LAKE TWP. For a rebuilding program, the Federal League tends to be an unforgiving place.
The Lake Blue Streaks have been one of the league’s top teams in recent years, but the past two seasons have seen them undergo a coaching change and youth movement that has put them behind the eight ball when it comes to competing with the league’s top teams.
Second-year head coach Bill Johnson knows that his young team faces an uphill battle and while their 2-4 record and 0-4 mark in league play through six games underscore that fact, Johnson is happy to see his players still going to work every day on the process of getting better.
"We’re still pretty young. We start a freshman and a sophomore, along with a junior and a senior who didn’t play a ton of minutes last year," Johnson said.
He noted that the team’s best returning player, junior Mackenzie Hance, and senior Sarah Miller have been solid in helping lead the underclassmen, but he knows that players experiencing varsity basketball for the first time also need to get out on the court, play and make mistakes in order to learn and grow.
"Because our varsity experience very limited, trying to get comfortable on floor is a challenge for us," Johnson said. "Getting used to the speed of the game and learning the aggressiveness needed in our league takes time. Our kids are up for the challenge even though our numbers are down, kids come in and work hard every day."
Johnson, echoing a sentiment expressed by other coaches throughout the league, believes that the Federal League is at least among the best two or three leagues in the entire state, if not the top one in all of Ohio.
That makes it all the more difficult for a program trying to rebuild because 12 games each season are guaranteed to be against teams such as Hoover, Jackson, GlenOak, Green, Perry and Canton McKinley.
Having that schedule can lead to some long nights for a young team, so the Lake coaching staff has made a point of reinforcing the message of continual progress even if that message comes after a hard loss.
"It’s a struggle, so what we try to do and to harp on with the girls, is that even if there’s a team where we have play nearly a perfect game to win, even if we don’t come out with a victory, how do we get better," Johnson said. "It could be something little like not turning the ball over as much, so we try to point out little things that we’re doing better.
Two young players who have made the most of their varsity playing time are sophomore Jessica LeBeau, who started 18 games as a freshman, and freshman Abby Stephens, whose older sister McKenna is a senior on the Kent State women’s team.
"Jessica wasn’t quite ready last year, but she can shoot the ball and I like her competitiveness," Johnson said, noting that basketball is LeBeau’s second sport, as she has verbally committed to play softball at Kent State.
Stephens, meanwhile, "has all the tools you need to be a good player" and her main challenge has been making the jump from eighth grade to varsity basketball in the ultra-competitive Federal League, according to Johnson.
The second-year head coach pointed to the team’s five seniors as doing a good job keeping the team encouraged and working hard and believes that while the rebuilding process will take time, making sure that everyone stays positive and learns from both successes and setbacks will go a long way toward ensuring its success.
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