COLUMBUS, Ohio — The man. The myth. And now, the legend.
John Burdette had already solidified his place in southeastern Ohio as one of the best girls basketball coaches in the game after amassing a 93-29 overall record over his previous five seasons with Eastern.
Now, he stands alone with only Louise Drummond, Linda Ross and Lee Snyder as the only girls basketball coaches to ever win a state title from the Southeast District.
The Lady Eagles produced three 20-win seasons and three titles in four district championship games before this winter, which included three straight regional appearances and the program’s first trip to the Final Four in girls basketball during the 2013 campaign.
Burdette was named the 2009-10 AP Southeast District coach of the year and had won several coaching honors in both District 13 and in the Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division. The Lady Eagles also shared TVC Hocking crowns with Waterford in both 2011 and 2013.
And then came year six.
The Lady Eagles went unbeaten in league play and clinched their first outright TVC Hocking championship since 2001, which aided EHS en route to winning the Associated Press poll championship in Division IV. It was the first-ever poll title for the school and just the third to ever be bestowed upon a girls basketball team from the Southeast District, joining Oak Hill (2005 and 2011) as the only area programs to ever accomplish the feat.
The Green and Gold followed by winning sectional and district titles by an average of 55 points in three games, then rolled through regionals with a pair of double-digit wins while also becoming only the third southeastern Ohio school to make repeat appearances at the state level — joining the likes of Logan (1991-92) and Sardinia Eastern Brown (2000-02).
The Lady Eagles then answered the bell by defeating defending D-4 champion Fort Loramie by a 68-59 margin in the state semifinal and closed out a story book season with a 49-38 victory over Zanesville Rosecrans in the D-4 championship contest.
The win allowed Eastern to become just the third Southeast District champion ever in OHSAA girls basketball, as the Lady Eagles joined only Adena in accomplishing that feat. The Lady Warriors won state titles in both 1976 and 1994.
EHS ended up setting a school record for wins in a season, finishing the 2014 campaign with a 27-1 overall mark. The Lady Eagles also outscored opponents this year by a whopping 2,075-899 overall margin, which averaged out to 74.1 points for and 32.1 points allowed.
The Lady Eagles — who won 26-of-27 games by double digits — gave up 50-plus points only four times this season and limited opponents to 30-or-less points on 14 different occasions. Eastern also held three opponents to single digits and limited three more opponents to under 20 points, all while breaking the 90-point plateau only once this winter.
Burdette was named the 2014 coach of the year in the TVC Hocking, District 13 and by the AP at the all-district level. And yet, despite improving his career winning percentage to 80 percent with a 120-30 overall mark, the sixth-year frontman noted that the final moments of Saturday’s championship game was clearly the highlight of his coaching career.
“It really does make me a happy man just watching the way the girls celebrated when the final buzzer went off,” Burdette said. “They were jumping up and down, screaming and crying. It was a real emotional time for them and I was glad to see them get to have that moment. That was a super proud moment for me as well.
“We went into this year expecting this and we weren’t going to settle for anything less. They’ve played with an attitude all year long because we all expected this to happen. We knew it would come down to our defense, so we took a real pride in making sure that we did our jobs on every single possession.”
Burdette was the fifth coach at Eastern in five years at the time he took the coaching job, which was at the start of the 2008-09 campaign. He had previously spent time as the junior high coach at Eastern and had also served as a youth league coach to his daughter and most of these players.
That familiarity certainly helped when these seniors became eligible to play at the varsity level as freshmen, particularly in the fact they were already more like family and less like newcomers to the program.
“I’ve been around all of these girls since they were in kindergarten. Gee whiz, I’m like the field trip nanny with this group,” Burdette said with a chuckle. “It’s a small school and they are all fun to be around, and that’s why I enjoy them and that’s what makes this ending so special. They are my girls.”
Burdette, however, wanted to be perfectly clear on one subject in regards to this state championship team. It was not solely because of the upperclassmen.
“Everyone always talks about the seniors, and don’t get me wrong because I do understand that part of it, but every girl on this team put in the same amount of sweat and effort as these seniors,” Burdette said. “Just because some of the underclassmen didn’t play as much didn’t mean that they didn’t have to put in as much effort.
