where we'll have to play very well. It'll be a physical game and we'll have to control the tempo of the game."
Senior guard Tylar Young and freshman forward Kaayla McIntyre are typically the top contributing subs for Notre Dame, which won the first Three Rivers Athletic Conference title (14-0).
The Eagles' comeback win over Wadsworth represented a reversal of fortune for the the two teams, who met back on Jan. 16 at The Classic in the Country invitational in Berlin, Ohio.
In that game, ND squandered a 14-point third-quarter lead and lost 57-53.
Aside from Notre Dame following in the footsteps of Central and Start and Waite at state, something else they follow in the footsteps of is a semifinal opponent.
Waite defeated the Fairmont's Firebirds 61-55 in the 2010 semis before falling 49-47 to Canton McKinley.
Last season, Fairmont made it back for the school's second trip to state, and they took their program up a notch by handing Start a 59-50 loss in the semifinals before losing 55-42 to Twinsburg in the title game to end up 26-2 overall.
"It seems there's always a really good team that comes out of Toledo within that region up there, and we just happen to fallen on that side of the tree where we have to play whoever comes out of there," Cogan, said. "Obviously it's got to be neat for Toledo having someone representing them, and we'll have our hands full. It's going to be a good game."
The Firebirds return three starters from last year's state runners-up squad, including junior Chelsea Welch (5-9, guard), junior Alona Skipper (5-8, forward), and sophomore Kathryn Westbeld (6-2, center), and likely a fourth returning starter will be in place Friday.
Makayla Waterman, a 6-1 sophomore forward, returned to action Jan. 1 after rehabbing from knee surgery, and has gradually gained playing time in pursuit of reclaiming her lineup spot. She is averaging 7.5 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Westbeld has been the most productive, contributing 16 points and 11 rebounds a contest.
"That [2010 Waite] game was an exciting game," Cogan said, "a great game for our kids being our first opportunity to get to state. One of our key players got in foul trouble, and that hurt us because she was on the bench for a good part of the game.
"But that was a great memory and a great opportunity for us. It gave our kids a chance to get there and know what it's like. That helped us."
It was the 1-2 freshman front-court due of Waterman and Westbeld who did much of the damage in the Firebirds' win over favored Start last season. Waterman had 21 points and nine rebounds, and Westbeld added 17 points and 11 rebounds.
"We wanted to attack in that game, and it worked, Cogan said.
"To our kids' credit they went out fulfilled that dream of getting to a state final game."
Welch, who is second on the team in scoring at 15.7 points, and Skipper, who is averaging 7.0 points, came off the bench in the 2010 semis against Waite before earning a starting spot last year.
The newcomers to the Firebirds lineup this season have been 5-9 sophomore guard Danielle Newell (3.0 points) and 5-9 freshman Shea Morgan (5.0 points).