BETHANY — Natalie Jeffers always knew the Bethany and Findlay communities had unwavering support for the Okaw Valley girls basketball team.
But at the Pana Thanksgiving Tournament when she looked into the bleachers to see an elderly couple she met while working as a waitress at a restaurant in Findlay, Jeffers realized the affect the Wolves had on the community.
Jeffers' first instinct when she saw the couple was that they must have a granddaughter on the opposing team. Surely, they hadn't driven all the way to Pana to see a near-stranger play.
“It was like, I saw them I was like, Oh, no way. They didn’t come," Jeffers said. "He stayed after the game and he gave me a big hug and told me good job.
“I saw them the next Sunday when I was waitressing. It was great. He drops off news articles and they’re just the sweetest couple. It was such a great feeling."
On Thursday, Jeffers and the Wolves improved to 26-5 with a win over Central A&M for the first girls basketball regional championship in Okaw Valley history. The Wolves advanced to the Class 1A Louisville (North Clay) Sectional for a 6 p.m. Monday sectional semifinal game against Altamont.
While all eyes are on do-it-all scorer and reigning H&R Area Player of the Year Paige Robinson, Jeffers is a force of her own.
Jeffers, a 5-foot-7 senior, brings more to the table than her 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
“Physically she’s a presence and has the strength to guard in the post even though she’s not the tallest girl," Okaw Valley coach Brad Ackers said. "She is as strong as anybody I’ve encountered. She has good feet, good hands, she can do it all. "
Teams zone in on Robinson and her area-leading 24.1 points per game. That's just fine with the rest of the Wolves.
"They do a box-and-1 approach when we are playing against them," Jeffers said. "(Robinson) recognizes that and does a good job of reading the defenses."
Jeffers knows her limitations and strengths. She can't magically grow for a game against a taller team.
But she can bring the same intensity to a game that she brings to practices.
"If I get myself excited I can get other people excited," Jeffers said. "We get in drills and I’m never going to let someone get off easy. I’m never going to be the most athletic player on the court, but I can always be the most aggressive and the most active on the court."
Ackers said Jeffers brings a nastiness to the team, a compliment he means as endearingly as possible. Jeffers knows her role and embraces it.
“She’s very gifted physically and she’s got that competitive spirit that you don’t find very often — that drive," Ackers said.
Ackers has coached more than his fair share of sports, including football.
He said he believes that Jeffers could play varsity football.
“Natalie is a presence," Ackers said. "Natalie is physically imposing. I’ve coached football more than I’ve coached anything in my career — not that it means anything — but Natalie could play on a play-for-play basis, she is strong enough and fast enough to play varsity football. I don’t know if she would hold up, but she is physical enough."
She's heard it before. Nearly every boy at school has told her the same. In fact, she wishes her football career extended past the one season she played in fourth grade.
"It was the best season of my life," Jeffers said of the fourth-grade year. "I had so much fun. I have an older brother who was a great football player in high school. I wish I did play. Football is one of my favorite sports. It’s a great way to get out and it’s beautiful to watch."
But for now, she's riding a basketball high during a magical season.
She doesn't think about what could have been, even though Ackers admitted in any other program her numbers could be better.
Jeffers is right around 80 points shy of 1,000 for her career. The Wolves' offense simply isn't set up for Jeffers to be a scoring machine.
“Natalie could have done a lot, but like all of our girls, they have bought into the team and they care about winning and they’re willing to sacrifice for one another," Ackers said. "Natalie is capable of doing a lot of things, but sometimes it’s not always best for the team."
The thing is, Jeffers doesn't care. Her mindset goes beyond opening the scorer's book and skimming down to find her No. 15 to see her point total.
Instead of grabbing the book, she grabbed the regional plaque on Thursday and proudly displayed the hardware after two seasons of regional final losses.
"I would never try to take a personal achievement over a team victory," Jeffers said. "Personally, it would be great to get those, but I know that in the long run I’m doing what's best for my team and what’s best for my community because of the support we've had throughout our season.
“All that stuff isn’t going to matter down the line, but a regional championship is going to stay with this team and community for a long time, so I don’t have a problem with it."