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Crown them: Oneida establishes itself as the cream of the crop in District 3-A

Oneida is pictured after winning the District 3-A championship by defeating Wartburg 57-44 on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 | Sarah Dunlap/IH

Oneida’s run through the 2019-2020 season was impressive. The Lady Indians won 29 games — the program’s most in a single season in more than 20 years — while going 15-1 in district play. In the postseason, they defeated every team that stood in their path by double digits, including wins of 18 and 19 over a substate Wartburg team in the district and region championships, before defeating Cloudland on a last-season shot to advance to the state tournament for a second consecutive season.

But Oneida graduated five seniors — all of them at least part-time starters — from that team. What would the Lady Indians possibly do as an encore? There were some in District 3-A — from outside Scott County, of course — who dared to whisper that Oneida might not make it out of the district this year as one of the four teams to advance to the regionals.

On Tuesday night, the Lady Indians hoisted the District 3-A championship plaque for the second year in a row and for the fourth time in seven years. It was the culmination of one of the most impressive district campaigns in the history of Oneida’s proud women’s basketball program.

Oneida is now 19-0 against District 3-A teams this season. Their average margin of victory in those 19 games is over 27 points per game.

Not bad for a team that some predicted wouldn’t advance out of the district this season.

But it shouldn’t have been unexpected.

While it would’ve taken a reincarnation of Nostradamus to predict that the Lady Indians would be as dominant within the district as they’ve proven to be this season, it wasn’t hard to predict that Oneida would be playing for a district championship at the end of the season — and not just because they returned a cast of experienced players like seniors Gracie Martin and Katelyn Stiltner, Jacey Manis and Emily Wisner, and sophomore Kelsey Pike.

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It wasn’t hard to predict that the Lady Indians would be playing for a district championship because, since Marv West returned to the sideline, that’s just what this program does.

West, who coached the Lady Indians from the late 1990s until the late 2000s, took some time off from coaching while his kids were younger. But after a few seasons he returned to the bench, and Oneida has been one of the best teams in the district since his return.

While Oliver Springs and Midway — and even Sunbright in more recent years — have been lurking close behind, it has been Oneida and Wartburg who have ruled the district for the past decade.

In the nine years since West returned to coaching, the Lady Indians have won at least 20 games seven out of nine years — getting to the 20-win plateau for a sixth consecutive season with Tuesday’s championship victory, despite the season being shortened slightly by coronavirus. They’ve also been to the championship game seven out of nine years, including the last three years, and they’ve won the championship game four times in the past seven years.

During that same 9-year stretch, Wartburg has also been to the district championship game seven times, winning three. But the Lady Indians have consistently been a thorn in the Bulldogs’ side. On the five occasions that the two teams have met in the championship game, Oneida has won four of them — the last four (2015, 2016, 2020 and 2021). Wartburg’s lone win over Oneida in the championship game during that span came back in 2013.

They’ve been a thorn in each other’s side in non-championship years, also. From 2013 to 2018, Wartburg went to the championship game five times in six seasons. The lone exception was 2014, when Oneida eliminated the Bulldogs in the semifinals. And in 2018, the last time Oneida failed to make it to the championship game, it was because Wartburg defeated the Lady Indians in the semifinals.

But Oneida has now won five consecutive games against its biggest basketball rival, by an average of 19 points per game. The Lady Indians have also won eight of their last nine against the Bulldogs, with all of the wins by double-digits.

The Lady Indians just keep getting better, too. They’ve won 28 straight games against district opponents, dating back to a January 2020 loss to (who else?) Wartburg. During that 28-game stretch, they’ve had a team stay within single digits of them just once, and their margin of victory has been 28 points per game.

In District 3-A, there may be no better coaches than West and Wartburg’s Jason Davis. And, for now, West has his program on top. It hasn’t always been that way and it won’t always been that way; high school basketball is a game where Sallies and Sues are as important as Xs and Os, and talent is always cyclical at public schools — especially the small ones in rural areas (unless you’re Clarkrange).

But it has been an incredible run of success for the Lady Indians, and they now have the inside track to a fourth substate appearance in five years.

Sunbright would love to play a spoiler’s role in that plan, of course. The Lady Tigers will have to win on the road at Copper Basin on Friday night to avoid elimination, but if they can do that, they’ll likely find themselves at OHS Gymnasium on Monday night for another elimination game, this time against the Lady Indians in the region semifinals, with a substate berth on the line.

The best-case scenario for Oneida seemed to be for Tellico Plains — which has been just as dominant in District 4 as the Lady Indians have been in District 3 — to meet Sunbright in an elimination game in the region semifinals, with the winner having to travel to OHS Gymnasium for the championship game. A giant fly flew into that ointment when Wartburg upset Sunbright in the district semifinals and put Rusty Yaden’s team on the same side of the region bracket as the Lady Indians.

Maybe that’s for the best. Wartburg has twice played Oneida closer than Sunbright has this season, and the Bulldogs are playing good basketball. Good enough to upset Tellico Plains on the road in the region semis? Maybe not. But maybe.

If Oneida can get past Sunbright in Monday’s potential matchup (and CSAS on Friday, of course), the Lady Indians will be headed to the substate for the fourth time in five seasons. And there’s a chance they’ll get to play that game at home, if they can win the region championship game — which will also be played at OHS Gymnasium, regardless of whom the opponent is, as long as the Lady Indians are still playing.

There are a lot of “ifs” in there and the Lady Indians will have to avoid becoming complacent. As Oakdale showed last week when the Eagles came within a breath of a monumental upset at Oneida, nothing can be taken for granted in the postseason. (And it’s likely that West isn’t going to let his team forget that the last time an Oneida team went undefeated in the district, back in 2016, they were eliminated in the region quarterfinals.)

But, for now, it’s been quite a run for a team that wasn’t supposed to be where this team is after losing five seniors a year ago.

And while this year’s team will also lose five seniors — and won’t have as many experienced players to plug in to those holes next season — the play of the Lady Indians’ younger players likely won’t have anyone predicting that Oneida will fail to get out of the district again next season. Because when you’ve won 20-plus games seven times in nine years, and four district championships in seven years, it becomes about more than individual classes, no matter how important those classes may be. It’s more about a process that gives individual players and individual classes chances to be successful. And, right now, the process is working well at Oneida.

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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