SUGAR GROVE – The Berne Union girls basketball team has a motto this season.
It’s printed on the back of t-shirts and discussed frequently in the locker room. It’s a reminder of the way last season ended – the pride, the pain, and the path forward.
After winning their first district championship last winter, the Rockets fell by 9 points in the regional semifinals to Fort Frye. This year, with all five starters back, they’re looking to go deeper in the Div. IV state tournament. They made another step towards that goal Friday night.
Berne Union (24-1) made quick work of Danville (15-9), using tenacious defense and devastating athleticism to overwhelm the Blue Devils, 59-26, and claim its second straight district title. The top-seeded Rockets never trailed, and after 32 minutes of hard-fought hoops, they gladly cut down the net in front of their home fans.
“From the time we ended last year, it wasn’t ‘Get back to the regional,’ it was, ‘We’ve gotta do better than what we did.’ We’re trying to get to state. That’s been the focus all year,” Berne Union head coach Matt Little said. His Rockets are currently ranked fourth in the state.
“We got a taste of it last year, and I think that taste of it – now it’s like, we want more. And I think even tonight, I feel like we kind of wanted to prove ourselves again. Every game out, we’re not going to mess around. We can’t afford to mess around. We’ve gotta take care of business, get it over with, and move on to the next round.”
Danville rode a five-game winning streak into Friday night’s district championship, having blown out Northside Christian, Shekinah Christian and Fairfield Christian Academy in the first three rounds of tournament play. But the four-seed Blue Devils were no match for Berne Union, which has played seven state-ranked teams this season and beaten six.
“(We were) just careless with the ball. Their length got to us,” Danville head coach Matt Proper said. “They kind of run that loose, sagging defense because they can, because their length allows them to do that. We weren’t careful with our passes and the momentum just got away pretty quick. That’s kind of what happens with good teams, you know. They’re good at keeping it.”
The gameplan, Proper said, was to attack Berne Union offensively. The Blue Devils, defending district champs in their own right, wanted to take it to the Rockets. And they did that early on.
Trailing 4-0, freshman Kylee Hess was fouled on a corner three-point attempt, and she made two free throws to narrow the deficit. Less than a minute later, Brooklyn Hess found Camie Newbold for a pick-and-roll lay-in that tied the game midway through the first quarter.
But that was as close as Danville would get.
Little called a timeout and the Rockets refocused. They never looked back. Berne Union finished the quarter on a 13-2 run, using its length and athleticism to suffocate Danville defensively and score on the other end.
“I thought we were a little timid of their length, and they’re a tall team. For Div. IV, that’s a lengthy team, and I thought we were a little timid in terms of attacking,” Proper said. “We saw glimpses of it there, in the first few possessions of the first quarter, and then we kind of got away from it. We played too much catch on the perimeter and they just got hands on it and it just went south from there.”
The Rockets carried this momentum into the second quarter, where they cranked up the intensity yet again. The Blue Devils scored just 2 points in the period – on a pull-up jumper from Brooklyn Hess in transition – and were held scoreless for the final seven minutes of the half. Berne Union forced 13 turnovers in the first half (on 11 steals), and nearly all of them resulted in buckets on the other end.
“Sometimes when they play defense, it’s not a whole lot about coaching. They’re really good,” Little said of his team. “I mean, our girls really defend.”
Danville scored 78 points against Fairfield Christian Academy in the district semifinals on Tuesday night. The Rockets watched that game on film, Little said, and vowed to dictate a different result Friday.
“We just preached to our girls, it didn’t matter who you were guarding, we’re not gonna give an open shot,” Little said. “We’ve gotta contest every shot – don’t slack off, not one play – and then we have length, and that length helps a lot. When you’re that long, it’s hard to get shots off against us.”
When the Rockets weren’t scoring in transition, they were doing it in the half-court. Sophomore center Sophia Kline scored 8 of her team-high 16 points in the second quarter, with several buckets coming through post touches. Faith Harman drilled a three and converted a transition lay-in to give Berne Union a 33-8 lead at halftime.
The second half featured more of the same. Berne Union began the third quarter on a 6-0 run, scoring twice off steals in the first minute of action. Danville’s Jaylyn Smith made a lay-up and a three to narrow the deficit to 47-20, but the Rockets finished the quarter with back-to-back buckets, and would lead by 31 points going into the fourth.
Berne Union’s two starting seniors, Bella Kline and Emily Blevins, combined for 24 points Friday. What didn’t show up in the box score, Little said, was their leadership, which helped the Rockets refocus and ratchet up the intensity early on.
“Bella and Emily are kind of our calming influences,” he said. “The other three starters, obviously, are sophomores, and they can get a little excited sometimes. Bella and Emily keep everybody level-headed. I was a little upset at the very beginning – I didn’t think we were playing very well – and on the floor then, Emily and Bella can kind of take that over, kind of take my role on the floor, and settle everybody else down.”
Brooklyn Hess led Danville in scoring Friday with 9 points, while Smith tallied 7. It was a frustrating night all around for the Blue Devils, who struggled to get shots off against Berne Union’s length. It marked Danville’s lowest point total since March 5, 2020, when the Blue Devils mustered just 24 points in a regional semifinal loss to Fort Loramie.
Proper hopes his team will use this game as motivation moving forward. The Blue Devils will have their entire starting five back next season, as well as several key bench contributors.
“We’ve just gotta put some time and effort into it, and hopefully they’re willing to do that. It’s all about giving them an opportunity and hopefully they make the most of it and work,” Proper said.
“I always tell them, it goes by quick. It seems like we just did this last year, and it’ll seem like it next year when we’re back playing basketball again. So it’ll come quick. But there’s a lot of potential there. It’s about whether or not they want to make it a reality moving forward. Hopefully they do, because they can do whatever they want.”
Proper considers Berne Union among the small-school elite in central Ohio, alongside others such as Newark Catholic and Cardington. The goal moving forward, he said, will be to break into that mix. But it won’t be easy.
“You want to break the ice, break through that …” Proper said. “So that’s a challenge for the kids: ‘Here’s what you’ve got in front of you. You kind of know who’s coming back, you know league-wise, district-wise. But are you willing to do the work to break through that ceiling?’ That’s kind of what you’ve got moving forward – (you) make them aware of that, and that’s kind of your motivation in the offseason.”
Berne Union, meanwhile, will move on to play the winner of Peebles vs. Glouster Trimble in the regional semifinals next Thursday. Given the strength of its regular-season schedule, Little believes his team will be ready for whatever it faces in the weeks ahead. The Rockets are battle-tested, he said, and this gives them confidence heading into games like the one on Friday night.
“It’s big because we can fall back on it,” Little said. “We can talk about (how) no matter who we’re playing, look who we’ve played already. We’ve beaten Notre Dame, and that’s their only loss. We’ve beaten Worthington Christian, who’s in the district championship tonight against Liberty Union, who we beat.
“We’ve faced that (schedule), so I don’t think we’ll panic when we get into a game where we’re saying, ‘Man, these guys are good.’ We’ve already seen good. You know what I mean? We’re not gonna panic. Somebody’s gonna have to take it to us to beat us.”
Moments after cutting down the net Friday, Little said his team was already focused on the next round. The Rockets are thrilled to win a district title, he said, but they’re not content with stopping there.
“To be honest, we have lofty goals. If we don’t end up in Dayton, it’s gonna be a disappointment. That’s where we’re at right now,” said Little, referring to the site of the 2021 state tournament. “We take that on. And we’ve handled that, I think, pretty well all year.”