The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Sports

February 23, 2014

A Bob Ettinger column: A reflection of their coach

Jeff Compan’s unbeaten Lakers are confident, composed as they belt Berkshire in D-III sectional final

ANDOVER TOWNSHIP — A teenaged girl is drama personified. First-period math test?  Heart palpitations and hyperventilation are the norm. Can’t find the perfect blouse to go with those cute new shoes? A Stage 3 meltdown is in the works. Boyfriend was talking to the new freshman transfer at lunch? There will be heck to pay in study hall.

Every little situation that pops up is life and death and the world is expected to stop and bow at her feet.

When the Pymatuning Valley girls basketball team took the floor for a Division III sectional championship game with Berkshire late Saturday afternoon, a page in the history books as well as its season was on the line.

As the Lakers arrived for a shootaround an hour and a half before tipoff, you’d have never guessed it. The easy manner with which they walked through the doors to Pymatuning Valley Middle School’s gym. The giggling and laughing as they laced up their shoes spoke more of a Sunday open gym in late October than the culmination of yet another team goal reached.

“We’re just coming in to shoot around,” senior point guard Geena Gabriel said. “We just keep with our routine. We don’t get nervous before games.

“Well, we do have nerves, but we don’t let it show. We don’t want those nerves to get the best of us.”

“This is a weird group,” PV coach Jeff Compan said as he watched the girls ready themselves. “I seriously don’t know how to react to them sometimes. I don’t really know what to say to them. They’re never too high. They’re never too low.”

Like most teenaged girls, Gabriel and her teammates kind of like the fact their coach has a hard time reading them.

“For him not to be able to see our emotions, that helps us keep him under control,” Gabriel said. “It doesn’t make him too nervous.”

On a more serious note, Gabriel has an explanation for why keeping an even keel is important.

“How I look at it is every game is the same,” she said. “You take every game seriously.”

That is just the first sign the Lakers are different. They aren’t your typical teenaged girls. At least not when it comes to the hardwood.

“I like how even-keeled a group it is,” Compan admits. “All season, they’ve never gotten too high or too low. They just seem to grab the moment. I’ve had teams that needed to be motivated and I’ve had teams I’ve had to calm down. With this team, I don’t have to do either. It’s nice to have. I send them out on the floor and tell them what to do and they do a nice job doing it.”

The Lakers finished the regular season ranked as top team in the Associated Press’ Division III poll. They beat previously unbeaten Division II Lakeview in racking up 21 straight victories. They won a sectional semifinal by more than 40 points without batting an eyelash.

“They’ve set some goals for themselves,” Compan said. “They strive to meet those goals. They try and get better every day. This is a driven group. Everyone sets individuals goals and, obviously, we set team goals, also. They’re motivated to accomplish both.

“It’s one of the better teams I’ve ever had in working toward a goal and they do it together.”

Compan’s crew has crossed a number of those individual and team goals off those lists. They locked up the Northeastern Athletic Conference title and had that unbeaten record in the regular season. They knocked off the Bulldogs in one of the better wins in team history. Junior post Kelsea Brown joined the 1,000-point club. Gabriel is knocking on the door to that exclusive group.

With a 72-22 win over the Badgers, the top-seeded Lakers claimed a sectional championship and a date with Garrettsville Garfield in a district semifinal. The fourth-seeded G-Men walloped visiting Cardinal in another sectional final, 63-26. The unbeaten streak now sits at 23. Th 23 wins now represent the most for a single season in program history.

“It’s been a good ride,” Gabriel said. “I’m glad I got to do it with all the girls here my senior year. I’d like this to go on longer than it has in the previous few years.

“We take every day a day at a time. Like Coach says, ‘There’s always a winner and always a loser. Why not be the ones to win every time?’”

Yet there was no celebration in the locker room following the record-setting victory. No nets were cut down. No pictures taken to commemorate the day. Not a single demonstration of exuberance or joy.

There’s work yet to be done, rungs on the ladder that need to be reached.

