ORWELL – This is a wall that Bristol has been trying to break through for a while.
For the past few years, the Panthers haven’t made it past the district stage of the tournament, but that all changed on Saturday.
In a 48-33 win over defending state runners-up McDonald’s, Bristol cleared that hurdle and are on their way to Division IV Massillon Regional at Perry High School.
For Panthers coach John King, that’s been a long time coming.
“It’s amazing, just a roller coaster of emotions,” said the king. “I’m happy for the girls, happy for our community. For me, it’s been 20 years since I won a district final. My goal as a coach was that I always wanted to arrive in March. We always arrived here, February 27, February 28, February 26, wherever it falls.
“Two years ago we were in the district finals and came up against a really good Cornerstone team and we didn’t make it. We could never get over that hump until March. To finally accomplish it brings me a lot of joy and emotions. It was hard not to tear up there because it was something that I really tried to do as a coach.
The Blue Devils haven’t made it easy at all for Bristol. McDonald took an early lead and once Bristol took the lead, the Blue Devils stayed on the heels of the Panthers the whole time.
So much so that when Bristol made their final substitutions in the dying seconds, King was eager to pull their starters out.
Those starters continued to shine for the Panthers with seniors Belle Zirzow and Alexis Shafer apiece with 12 points.
Brooklyn Swiger added 10 more.
“It’s so amazing” said Swinger. “That’s what we’ve worked for all our lives. We work so hard every season. Every summer we get down to business and it’s really special to do it together.
No one can deny the Panthers dropped everything on Saturday.
Zirzow, who played most of the match with a double-bandaged chin after colliding with the hardwood is a prime example.
“We have worked very hard all this week and all this year waiting for this moment,” she says. “We came into this game with a lot of confidence and saying we have to play as hard as we can and leave everything on the pitch. And that’s what we did tonight.
Despite the loss, Blue Devils manager Tony Matisi was all smiles. After their appearance in the state finals, McDonald had a lot of question marks.
Getting as far as they did was an uphill battle, and the longtime coach is thrilled with what his group has achieved.
“How were we here?” I’m so proud,” said Matisi. “Our hearts are so big. I tried to tell them, ‘We’re not basketball players, we’re not athletes, but if they measured our hearts, we’d all be 6 feet tall and it’s been that way all year.
“They just don’t give up. They worked so hard. We won 15 games and they worked for everything they got.
McDonald trains a handful of elders, including Lea Gabrelcik and Lucia Wolford. Wolford, who has been captain since his second year, leaves a big pair of shoes to fill.
“She’s going to be so hard to replace” said Matisi. “Totally everyone is back, all the captains. Captain for three years since she was a sophomore, that’s how highly regarded she was for the past two years.
The Panthers have the game late in the regional doubleheader, with an 8 p.m. start time. Their opponent? Dalton.
The Bulldogs defeated Loudonville 63-43 in the Norwayne District final.