SPRINGFIELD TWP. There are local high school girls basketball teams with better records, but there may not be a team around feeling better about where it is and where it’s headed right now than the Springfield Spartans.
With just a handful of games left in their season, the Spartans are rolling and reaching heights the program hasn’t seen in several years. A 43-40 win over East earlier this week elevated Springfield to 7-12 overall and with two Portage Trail Conference wins on their resume, the Spartans continue to take steps forward in their fourth season under veteran head coach Kevin Pletcher.
“My second year we had six wins, three the year before that and the year after that, so where we are now, we haven’t been at that number at this point in a season,” Pletcher said.
While myriad of players have contributed to the team’s improvement, it’s hard to overlook the play of forward Natalie Phillips. The 5-foot-9 junior is averaging 13.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.9 steals, 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks per game and that all-around game and propensity for including her teammates and finding ways to get them into the game are what Pletcher points to first when it comes to his leading scorer.
“It’s not only what she’s done in offseason to get better, but we have a nice supporting cast around her and it’s a team effort … everything’s about the team, win or lose,” Pletcher said. “One nice thing about Natalie is, besides the offensive end, you get the rebounding, over eight rebounds per game, nearly three steals a game, three assists a game … she looks for other people and she’ll rack up the assists.”
Phillips’ value was underscored in a game played during the school’s holiday break, when she was out due to injury and the team sputtered in a loss.
Since then, the Spartans have been playing better and better, a theme on display when they got their third chance in as many years to play in one of the high school basketball games hosted each season by the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena.
In the past, East has been the opponent for Springfield’s games at the Q, but this year had a special twist as the contest was between the Spartans and one of their biggest PTC rivals, Coventry. It was the first of two matchups between the neighboring districts and while it meant giving up a home game on their own floor, the Spartans were more than happy to take to the court in Cleveland after a Cavs game and score a 60-40 win over the Comets.
“It’s always a good time when we go up there. The girls enjoy it and it’s different type of atmosphere … they always good job hosting us up there,” Pletcher said. “The difference this time is that the Cavs played first, but going up their and getting a win always makes that a good trip, especially with a league win over Coventry.”
The victory, which Springfield followed up wit ha 52-39 win over the Comets in a return game two weeks later, was the first of the season for the Spartans and adding another league win was one of the goals for the season after one-win PTC campaigns the past two years.
Contributions from players such as junior Faith Dawson, sophomore forward Tia Gardinier and junior guard Taylor Kern, among others, have also powered the Spartans’ late-season push, one they hope will grow to include another league win or two and more momentum entering the tournament. There, they expect to receive their highest seed during Pletcher’s tenure, either ninth or 10th depending on how the votes break down.
Either seed would be a rise above the typical 12th seed that they’ve received and a sign that rival coaches are noticing the improvement in the program. Even in losses, such as a 68-58 road defeat at the hands of PTC Metro second-place team Ravenna, Springfield has been competitive and a few small breaks away from upset wins.
Now that they’re rolling, with two straight wins at a key time of year, there is a hunger for more.
“I know they’re excited about that. They’re good group to coach, they all look out for each other and they help each other out … they are good teammates to each other,” Pletcher said. “To be able to exceed that win total (of six victories), I know they’re looking to get some extra wins in the PTC especially. That’s the goal, to get wins with teams that we can compete with.”
Even with more experienced teams such as Ravenna who have a bit more firepower than the Spartans, the message from the coaching staff is that no opponent should outwork them and any foe who walks off the court with a win should know they had to battle from start to finish to earn it.
It’s why, for the first time in a long time, Springfield girls basketball is matching a new approach with both moral and literal victories and demanding that people take notice. The good news for the future is that the squad’s three seniors account for just 18 percent of the team’s scoring, meaning that the bulk of the production driving these Spartans has a chance to return next season and continue the climb.
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