By VINCE PELUSO
Geneva coach Nancy Barbo described Eagles senior forward Natalie Thomas as the ultimate team player.
“Natalie simply is a coach’s dream and the epitome of ‘team first, me second,’” Barbo said.
It was that attitude that led to the senior being named the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Player of the Year.
Thomas, who led Geneva in rebounding at 10 per game while also contributing 10.8 points per game, reinforced her coach’s high praise by talking about her appreciation for the team concept.
“I’ve come upon this question, ‘would you rather be champion in a team sport or an individual sport?’ ” Thomas said. “My answer was I would rather be a champion in a team sport, which is obviously what basketball is. And I think that might be the reason why I love it so much.
“We were always there for each other and with an individual sport you don’t always have a team there for support or encouragement and that’s why I love playing a team sport.”
Thomas, whose three-minute speech sounded as if it was coming from someone much wiser than a high school player, further explained her enjoyment of her team.
“During the ups and downs of the season, everyone loses,” she continued. “Sometimes it’s a game you expected to lose and sometimes they are shockers. Throughout the season, I learned that you must shake off the poor performances, bad breaks and what should’ve been and move on. Just like in life, you don’t win every game.
“As a member of this team I learned I need to pick up my teammates when they’re having an off day and they’ll pick me up when I’m having an off day. When we fell short as a team, we just worked harder the next day and carried on.”
Thomas said that with the help of Barbo she learned how to treat every season the same, whether it was successful or unsuccessful.
However, Thomas and the class of 2013 — which included reigning ACBF POY Becky Depp — didn’t experience much of the latter during their time at Geneva.
“Resiliency seems to be in short supply these days,” she said. “In all aspects of the world, people seem to be quicker to quit when things aren’t going well. Basketball has taught me that whether we went 20-3 or 3-20, we work every day as hard as we can to get better.
“It isn’t just about being better than the other team on the court, it’s also about being better as a team than we were the week before. In my four years, I will remember the Geneva Eagles basketball team for the good teams, wonderful moments and great friends. This game of basketball has helped me navigate through one of the toughest times in my life.”
Thomas credited the Geneva coaching staff for teaching her lessons that will go beyond just basketball and will carry over into the rest of her life.
“I learned with the help of my coaches, lessons that will help me in life and through my college years,” she said. “I’ve been blessed by God to be able to play and I am going to truly miss this time in my life. However, I’m forever grateful for the memories that I have.”
It wasn’t an easy year for picking player or coach of the year in the area and it showed as the ACBF split it’s boys basketball Player of the Year award between Edgewood senior Andrew Konczal and Pymatuning Valley senior Tim Cross.
Konczal was the area’s leading rebounder at 10.4 per game while also averaging 13.7 points per game, 5 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.9 blocks.
Cross cracked the 1,000-point mark for his career this year and averaged 15.6 points per game and 4.2 assists this season.
Cross, often described by his coach Ryan Fitch as “an extension of the head coach,” talked about how sharing the award with Konczal wasn’t just an individual award, but a team one.
“I have to thank my teammates for all my memories and the fun times,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here without you guys and (this is) a team accomplishment.”
Cross also gave a special thanks to his younger brother, Aaron, who he said helped from the sidelines.
“My brother, Aaron, many may not see it, but during timeouts or halftime he’s pointing things out to me,” he said. “He’s showing me what I need to do against the other team and other things. Aaron, you’re a great brother and teammate. Thank you.”
Konczal, whose game changed from a perimeter-oriented attack to more of an all-around player as a senior, said he grew up a lot during his four-year career.
“I’ve grown a lot as a basketball player and also as a young man in my four years at Edgewood,” he said. “There is no way I could’ve done everything I did without my teammates. I was fortunate to have people helping me the whole way.”
Konczal was also sure to thank his coaches throughout his career.
“I would like to thank a lot of people starting off with my seventh grade coach, (current Edgewood athletic director) Mr. (Steve) Kray and my first high school coach, Mr. (Kevin) Anderjack,” he said. “I would like to thank my teammates, Coach (Paul) Stofan and Coach Jay (Bowler).
“Also, a huge thank you to Coach (John) Bowler. He never doubted me for one second and he gave me all the confidence I needed this season.”
Top of their profession
The aforementioned Barbo was again named ACBF Coach of the Year, although this year she split the award with Pymatuning Valley’s Jeff Compan, who wasn’t present Sunday due to a vacation.
Barbo was honored to receive the award, and gave much of the credit to her players.
“This is a very humbling award to receive in a setting such as this,” she said. “I really appreciate everything the foundation does. Thank you to the girls that I had the honor to coach this year.
“When you have a group of girls who are going to dedicate and commit themselves to a program, it makes your job as a coach very easy.”
On the boys side, Edgewood’s John Bowler took home Coach of the Year honors after guiding the Warriors to a 15-6 record.
Bowler was succinct in summing up his qualification for winning.
“You know, good players make good coaches. And I’ve got good players,” he said with a smile.
He also sure to thank the Edgewood administration and his assistant coaches (ACBF Charter Director) Paul Stofan and his son, Jay.
“I’d like to thank my assistant coach Paul Stofan and my son Jay, who helped me all season,” he said.
Hall of Fame
The ACBF Hall of Fame inductees included Kelly (Hitchcock) Emerine of PV, Jim Gilbert of Ashtabula, Jim Henson of Grand Valley, Steve Hanek of St. John, John Higgins, who played at Edgewood and coached at Harbor, Madison and Ashtabula before beome athletic director at Ashtabula and Lakeside, Richard Hill of Rowe, Tiffany Leonard of Geneva, Carl McIlwain of PV, Marianne Meola of St. John, Angie Miller of Ashtabula, Tom Naylor of Conneaut, Hiram Safford, who coached at Austinburg, Al “Red” Schubert, who played for Safford at Austinburg, Carl Stokes of New Lyme Deming and Mickey Zigmund of Jefferson.
The long and the short
At the end of the event, ACBF trustee Nick Iarocci joked about the foundation’s attempts to keep the banquet shorter.
This year’s total time was just around two and a half hours.
The shortest speech of the night came from Jefferson football coach Jimmy Henson, who clocked in a lightning-fast 23 seconds.
The longest? That distinction belonged to Carl Stokes, who came in at a solid 6 minutes, 44 seconds.
What a change
The ACBF Special Recognition Award went to the sixth-grade Edgewood Warriors basketball team.
The Warriors went a combined 30-11 this past season, but it wasn’t always that easy.
“Since third grade, we’ll never forget that first game,” coach Joe Zappitelli said. “It was at a Cleveland tournament, we lost the first game 65-3. It was eye-opening. We realized we had a long way to go.”
The Warriors came a long way, finishing first at the YMCA tournament and at the Edgewood tournament this year.
They also finished second at tournaments at Grand Valley, Jefferson, Lakeview and Cleveland.
Austin and Grant Nowakowski received the first Edward Jones/David Flautt Scholarship. The Coaches’/Referees’ Appreciation Scholarship was given to Emily O’Dell of Geneva, Abby Pisano of Edgewood, Brett Powers of Jefferson and Bud Ritari of Conneaut. Wilson Santiago was given the ACBF Officials’ Appreciation Award.