Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
When Berea and Midpark merged prior to the 2013-14 school year, there were those who wondered what would become of Midpark's vaunted girls basketball program.
Could the winning continue? Would the new team, made up former Meteors who were used to success and girls from the struggling Berea program, mesh and work together? Could the Titans challenge for a Southwestern Conference championship?
The answer to all those questions proved to be a resounding yes.
The Berea-Midpark Titans capped off their first season Thursday night with a convincing 59-31 win over Westlake to clinch the outright SWC championship. The Titans finished 12-0 in the conference and 20-2 overall on the way to winning the school's first-ever girls team title.
"I think this is really special," said Berea-Midpark senior guard Jess Barnes, a former Midpark player.
"A couple of us older Midpark players have seen this before, but the girls from Berea have not," Barnes said. "I think it's special to see what it meant to them, and what it meant to all of us coming together.
"A lot of people doubted us coming together this year, and they thought there would be a little bit of a letdown from the past. I think it was special that we showed them that we're even stronger than we were.
"We have more talent than we've had before, and we're not a team to be messed with," she added.
Her senior teammate and another former Meteor, Kyla Johnson, said her new team wasn't about to miss an opportunity to make history.
"It's awesome," Johnson said. "Coming from Midpark, we've done it three years in a row. To share it with the younger girls and try to start a tradition at our new school is great.
"From the beginning of the summer, we built a bond that's helped us play well together. Tonight, we had something to go get. We knew we didn't want to share the conference championship. We felt like it was ours, so we went out there and took it," she said.
And take it they did.
Westlake jumped out to a 2-0 lead on a bucket inside from senior guard Corinne Furci. From then on, it was all Titans as the home team lit up Purdy Gymnasium with a 12-2 run to close out the quarter and take a 12-4 lead.
Johnson's 3-pointer gave Berea-Midpark its first lead of the game at 5-3, and another trey from sophomore Savana Jankowski made it 12-3. A Monic Fury free throw got Westlake on the board before the quarter ended, but the Ttitan defense dominated. it forced seven Demon turnovers and held the visitors to one basket, that being Furci's initial score of the game.
The Titans' run continued into the second quarter. A pair of buckets from 6-3 senior Stasha Carey and an offensive rebound for two from sophomore Zoranne Host upped the lead to 18-4. A 3-pointer from Barnes ended Berea-Midpark's first-half scoring and made it 29-16 at the half.
The onslaught continued in the third quarter as the Titans made seven of 13 shot attempts and held Westlake to just three field goals. With a 46-22 lead heading into the fourth quarter, it was all over but the shouting.
"Our offense was flat from the beginning," admitted Westlake head coach Chip Weiss, whose team shot just 22 percent from the floor and converted eight of 15 free throw attempts.
"We didn't hit our foul shots either, which contributed to us getting off to a bad start," Weiss said. "But they're a great team, no question about it. They have great shooters, they're strong and they make good decisions.
"They played a great game today, and when they do that they're very hard to beat," he said.
Carey led all scorers with 20 points while grabbing 13 rebounds. Kyla Paster, a former Berea player, had 10 points, while Johnson and Barnes added nine and seven points, respectively. The taller Titans also dominated on the boards to the tune of 40-27.
"From Day One, these kids have come together and bought into sacrificing individual stuff for team stuff," said Titans head coach Kevin Braaten, himself a former boys head coach at Berea.
"It's a great group of kids to coach, and I'm really proud of them all," Braaten said. "I never had to tell them 'hey, we're being selfish' or 'we're taking too many shots.' They all bought into it, and I think that's why we've seen successful. And that starts with Stasha, who is a very unselfish kid.
"The Midpark kids are kind of used to this. I'm proud of them, and I'm really happy for the Berea kids who have gone through a lot of rough times, especially a kid like Kyla Paster. She's been on teams that have really struggled," he added.
Fury led the Demons with 13 points and eight rebounds, while Furci finished with seven points. Westlake, which settled for second place in the SWC, turned its attention to what lied ahead.
"The last five years this team has stood in our way," said Weiss, referring to the conference title.
"It's a good thing to have, because now we know what we have to do. We're inexperienced, and we're a young team. Now we have to learn how to deal with adversity, pick ourselves up and go from there. Nobody thought we'd even be here to have an opportunity to win a SWC championship.
"I told the kids it was a great honor to be here. It's a great thing for our kids to come out here and compete. We're learning, we're getting better and now we take it day by day," said Weiss, referring to the upcoming Division I tournament.
In that tournament, the Demons are the fifth seed and host Highland in a first round game Saturday. Berea-Midpark, the second seed, will host the winner of North Olmsted-Normandy on Thursday, Feb. 20.
"We feel like we have a whole lot to accomplish yet," Braaten said. "Our number one goal was to win the conference, and now we go to work on our second goal, and that is to win the district.
"I'm very happy with where we're at and how we're playing right now. We can get better in certain areas, but I'm really proud of the things we're doing right now. Our kids have been there, and they're used to playing in this kind of setting.
"Westlake has had a great year, and their coaches and players have done a great job. But I think our kids have been there longer, and experience is key. We got off to the great start, and we're at home, and I think that just set the tone," he said.
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