Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
Throughout Ohio, the OHSAA girls basketball tournament officially got underway on Saturday afternoon.
Teams went into their second seasons with a wide variety of goals, ranging from winning a state championship to working toward the future. In Lakewood's opening round game with Valley Forge, the Rangers faced a Patriots squad that had won just four games during the regular season.
Playing the game with an eye fixed on future games might have been an easy thing to do for Lakewood. But as the game got underway, the Rangers instead went to work.
An intense defense, forcing numbers turnovers, smoothed over some early rough moments on offense as the Rangers rolled past Valley Forge, 62-28, at Harding Middle School gym.
With the win, Lakewood advanced to the sectional finals on Thursday night. The Rangers will host Akron Firestone for the right to advance to the Elyria Catholic district tournament.
But first, they had some business to attend to with Valley Forge, according to senior post player Madison Clause.
"We know that we have to take it one game at a time," said Clause, who led Lakewood with 14 points while grabbing six rebounds.
"We're not looking forward at all. We're not guaranteed anything. We're guaranteed one game, and that's it, so we've got to take care of business every game," she added.
Lakewood, now 16-6, actually trailed early at 3-0 when the Patriots' Ashley Navolanic drained a 3-pointer to open up the game. But a fast break bucket and free throw from junior guard Christin Donahoe quickly tied the game, and a steak for two from senior guard Mikayla Harper put the Rangers ahead to stay.
In fact, Lakewood scored 13 unanswered points, a run capped off by a score inside from sophomore Ryan Greenfield. Valley Forge head coach Kim Leheta called a timeout at the 3:54 mark, her team having turned the ball over five times at that point.
But the turnovers kept coming, as the Ranger offense continued to shake off the affects of a long layoff.
The home team led 14-5 after one quarter, then scored the next nine points of the second quarter to make it 23-5. A Navolanic jumper broke the scoring drought for the Patriots, but a Harper 3-pointer, two free throws from Clause and a conventional 3-point play from senior Savanajh Black made it 31-7 with 2:02 left in the half.
"We're a struggling program," admitted Leheta, whose team closed out the season at 4-17.
"We're trying to work things out so that we can get our youth more involved," Leheta said. "That way when they get to the high school level, we're not so behind when it comes to skill level. Today, we told the girls that they're going to go out there, have fun and try their best.
"We didn't change any game plan or strategy. We just stuck to things we were comfortable with and ran all year long," she added.
As did the Rangers. Already up 37-10 at the half, Harper opened the third quarter with her second 3-pointer of the game to push the lead to 30. Lakewood pushed the lead to 40, 59-19, to open the fourth quarter when freshman post player Olivia Nagy scored on an offensive stickback.
By that time, Lakewood head coach Mike Harper was already dipping deep into his bench and setting his sights on Firestone.
"Their girls play hard," Harper said. "But in scouting them, we didn't think they had the ball handling skills to handle our pressure. We thought we would throw that at them early to see what they would do.
"Fortunately, we were able to cause a few turnovers. But it's the tournament. It's foolish to think you're not going to come out and start your starting five, or sit back and not do what you normally do.
"You want to come out for at least a half and play like you play," he said.
Harper noted that his team had not played a game in 10 days, the Rangers' last game having been Feb. 11 against Midview.
"We didn't play that one extra game, so strategically I thought some of our veteran players might need that extra time at the end of the season to heal," Harper said. "But that inevitably leads to a little rust.
"I don't mean to complain about what we did today, but we started out a little slow and missed some shots. We were out of position on defense on a few things, but that's part of shaking off the rust," he added.
Harper's team was also just two weeks removed from its huge 52-47 win at Magnificat.
"I think that was a really big game for us, especially going into the tournament," Clause said. "We lost to Elyria Catholic that Wednesday by one point to lose the conference. That kind of took us down a bit.
"But that win against Mags brought us up and got us pumped up for the tournament. It showed us that we can play with anyone when we come out and work together," she added.
Meanwhile, Leheta hoped her young team learned something from Saturday's game.
"I told the girls 'you know they're good. They're a legit team, and this is where you should strive to be,'" she said.
"If you want to be a good team and have that type of season, then watch these girls out there. Make it your goal to be like them," Leheta continued. "The Lakewood girls have been playing since a young age, and my girls have not. Some of my girls have played middle school ball, but others haven't touched a ball since entering the ninth grade here.
"It comes with experience, and unfortunately we lack that experience right now. But that's something we're trying to fix," she added.
Summer Iwais led the Patriots with six points, while Navolanic chipped in with five.
For Lakewood, Harper finished up with 10 points, while Greenfield and senior Taylor Shaw added nine and seven points, respectively.
"We make some mistakes, but there's no lack of effort," Harper said.
"We do some boneheaded things at times, but I always tell our girls to err on the side of aggression. You're going to make mistakes, but do them going 100 miles per hour attacking the basket, playing hard on defense, getting in the passing lanes.
"I like our girls' effort. They don't come out and dog it. This is a good motivated group of girls," he added.
Now it's on to the second round and a date with Firestone.
"We know we have a decent Akron Firestone team coming in next, so we have to get ready for them," Haper said. "It's one game at a time. I think that's the way you get where you want to get to," he added.
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Click on the cameras below to view Larry's photos and video highlights from this game: