CLEVELAND — It's taped on the wall of the gym at Saint Joseph Academy. A slogan—a mantra—that the basketball team has rallied around over the past few weeks.
"Why not us?"
It began as the team's quote of the day, a tradition started by head coach Karen Swanson Haan. It has since become a way of life for the Jaguars.
"We do a quote of the day often. Sometimes its tailored to something I saw the day before, sometimes it's tailored to something I think we've got coming up," Swanson Haan said. “I just told the girls 'Why not us?' So that's been sort of the theme for us...We have all the tools, we’ve been working exceptionally hard, our record has prepared us and the girls have put all the work in, so why not us?”
The team hasn't had an easy road this season, intentionally playing a tough schedule to sharpen their skills and truly challenge themselves in preparation for the ultimate test—the Ohio State High School Athletic Association regional tournament.
"We play a really difficult schedule but we do that intentionally because the idea is that we really prepare ourselves for the tournament, and I think it helped us a lot this year," Swanson Haan said.
The Jags entered the Division I Region 1 tournament pairing with a 15-8 record, set to take on Archbishop Hoban after beating Wadsworth in the OHSAA district championship. Their record may have shown more losses than others in the tournament, but those losses taught them lessons they continue to use.
Playing Hoban was no small feat. Ranked No. 2 in the final Associated Press' state girls basketball poll, Hoban was undefeated. Until Tuesday's matchup with the Jaguars.
Saint Joseph Academy stunned everyone in their 65-58 win over Hoban, and broke school history in the process.
“Even though their record was 23-0, we had nothing to lose," senior Ella Neitzil said, noting that she and her teammates were "fearless" entering the game.
And her coach couldn't have been more proud of the efforts.
"I just was filled with such immense pride. I'm so proud of how they played in that entire game. I'm so proud of all the hard work they put in," Swanson Haan said. "It culminated in that moment."
For the first time in program history, Saint Joseph Academy basketball team advanced to the Elite Eight round of the DI OHSAA tournament.
Senior Ava Haddad, in her last season, knew that her time as a Jaguar was coming to an end and is leaving it all out on the court this season.
"We just knew this year was the year we had to give it our all," Haddad said. “I think we shocked a lot of people.”
Shocked people on the outside, but stayed true to their beliefs—to the words printed on a piece of white paper, taped up on the gym wall.
The "Why not us?" mantra isn't the only thing that hangs in the gym.
Banners give the white walls a pop of purple and gold color, chronicling the school's success across their sports teams. But the last banner the basketball team earned was in 2018—a district championship that was as far as the program was able to make it before Tuesday.
A second district championship banner has been earned, but even more exciting is the chance to hang a new banner.
“There’s a banner hanging right up there and there’s a lot of talk about that banner. Our goal was to put a second year on that district championship banner,” Swanson Haan said. “I think now the new goal is to put the first regional final banner up there.”
The Jaguars will aim to do just that as they take on the Massillon Jackson Polar Bears in the OHSAA regional final game at Medina High School Saturday at 1:30 p.m. And as they use the lessons learned throughout the season, they'll look to continue making school history while continuing to embrace their season mantra.
“Going into this next game it is just why not us?" Neitzil said. "Why can’t we be the one going to the final four?”
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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