This time, it’s for keeps.
The Four Rivers Conference girls basketball co-champions have one more round to play against each other with a berth in the MSHSAA Class 4 playoffs on the line.
St. Clair (20-6) and Sullivan (22-4) will meet Friday at 5:30 p.m. at Union High School for the Class 4 District 6 Tournament championship.
In the Four Rivers Conference meeting Feb. 2, Sullivan rocked the Lady Bulldogs in their own gym, 53-34.
The game makes this year’s district title contest similar to last year’s event. Sullivan, the defending district champion, was in St. Clair’s position last year.
Then, the second-seeded Lady Eagles stunned top-seeded Pacific in overtime, 62-59. Pacific had won the FRC meeting at home against Pacific, 55-28.
Sullivan Head Coach Jason Merkel knows St. Clair will be ready for the rematch.
“All bets are off Friday night and you’ve got to take it one game at a time,” Merkel said. “You’re only guaranteed those next 32 minutes and you’ve got to show up and play. Hopefully, you’re prepared enough and you make enough plays. It’s going to be a grind. Your regular-season record doesn’t matter at this point. You just hope your kids are focused, come out and compete and everything will fall where it goes.”
First-year St. Clair Head Coach Mike Scheer will be hoping not to relive Groundhog Day this Friday in the rematch.
In fact, Scheer would like to make it three years in a row where the second seed has won the district title.
“They have such a good system and they have some tremendous players,” Scheer said. “We’ve got to be focused and ready to go. We’ve got our work cut out, but we’re ready to go. This is something we’ve wanted since the beginning of the year. We’ve got to go take care of business.”
Sullivan advanced to the title game by beating No. 4 Union in the semifinals Monday, 52-39. St. Clair came from behind to beat third-seeded Borgia, 50-48.
Merkel’s team largely depends upon the big three of seniors Bria Jones and Clare Shetley and sophomore Mallory Shetley.
Jones averages 11.7 points along with 3.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.5 steals per game.
The Shetleys form a potent inside combination, but also can hit outside shots.
Clare Shetley averages 13.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Mallory Shetley is close behind at 11.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.4 steals per game.
Jones had hit 58 three-point baskets and the Shetleys have combined for 18 more.
Sullivan gets key contributions from its other two starters, junior Katie Creek and senior Lauren Hoffman. Creek has knocked down 26 three-point baskets while averaging 5.4 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.
Hoffman is a gritty defensive player. While she averages 1.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, she draws some of the most physically demanding defensive tasks.
Key players off the bench include sophomore Kya Harbour and freshman Hanna Johanning. Both have hit clutch three-point baskets to lift Sullivan in close games. Senior Sophie Sellers is Sullivan’s top inside player off the bench.
Sullivan ended the regular season this year as the No. 8 team in the final Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Class 4 poll and earned the top seed in the district tournament.
The only teams able to beat the Lady Eagles this season have been Hermann, Jefferson City, Nixa and MICDS.
If Sullivan can make the top seed in this year’s tournament hold up, it will earn its second consecutive berth in the state tournament. Last season, the Lady Eagles clinched the district tournament with an overtime victory against Pacific in the finals.
Like St. Clair, Sullivan came into the district tournament on a winning streak. They’ve won their last seven in a row, including a 52-39 district semifinal victory against Union Monday.
During that streak, the Lady Eagles have been very stingy defensively, holding each opponent below 40 points and keeping all but Union and St. Clair to 32 points or less.
Sullivan has had an average margin of victory of 21.4 points this month without a loss.
Scheer has led the Lady Bulldogs not only to their first conference championship since 1994, but back to the district championship game for the first time since 2010.
In the 2009-2010 season, St. Clair went 22-3 and entered the Class 4 District 4 Tournament as the No. 1 seed, eliminating Sullivan in the semifinals before being upset by No. 3 Borgia in the championship game.
The Lady Bulldogs have only been able to beat Sullivan twice since then, during the regular season in February 2015 and February 2016.
The Lady Eagles have twice been responsible for ending St. Clair’s season in the past three years. Sullivan avenged the regular season loss in 2015 by eliminating St. Clair in the district semifinals and also knocked out the Lady Bulldogs in the district semifinals a year ago.
The Lady Bulldogs have not lost since this season’s first meeting with Sullivan, reeling off six wins in a row.
The team’s strength has primarily been in its ability to bring a full-court pressure for all 32 minutes if needed while using its extensive depth off the bench to keep fresh legs on the floor.
The Lady Bulldogs have used a 10-player rotation for much of the season, which has lately been bolstered by the late-season additions of freshmen Alohilani Bursey and Makayla Johnson to the varsity.
In February, sophomore forward Gracie Sohn has developed into a key inside presence for St. Clair.
Following the loss to Sullivan, Sohn scored 12 or more points in five consecutive games against New Haven, Pacific, Union, St. James and Salem. That streak came to an end in the conference semifinals as Borgia was able to get Sohn into foul trouble early and limit her time on the floor.
In her absence, Bursey had her biggest offensive output since being called up to the varsity on Feb. 6, scoring 10 points in the semifinals.
Junior Haley Buscher has been the team’s top scorer at 9.5 points per game. Sohn and senior Megan Hinson are next, each with 7.1 points per game.
Hinson, while listed as a forward, has shown plenty of versatility and proven capable of manning the point guard position when called upon.
Hinson is also the player St. Clair wants at the free-throw line late in games. She has shot 82.1 percent from the charity stripe on the season, but has made 30 of her last 32 free-throw attempts spanning the last six games.
Opposing defenses have been frustrated this season by a lack of predictability in the St. Clair offense.
While St. Clair does not have any players averaging more than 10 points per game on the season as a whole, it’s not uncommon for the team to have four or more players contribute 8-10 points on any given night. Which of the 12 that is also changes from night to night.