MASON – Racquel Ellis was confident.
Beth Jones was motivated.
Gerry Lackey was feeling a little, well, desperate.
Three key members of the Mason girls’ basketball all had good reasons for feeling as they did going into the 1999-2000 season – their last together.
Along with senior Susan Lippert, they’d had two shots at capturing Ohio’s Division I state championship championship, and had been unable to finish the job. Now, they had one last opportunity.
“We knew we were eventually going to win,” recalled Ellis, who now works for the housing authority in Atlanta and operates “What’s for Dinner,” a catering business. “Going into our senior year, we knew it was our last chance, but we knew we were going to do it. All those other years, we should have won it.
“I don’t know if it was any heightened motivation. The girls that whole time were extremely motivated. We knew everyone was going to work hard to get back. I would call more of a renewed effort than a heightened effort.”
“I wouldn’t use the word desperation,” Jones said while waiting for a flight in the Philadelphia airport. “I think motivation is a good word, and drive.
“Graduating from Mason, getting to the finals and not winning was not in the cards. Being able to go and win I think motivated us.”
Ellis, Lippert and Jones – a transfer from Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy – all were part of the 1996-1997 team that lost to Wadsworth, 54-52, in the state finals, which were played at Ohio State University’s St. John Arena at the time. They were joined on the team in the next season by freshmen Michelle Munoz and Jere Issenman, but fell short of reaching the state tournament.
The next season, led by senior Dallas Williams – one of three Associated Press statewide Division I co-Players of the Year – Mason went undefeated and won the AP regular-season poll championship before falling to Pickerington, 46-30, in the state championship game.
Jones, whose mother, Barbara Jones, coached the Sycamore team that reached the 1976 state semifinals in first season the Ohio High School Athletic Association sponsored a girls’ basketball tournament, missed that final after dislocating a kneecap in the state semifinal.
She was back at full strength for her senior season. Mason again rolled undefeated through the regular season and into the regional final, blasting Clayton Northmont, 68-19, in the semifinal.
The Comets’ “One team, one dream” trip almost was derailed at the hands of Beavercreek, which had lost to Mason in the regular season. The Beavers’ Emily Williams sent the game at Wright State University to overtime with a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but Beavercreek kept fouling Ellis and the future University of Kentucky Wildcat responded by sinking six of eight free throws in overtime to spur Mason to a 52-49 win.
“The Isseman girl sank 10-of-10 in the fourth quarter during the regular season game,” Beavers coach Ed Zink explained after the game. “We also knew that Munoz and Jones were outstanding shooters, and I don’t think you’re allowed to foul someone on the bench.”
Ellis, Jones and Lackey all agree that the Comets’ confidence never wavered.
“It’s sort of funny,” recalled Lackey, now the girls’ coach at Wyoming, a successor to his former Mason assistant, Angie Edmonds. “I had a young child at the time. My wife (Wendy) was at the game and she had him ready to run across the court. She had to pull him back. He was more angry at here than me.
“I don’t think there was any doubt among the girls that we were going to win that game. We never lost our composure.”
That composure was tested again in the semifinal against Cleveland East Tech in the first girls’ state tournament played in Value City Arena at OSU’s Schottenstein Center. The Comets trailed for most of the game before coming from behind to take a fourth-quarter lead, but they still needed a field goal with 22.4 seconds left from Munoz – named Ohio’s Ms. Basketball earlier that week – to pull out a 44-42 win that wasn’t clinched until another senior, Jenny Imbus, grabbed the rebound of East Tech’s last shot.
The final, a rematch with six-time champion Pickerington, almost was anti-climactic. Munoz, the daughter of Bengals Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Munoz who would go on to play at Tennessee, scored 18 points as Mason pulled away in the second half for a 36-25 win that gave Mason the first team state championship in school history, according to the school, which documents state tournament participation dating back to the 1934-1935 school year.
When the final buzzer sounded, Lackey’s most prominent reaction wasn’t joy or even satisfaction.
“For everybody, it was somewhat of a sense of relief, because expectations had been so high for so long,” he recalled. “I think there was a lot of pressure on them, but they handled it well. One thing we stressed was to take it one game at a time. I think that helped the players stayed focused, and it took away the possibility of getting upset. If you look ahead too much, you can neglect what’s right at hand. The girls did a good job of that.”
Jones, who continued her career at Purdue and played professionally overseas, remembers feeling “joy and elation.”
“I don’t recall any kind of desperation,” said Jones, who is expecting with her husband, Rob Jackson, the couple’s first child at the end of March. “None of that resonates with me.”
The championship served to confirm her decision to transfer four years earlier.
“I don’t remember any school having fans like ours,” she said. “We had a senior citizens pep club. At least a hundred of them would come to every game. I remember the sendoff to state and the welcome back home. Everybody came out.
“What I remember most in thinking back is being proud and excited and joyful.”