HENRIETTA TWP. — It’s often said that it’s darkest right before the dawn. That was the case for Firelands.
The Falcons set a school record for losses last season, finishing 2-21, but an influx of young talent led by freshman Abby Schmitz and sophomores Megan and Madison Sutton, plus the improved play of senior Peyton Phillips and junior Emily Stewart, has the sun shining at Firelands again.
“This year has been a new beginning,” Stewart, a 5-foot-8 forward said. “All of these fresh faces that never played varsity basketball before have opened up new doors for the program. People still don’t know what to expect from us.”
With a 7-7 record heading into the final month of the season, Firelands coach Dave Kudela won’t be dusting off a spot in the trophy case for any championship hardware just yet, but the Falcons are on track to meet their preseason goal of double-digit wins for the first time since 2015-16 while setting the course for even bigger things when they move from the Patriot Athletic Conference to the new Lorain County League next season.
“There’s no magic and no secret to it,” said Kudela, who is in his 17th season at Firelands. “We played through a season last year where we had multiple girls out of the lineup for extended periods of time. We knew we had a different team coming into this year.”
At times last season the Falcons struggled with numbers at the varsity level but the coaching staff decided to keep the core youngsters together on the junior varsity team to foster teamwork and to experience winning, knowing the payoff would come in 2019 and beyond.
“This year’s team is more competitive on the court, their chemistry is better. It allows us to do more,” Kudela said. “You’ve got girls who just play basketball and then you have girls who are basketball players. This year we have girls who are basketball players. They want to compete, they want to win. It’s made a huge difference.”
Although the Falcons have been relying on their young guns to play key roles, Phillips, the lone senior in the starting lineup, remains the centerpiece of the team. She is leading the team at 11.6 points per game and is among the area leaders in steals with over four per game.
“I honestly thought this year would be like last year,” Phillips said. “But our coaches turned it around real fast and got the girls to understand what we need to do, where we need to be at.”
Although Phillips missed a huge portion of her junior year with injuries, Kudela said she has been a huge asset as a leader on a young team this year.
Another huge part of the offense has been Schmitz, who is averaging 8.1 points per game. She is also leading the team in 3-point shooting, with 14 threes while shooting almost 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Like an experienced veteran, Schmitz is waiting for the Division II tournament seeds to be announced in nine days in hopes that the Falcons get a favorable matchup, or possibly even a first-round home game that could propel them to postseason success.
Firelands — 5-2 in the last seven PAC games — has had a few big wins this year, but none as big as an opening-night 50-33 win over archrival Vermilion.
“The Vermilion win showed us what this season would be like,” said Stewart, who is averaging 5.7 points per game and is tied with Phillips for the team lead in assists at two per game. “Coming out and beating a team that beat us by a lot the year before showed us if we all put in a good effort and played as a team, what could happen.”
“The young girls on the team really brought us the competitive edge we sorely needed,” Kudela said. “We have most of this year’s group coming back, plus our JV is above .500 and a great group of eighth-graders coming in so that bodes well for us.”