“I watch them sometimes and I swear this is a job for them,” Compan said. “They act like they’re coming in to work and punching a clock. They’re very business-like sometimes.

“In a way, that’s good. They’re never too high or low. It’s just another game. They don’t get very emotional about the things that are going on.”

At this point, a team with the Lakers’ resume would be looking ahead, making plans for the regional and maybe even the state tournaments. For Compan’s crew, there’s only today.

“I say, ‘Listen. If you want to keep winning and go as far as any team can, the only way is to win that play, that quarter,’” Compan said.

“The girls have adopted that mentality. They’re not going to get too far ahead of themselves. They can’t hit tomorrow until they get through today.”

The Lakers did get through their most recent “today.” They did it easily.

Junior post Megan Stech recorded a triple-double with 15 points, 18 rebounds and 10 steals. Totals she had no idea she was amassing as she and her teammates were dismantling Berkshire (3-19).

“I’m just playing the game,” Stech said. “I don’t pay attention to my stats.”

Gabriel netted 22 points and is now just 39 shy of joining Brown and former great Melody (Holt) Nowakowski as the only female members of the 1,000-point club at PV. Brown added 19 points of her own. Kat Hall netted 9 points off the bench.

As a group, the Lakers forced 36 turnovers and held the Badgers to a 9 of 26 (34.6 percent) shooting night. They turned the ball over 7 times and committed just 4 fouls.

During the game, as the team, and more specifically, guard Rebecca Dillon, were struggling to find their shots, there was no panic. Compan didn’t chew on anyone’s behind. Nobody was pointing fingers at others for taking too many shots.

Compan made light of it during one early timeout saying, “Let’s try to hit the rim first. We’re going to take baby steps. Hit the rim first.”

Before the 2nd period started, he offered some sage advice to Dillon.

“Now, every time you catch the ball, you’re thinking, ‘Should I shoot? Shoot I not shoot? Get yourself in a rhythm,’” he said. “What you need to do is go out and hit an easy one. You’ll be fine.”

At the half, he made light of the situation yet again.

“You just had to change your trajectory from the middle school,” he said. “Maybe you were adjusting for the wind? Rebecca, you getting ready for a big date tonight or something?”

As the team headed for the door, the Lakers made a point of teasing their teammate.

“Got a hot date Becca?” one girls asked.

“Becca was K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” another chided.

Dillon, for her part, found the humor of it all, blushing a bit before partaking in a much-needed giggle.

There were still 16 minutes to be played and, though the score was lopsided in favor of Pymatuning Valley, the issue had yet to be settled.

Again, nobody would have known.

Maybe that’s the reason the Lakers have won 23 straight. Maybe that’s why, with their place in history on the line, the Lakers were acting as if they were assembling for the first practice of the year.

“We’re on a 23-game winning streak,” Compan said. “This is high school basketball. These are adolescent girls. You never know what each day is going to bring. Somebody might be fighting with her boyfriend. Somebody might be mad at somebody else on the team.

“They’ve kept the drama out of it. It’s nice. They’ve gotten along the whole season. At the half, they were joking with poor Rebecca. That makes it enjoyable. It’s fun to be here every day.”

Maybe that atmosphere makes the blue-collar aura surrounding the Lakers possible. It’s easy to punch the clock every day when you love your job.

It’s also easier to reach the mountain top when you concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other rather than focusing on how in the world you are going to march thousands of feet up the side of a steep rock.

“We just take it one game at a time,” Gabriel said. “We focus on that game, that day, and try not to worry about the next game. That’s when we could lose.”

For the PV girls basketball team, the summit of that mountain is still off in the distance. After all, at the start of the postseason, a state championship was 8 rungs up the ladder. There are 6 to go. A berth in the regional is 2 steps off yet.

As Compan told his crew after the victory, there is still a job to be done.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You’re now the winningest team, as far as the regular season, in history. Congratulations. But we’re not done. Two steps are down. There are a total of 8 that we want to go.”                               

Ettinger is a freelance from Ashtabula. Reach him at bettinger@starbeacon.com.

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