What a difference a year makes.
Oberlin`s girls struggled under first-year coach Brian Ruggles last season. Today, they`re undefeated after five games with a shot at the Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division lead. The Phoenix can move into first place with a win over defending champion Clearview on Saturday night.
"I think the biggest difference is we spent most of last year teaching the game," said Ruggles, who played at Elyria High. "This year the kids understand the game. Now they can go out and play it."
They`re playing it well now with a lineup that includes four seniors and a sophomore. Among the veterans, 5-foot-11 Alex Zimmerman is averaging a double-double (12 points and 10-plus rebounds) and 5-7 Rachel Daniels 17.4 points, five boards and just over three steals.
The other starters are seniors 5-6 Shaqwe Lawson and 5-7 Angela Daugherty, and 5-6 sophomore Amari Foster.
"We`re stressing defense," Ruggles said. "We needed to improve on defense. We have a new assistant coach this year, Phil Kutcha, and he has helped tremendously in that regard. We`re predominantly man-to-man defensively, but we`ll mix in some zone. We try to apply a lot of pressure.
"But we`ve had to learn defense," he said. "I have no fear that we won`t score points. My main concern is keeping the ball out of the basket at the other end. Our defense has been a work in progress."
Ruggles said he can be a tough task master. He`s had practice. He spent eight years in the Marines.
"Not only that, I played for Mike Walsh," he said.
EAGLES ON A ROLL
First-year coach Maggie Steadley has North Olmsted in the thick of the Southwestern Conference race. The Eagles are 5-1, 2-1 in the SWC. Their only loss is to defending SWC champion Brecksville on the road Nov. 28.
This is an interesting team to watch, but you`d better watch fast.
"We love to run and gun," Steadley said. "If we`re not doing that, we`re doing something wrong. I don`t like straight man-to-man on defense and I don`t like to find us playing half-court offense. That`s too vanilla for me. We play a lot of different defenses, a lot of pressure. Some people probably think we`re different or unorthodox."
Maybe so, but it`s effective. The Eagles have won twice since the loss to Brecksville.
"I like the way the girls have bounced back from that," Steadley said. "They`ve showed a lot of heart and we have some strong leadership on the floor."
They`ll face a strong test on Saturday when Westlake invades. The game could determine if they`re legitimate challengers in the SWC.
Olmsted Falls had a 19-point lead on Firelands in a sectional tournament game last season. Then the Falcons started drawing fouls and scoring with the clock stopped. They went on to win the game.
Defending Southwestern Conference champ Brecksville had a 10-point lead on the Bulldogs on Wednesday night with four minutes left in regulation time. Same scenario, only this time the Bulldogs benefited. Free throws helped them catch the Bees in regulation. Then Falls made 9 of 10 in overtime to win, 65-59.
"At one point, Al (Alexis) Henton made 11 in a row and another stretch where Julie Radigan made 12 in a row," said coach Matt Fulton. "We made 23 foul shots in a row."
They also made 33 of 39 for the game, basically an unheard of statistic.
"In the third and fourth quarters, Henton started driving to the basket," Fulton said. "If she didn`t score, they`d foul her and she made the foul shots. Radigan was there for the rebounds and she`d either stick it back in or they`d foul her."
It was a good win for the Bulldogs, even if they were again hurt by inconsistency. They stayed with Brecksville and trailed just 14-13 after a quarter.
"Then we laid that one-point egg in the second quarter," said Fulton.
He said the Bulldogs have had single-digit quarters in every game, all under five points.
Two big games top the PAC schedule Saturday night.
Clearview, last season`s overall champion, travels to Oberlin for a shot at the undefeated Phoenix in a big Stripes Division game. And Keystone, which won the Stars Division last year, entertains Buckeye. The Lady Bucks finished second in the division a year ago.
Keystone`s Chloe Irish is looking forward to it.
"They will be some good competition," she said after the Wildcats` Wednesday win over Wellington. "It should be a fun game to play."
The Wildcats are still without their tallest player, 6-foot-2 Erin Gallagher, who has been out with an ankle injury. Coach Scott Terry said it will be at least a week-and-a-half before she`s ready to start practicing again.
TAKE A SPIN
If you bump into player-of-the-week Brooke Henderson, ask her to spin a basketball on her index finger. The Westlake guard is good at it.
"Our point guard (Rosa LaMattina) taught me to do it," said Henderson. "She can keep it going all day."
Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org with news for this notebook and nominations
for player of the week.