“What we did, we all did — as a team. Everybody was asked to do the same things in practice and everybody ran together when something didn’t go right. There were no favorites in practice. The girls knew that you play and you play hard, regardless of who you were.”
The Lady Eagle seniors, however, earned an incredible 90-15 record during their four-year tenure — which includes a 59-5 mark and 19 straight wins against TVC Hocking opponents. The Eastern quintet of Jenna Burdette, Jordan Parker, Katie Keller, Maddie Rigsby and Erin Swatzel also ended their collective careers with a 20-3 postseason record.
The Green and Gold went just 11-7 in non-conference matchups over the last four years, but those non-TVC Hocking games proved to be the real difference-maker in getting this team ready for a state title run.
The seven non-league losses came to eventual D-3 state runner-up Oak Hill (73-37) in 2011; D-4 state qualifier Tri-Village (59-46) and Class A champion Huntington St. Joe (52-48) in 2012; D-2 district finalist Jackson (67-56), D-3 state qualifier Orrville (81-48) and Class A state champion Huntington St. Joe (63-46) in 2013; and Class A champion Huntington St. Joe (70-68 OT) in 2014.
The three tournament losses also came against teams that eventually qualified for the Final Four, including a 66-35 loss to eventual D-4 champion Harvest Prep during their freshmen campaign.
Mansfield St. Peter defeated Eastern 67-60 in the 2012 regional semis and advanced to the state semifinals in 2012, while Berlin Hiland advanced to the D-4 final last year after beating EHS in the state semis 54-51.
Waterford — which has been in three regional tournaments and four district finals over the last four seasons — has four of the five TVC Hocking wins against Eastern with this senior class.
South Gallia has the other league victory after pulling a shocker in 2012 with a 52-51 home win. The Lady Rebels only made it to the sectional semifinal that year, but followed up with the school’s second-ever district final appearance the next season.
Needless to say, Burdette has always valued the importance of his non-conference schedule. In his mind, it was the best way to ensure that his teams were battled-tested for the postseason wars that were waiting ahead.
“I think that the TVC Hocking has always represented itself well at the sectional and district levels, so I think our league doesn’t get enough credit in that regard,” Burdette said. “On the other hand, I’ve always tried to make things really tough with our non-league games. I’ve always wanted to go out and find a handful of teams that I thought I could beat us.
“I think facing that next level of competition this year and over the years really helped us in making this run. We played better teams to make ourselves better, and I think we benefited from taking that approach.”
Graduation will be a tough pill for the girls basketball program to swallow, as the Lady Eagles will graduate over 90 percent of its offense and 20 seasons of varsity experience.
That, however, is not deterring Burdette for trying to keep the Eastern program at the very high level it currently sits at. In fact, with seven players returning and another crop of eighth graders coming in, Burdette is hoping that this is only the start of something much better for the Green and Gold.
“This is a great feeling. I don’t want this to end here and I don’t want this to stop. Actually, I want this to be the beginning,” Burdette said. “I know winning a state championship isn’t possible every single year, but I want everybody that will be coming up through there to know that as long as I am able — my goal will be to get us back here.”
And like the last six years have shown, the newest Eastern goal will only be attainable through even more hard work — which includes the offseason.
“The seniors, or the older group as we called them, had been playing summer ball since they were in elementary. Five of these underclassmen are already doing the same thing. I think it’s a testament to both the kids and their parents in having a vision of what it takes to make them better ball players,” Burdette said. “I have always tried as a parent and a coach to prepare the kids for the future, not just let them wait for the future to come to them. I know it can be rough at times, but the reward will pay off in the long run if you are willing to put in the effort.”
Next winter, Eastern will wear an even larger bull’s-eye thanks to its accomplishments during the 2014 campaign. The time is now to start working on defending what so few have ever known.
NOTES: Louise Drummond and Linda Ross served as co-coaches on the 1976 Class AAA state championship team from Adena, while Lee Snyder led the Lady Warriors to their 1994 championship in Division III.
OVP sports writer Alex Hawley contributed to this report.