HARTVILLE Progress is measured differently for every team.
For some, that means making a deep tournament run and reaching Columbus to compete for a state championship. For others, it means contending for a league title. At Lake Center Christian, it means that a program that won just a handful of games each of the past few seasons reached double-digit wins, won a sectional tournament game and set itself up for a brighter future.
After falling to top-seeded Dalton in a Norwayne Division IV sectional final, the Tigers ended the campaign with a 10-13 record that doesn’t tell the whole story of how far they came over the past 12 months.
"Our record this year currently is tied for the second most wins our program has ever had. We also finished fifth in our conference, which is the highest we have ever been," head coach Tim Keene said. "We actually set no goals. The girls laugh about this but our first locker room speech of the year was about how bad we had been recently and historically. Our program averages six wins a year. That day I told them we had nothing to lose and nothing to fear. If we lost all our games - no one outside of our locker room would really notice. So we had something almost every other team didn't have and that was the ability to just play free."
After posting a 4-19 record last season, LCC came into this year with the freedom to play without pressure and Keene believes that freedom made a big difference. The early season was a mix of ups and downs, with the Tigers winning four of their first nine games. A 4-5 start showed flashes of promise, but a second three-game losing streak followed and left LCC at 4-8.
That proved to be a decisive point in the season, especially given the way the last loss in the three-game skid unfolded.
"After only scoring 15 points to (Garrettsville) Garfield at Garfield on a Thursday night, we loaded up on a bus and drove to Open Door Christian, an hour and 15 minutes away, and played really well and got the win. We needed that. It was a long two days with a total of four and a half hours in bus travel."
That Open Door win was followed by three more wins over Rootstown, Springfield and Our Lady of the Elms to even the season record at 8-8. Being able to respond to a disappointing defeat with four wins in a row was a big step forward for LCC, one Keene attributed in large part to the team’s seniors.
Paige Karmie, Brianna Sommers and Aliah Bailey are all multiple-year letterwinners Keen described as "invested in their teammates" and "fighters" who gave LCC the ability to truly be a team. The seniors, Keene noted, never demanded leading roles or to be the top option on offense. They allowed younger teammates to shine without complaining and the entire squad embraced the idea that if they had an open shot, they should let it fly.
Younger players such as junior Kennedy Haubert and freshman Hannah Mang carved out bigger roles and typically led the Tigers in scoring, with both surging offensively during the 12-game stretch that followed an 0-4 start to the year.
That span did more than take LCC from 0-4 to 8-8; it injected new life into the team, according to Keene.
"As we put together a four-game win streak I saw our girls change. After starting 0-4 and then winning 8 of our next 12 games, you could see our attitudes change from fearing another bad year to believing we could do something special together," Keene said. "When you win everyone is on board. The girls feel good about their games, friendships are easier, fans are more invested and people like the coach more, but even in the midst of that we lost three in a row in January and our players never wavered and never shut down."
Due to the program’s struggles through the years - LCC has had varsity sports for just more than a decade - Keene said players often hear from the youth level on how bad the program was and that atmosphere didn’t motivate those younger players to put in the time needed to improve both themselves and their program. In the past few seasons, the level of play at the varsity level got better, but the wins didn’t immediately follow as the Tigers adjusted to life in the Portage Trail Conference.
That made getting wins on the board this season even more vital and now that the Tigers have some momentum, the next step is sustaining it, which is an endeavor at which past teams have fallen short.
"One thing that has been true of Lake Center girls basketball is we can never continue our progress. It seems like every time things start to look like they are turning in our program we come crashing back down due to injuries, players moving on or coaches leaving, but I do not expect that to happen this time," Keene said.
He pointed to a team that will be able to return its two leading scorers and six letterwinners next year, along with players from an eighth-grade team that had 11 members this season. If they can stay united and have a productive offseason, hope for a winning record next year doesn’t seem like a reach. While the three graduating seniors will be missed, they leave on as high of a note as any senior class in recent memory and the credit for being a big part of a season marked by substantial progress.
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