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Greatest Bluffton High School girls sports team ever?

CORRECTION: Tara Buroker's last name was spelled incorrectly in the first version of this article.

By Bill Herr
Bluffton Icon columnist

What was the greatest Bluffton High School Lady Pirates sport team ever? My selection is the girl's basketball team that played from 1997 to 2000. That team had season records of 23-1, 20-5, 22-4, and 26-1. Their last season's only loss was in the state championship game against the South Euclid Regina Royals at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus (the first year that state tournament games were held in the Schott). The year before they were in the final four but lost in the semifinals, the game held in the last year of high school tournament games at St. John Arena.

Their coach, Mr. Dennis Lee, said of the team: "They were a remarkable group that had quite a run. They had played together since grade school. The whole team worked hard. They were best friends, a close knit bunch of ladies." He added, "They were home grown Bluffton kids. They were a road show. They drew large crowds that followed us and gave us great support." I told Mr. Lee he was right. You had to get to the gymnasium early to find a seat.

Today when fans enter the gymnasium they see a large picture of the 2000 team on the wall behind the south basket. Beside it is a large picture of one of the players, number 50, Caity Matter (now Caity Matter Henniger). According to the opinion of former popular area sports announcer, Vince Coza, Caity was the best girls' basketball player ever in the area. She was the Division III Player of the Year in the state of Ohio twice. She was also named District 8 Division I-II-III player of the year. In her four years she scored 2,274 points with an average of 22.3 points per game. In her senior year she made 73 three-point shots with a shooting percentage of 45.1 percent. Coach Lee said of Caity, "She was very intense. She flat-out understood the game." Caity received a four-year scholarship to play for the Ohio State Buckeyes and in 2020 was inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.

There were other excellent players on the team, both starters and bench players. More on them later. At the end of the season, Mr. Lee coached the East team in the North-South all-star game. He was also chosen as the Division III All-Ohio Co-Coach of the Year, Division III All-Northwest Ohio Coach of the Year, and named to coach the Division I-II-III District 8 East all-star Team. There were three Pirate players on that team: Caity Matter, Abbie Fett, and Abbey Schaaf. Those three players along with junior Tara Buroker were also named to the All-Northwest Conference (NWC) first team.

The team won 3 NWC championships, 4 sectional titles, 4 District titles, 2 Regional titles, and 2 state appearances. They finished with 91 wins, 11 losses. In 2000 the Lady Pirates were ranked #1 in the final Associated Press State high school girl's basketball poll. They ended up second out of 192 schools entered in the Division III tournament action.

Fans will always wonder "What if?" in the state championship game. Caity Matter's left ankle was stepped on and she fell down in pain. She left the game temporarily with 4:47 left in the first period. She returned shortly and gutted it out for 26 minutes with what must have been agonizing pain. She was unable to have lateral movement and ended up with five points and one rebound. Her passing remained superior and when she returned to the game, she had several assists that sparked the team. Fans could only wonder what might have happened had she not been hurt. She had scored 32 points in the semifinal victory over Sardina Eastern Brown.

I recorded a rebroadcast of the championship game and watched it before writing this. Before hitting the play button, I thought it might be a downer to watch it. I was dead wrong. Instead, I was inspired by how the lady Pirates played hard on offense and defense against the Regina team. The fought until the horn ended the game. They were down only by seven in the third quarter. That team pulled away in the fourth quarter and won by 23 points. But we Pirate fans will always believe that if we played them again and were healthy, the outcome might be different. When the team returned to Bluffton for a celebration in the gymnasium, Pirate fans gave them a 4-minute standing ovation.

Lima newspaper man Dar Nevergall characterized the team attributes as follows: "defensive quickness, pushed the tempo, quick passes, fast break lay-ups, speed, and court awareness." Coach Lee made the following comments on the five starters and the first player off the bench: Caity Matter - phenomenal with the basketball, could knock down three-point shots or take the opponent inside. That's what made her so dangerous, she was good inside and out; Abbie Fett - a really good shooter and good defender; Abbey Schaaf - such a competitor, along with Tara a good defender, a physical player for us inside; Tara Buroker - held down the middle for us, very good shooter around the basket, excellent rebounder; "Rachael Holt - excellent defender on the edge, knew her role exceptionally well, a good passer; Molly McCullough - off the bench she gave us that spark we needed, a good shooter, very versatile, could play a lot of different positions.

The 2000 lady Pirates basketball team was historic, and all business during the game, but they had fun. By the team winning many games by double figures, the players on the bench saw considerable action during the season. It was not unusual for Caity Matter, after a nifty pass to a teammate for a lay-up, to smile and raise her fist in celebration. Fans fed off the skilled team play and the obvious enjoyment the team had in playing together. And you would not find a nicer bunch of girls. We all thought they were the greatest thing on earth.