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ONU, Marietta will battle for OAC supremacy on Saturday

14th-ranked Ohio Northern will host 18th-ranked Marietta on Saturday at King Horn Sports Center. Tip-off is at 3 p.m. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

While the 18th-ranked Marietta women’s basketball team will be making the three-and-a-half hour trip across the state to play 14th-ranked Ohio Northern on Saturday, in a way, the two programs are meeting in the middle.

Yes, their records are similar -- Marietta is 12-0 and ONU is a buzzer-beating three-pointer away from the same record, as they stand at 11-1 -- and both teams are 5-0 in the OAC, tied for first place. Both squads have also posted impressive non-conference wins and are primed to compete for the OAC title. But these programs are approaching greatness from different directions.

Ohio Northern has won four of the last five OAC regular season titles, while Marietta won just nine games three seasons ago. Northern is the incumbent champ, sitting atop the conference throne and fighting to stay there. Marietta is the newest challenger to the hierarchy, fighting to defy the known order.

“I’ve been here six years and they’ve been the best team [in the conference] the last six years,” Marietta coach Kole Vivian said of ONU. “So, if we want to have that goal of being a conference champion, we definitely have to go through them.”

Yes, Saturday is just one of two regular season meetings between these two teams this season. Yes, a lot will happen after this Jan. 6 meeting that will quantify the success of this season for each team.

But no, this is not just another OAC game.

***

Not long ago, Marietta dwelled at the bottom of the OAC.

From 2005-2011, Marietta experienced six straight seasons with less than 10 wins. The Pioneers won just two games in both 2006-07 and 2008-09, and won just 26 total games during that six-year time span.

Since then, however, changes have been made that have shifted the program’s fate. Marietta hired Stacia Shrider, a Baldwin Wallace alumnus who led the Yellow Jackets to the Elite Eight as a player in 2006, as their head coach in 2012. After winning 41 games in four years at the helm, Shrider took a head assistant position at Div. II Maryville University, and her head assistant, Vivian, took over.

Last year, Marietta won 16 games -- their winningest season since 1989-90 -- in Vivian’s first year as head coach. They finished fourth in the OAC and were picked second in this year’s preseason coaches poll.

But the rebuild hasn’t been easy. Ohio Northern coach Michele Durand would know, as she went through three single-digit win seasons in the beginning of her now 17-year tenure before the program became a perennial OAC powerhouse in the last five years.

“It’s really hard,” Durand said on Thursday. “I know [Marietta’s] coaches really well and they’re great people and they’ve done it the right way. They’ve gotten out and worked really hard. You have to work hard in recruiting and hope you get lucky, and they’ve done that.”

Durand said that she spoke with Vivian last year about how close his team was to taking the next step, and she believes they’ve done that through recruiting and scheduling tougher. The Pioneers beat Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference favorite Transylvania and an 11-1 Washington & Jefferson team in this year’s non-conference slate.

For as long and tough as the rebuilding process has been, though, Vivian still didn’t think that his team would be here this quick. After all, the Pioneers won just nine games three years ago and 12 games two years ago.

“We thought we could be one of the top two or three teams in the league [this season],” Vivian said. “I wouldn’t have thought that going into this game, we’d be 12-0.”

The Pioneers have done it with depth and scoring, as they play 10 women on most nights and rely on a number of talented scorers to average a conference-best 80 points per game. Only two Pioneers average double-figures in the scoring column, while five players score between seven and 10 points per contest.

Their depth is eerily similar to Northern’s, as only one Polar Bear -- All-American center Amy Bullimore -- averages double-figures in scoring. ONU features five players who average between five and nine points per game.

“They’re really balanced, they’re a lot like us,” Durand said. “They’ve got great inside play and they try to run. We’re really a lot alike.”

That mark of 80 points per game, however, blows away the rest of the OAC. Ohio Northern is second in the conference but scores just 69 points per game. Marietta’s average currently ranks 13th in the nation.

Ohio Northern, in contrast, has been able to dominate teams defensively. The Polar Bears give up just 47 points per game, which ranks eighth in the country. Saturday’s matchup, to a certain extent, will be about Marietta’s offense vs. Ohio Northern’s defense.

“It’s going to be about who’s going to win that battle,” Durand said. “If we can play great defense I think we can score on them, but it’s easier said than done.”

***

In the grand scheme of things, though, Saturday’s game is about much more than just offense and defense.

Ohio Northern beat Marietta three times last year, but the last meeting, in the OAC Tournament semifinals, set the tone for this season. On the game’s final possession, with Northern leading 61-60, Bullimore blocked two shots to stave off the Pioneers and advance to the finals. It was an unusually close call for a Polar Bear team that had won 25 straight games to that point, but it was a game that Vivian believes enlightened his team as they headed into the offseason.

“I think that kind of opened our eyes to see the things that we can accomplish, because we have so much respect for Northern,” Vivian said. “We finished last year 6-2 after Feb. 1, and both of those losses came to Northern. So I think that kind of springboarded us into this year.”

With their 12-0 start, Marietta is ranked nationally by d3hoops.com for the first time in program history. The fans are starting to fill Ban Johnson Arena for the first time in a long time, Vivian says, creating a home atmosphere similar to the one that the men’s team (who has won three consecutive OAC titles) generates on a nightly basis.

Marietta athletic director Larry Hiser (a 1987 Ohio Northern graduate), who was hired 10 years ago -- in the midst of the program’s dark days -- says that the program is close to where he wants it to be.

“Stacia [Shrider] got us half to three-quarters of the way up that ladder, and really put Kole in a position to finish it off,” Hiser said. “And we’re not there yet; we have to beat Northern and [win] some tournament games to put us in position.”

But like Hiser said, what lies between Marietta and the proverbial ‘next step’ lurks in Ada, donning orange and black and presenting a rather daunting challenge when considering their recent success; the Polar Bears lost just one game last year, in the Elite Eight, and have lost just one game so far this season.

On Saturday, Marietta will get the chance to slay Goliath.

For Ohio Northern, Saturday represents a chance to reassert themselves as king. In a season where just one of Northern’s 11 wins have come by single digits, the opportunity is something to be excited about. While Durand is excited, however, she is trying not to over-hype the game with her team.

“It’s certainly fun to play a good team. The way we’re approaching it, though, is it’s another OAC game at home that we need to win. I don’t want to hype it too much, I guess, because there’s a lot of good teams in our league,” Durand said. “I picked Marietta to win the league at the beginning of the year, so I knew they were going to be good. But we’re trying to approach it from the standpoint of, they’re trying to get what we have. And we’re going to prepare just like we prepare for every other team in the league.”

While Saturday’s game will test Marietta’s ability to compete at the top, it will also test Ohio Northern’s ability to stay at the top. The latter is a feat that Durand said is just as hard-earned as the former, although she prefers one over the other.

“It’s hard to do,” Durand said of building a championship-caliber team. “And it’s even harder to stay up there, because everybody’s after you. That’s what we tell our kids all the time -- we’ve got the ‘x’ on our back.”

“I’d rather be at the top,” Durand said smiling, with no hesitation. “I mean it’s hard to stay there, but I’d rather be there, you know. Once you’re there, a lot of good things happen for you.”

On Saturday, the trajectories of Marietta and Ohio Northern will lead them to the same place, but from different directions. Despite it being downplayed as just another OAC game, it is obvious that more is at stake.

If last season’s thrilling OAC Tournament semifinal was the spark that kindled the conference’s newest rivalry, then Saturday is the day those flames ignite.