Holgate has reached the state tournament with top players (back row, from left) Sarah Niese, Rachel Desgranges, Marissa Myles, Mattie Grim, and Connor Abel, and (front, from left) Jillian Clady and Dani Like.
HOLGATE — During its thrilling run to the state girls basketball tournament, Holgate has had a different leading scorer in nearly every tournament game.
The Tigers (23-4) have employed a balanced offensive and a fundamentally sound half-court defense that landed them a date against No. 3-ranked Zanesville Bishop Rosecrans (26-1) in today’s 6 p.m. state semifinals in Columbus.
“Our strength has been our balance,” Holgate coach Jim Niese said. “What we have are a lot of go-to players [who] are extremely unselfish. They could all average more points than they have. But these kids play for each other.”
Holgate edged Carey 45-41 to win its first regional title since 2003 behind Sarah Niese’s 16 points and Mattie Grim’s 12.
“In the tournament run, we've had a different leading scorer in almost every game,” Niese said. “If the defense gives them something, they are happy to make the play for the next person.”
The prime example of that is leading scorer senior Marissa Myles. Myles, a 6-foot forward, averages a double-double with 13.8 points and 10.9 rebounds per contest.
“It doesn’t matter who scores,” Myles said. “We don’t care who gets the points as long as we win. If one of us has an off night, we have each other to step up.”
Niese said Myles is not only one of the area’s best players but one of the best in all of Ohio. Myles leads the Tigers in assists (87) and steals (55).
“She could be up to 20 points per game,” Niese said. “But she doesn’t force bad shots and she plays within herself. She sets the tone for how we play.”
Niese likes to say he has seven starters. In fact, one of the Tigers’ most effective players comes off the bench. Junior Rachel Desgranges, a 6-foot forward, forms an imposing force inside with Myles and averages 9.5 points per game.
“She’s right in the middle of everything,” Niese said. “She scores inside and outside.”
Sarah Niese, Jim’s daughter, is one of the team’s decision-makers at guard along with Grim. Niese, a sophomore, averages 10.0 points and Grim, a junior, averages 9.8.
“Sarah is an offensive threat,” coach Niese said. “Mattie can score off the dribble. Both are good passers and have garnered quite a few assists. They can both guard on the inside and outside.”
Another guard, junior Connor Abel, is the team’s best perimeter player.
“She has athleticism and can shoot the 3,” coach Niese said.
Senior guard Jillian Clady, who is averaging 6.7 points per game, also is deadly from the arc. Junior Dani Like is another guard who comes in and can “do all the little things,” according to Niese.
“Having that many different players makes us solid,” coach Niese said. “If they take the post away we have kids that can shoot from the perimeter.”
Myles said she doesn’t mind dishing the ball out.
“If they’re not guarding the post we push it in, and if they try to guard the post we’ll pass it out and let the other girls shoot,” she said.
Niese prefers to work the ball inside.
“But I also like kids to play without fear,” he said. “We like to execute our offense to get a great shot. But we want them to be free to be aggressive and make plays.”
Holgate finished the season unranked, but was ranked No. 10 earlier this season. The Tigers average 55.5 points per game and give up just 41.2.
“We have to be great in our half-court defense,” he said. “You have to be fundamentally sound. That is the core of being a strong team.”
The Tigers generally play a man-to-man attack and sometimes extend it to full-court pressure.
“Defense is a big key,” Myles said. “We practice a lot of defense. If we don’t play good defense, then we run [sprints in practice].”
The formula has worked — Niese has a record of 172-81 in 11 seasons, and the Tigers won their third straight Green Meadows Conference title this season, sharing it with Ayersville. Holgate has captured six GMC titles since 2006 and 10 since 2000.
The Tigers are making a fourth appearance in the state final four. Holgate finished second in each of the previous three trips (1979, 2001, 2003).
“We have been a basketball community for a long time — both boys and girls,” Niese said. “But it's been awhile since we’ve had a tournament run like this. It’s amazing when it happens. The kids at school and in the community are all ramped up. We’re enjoying this.”
Myles said there is a buzz in the hallways and in the Henry County community.
“Everybody can’t wait to go,” she said. “[The players] are all excited. No one wants to do their homework. We’re ready to go.”
Niese said his team’s confidence has grown with every close win. The team has won its four district and regional games by an average of 5.5 points.
“Our girls have really, really played well in particularly in big moments in big games,” Niese said. “The teams we played had a combined 11 losses. In the tournament run you have to win some close games and also have to be good enough to get there.”
The Tigers face their toughest opponent yet in Rosecrans, which has five players who average more than 11 points. The Bishops are outscoring opponents 62.0 to 35.2.
“Stats don’t lie. They are very impressive,” Niese said. “They have 3-point shooters and slashers. There won’t be much room for error. But we have some good players too. One big key is that we have to take care of the basketball.”
Myles said while others are surprised the team has made it this far, the players are not.
“Our goal every year is to go to state,” she said. “We’re focused on being the best we can be. We know we have each others’ backs. We are like a family.”