Southeast has already clinched a share of their third straight league title and can win their league outright with a win Wednesday at Mantua Crestwood.
Prior to the start of this season, a third league title wasn’t a sure thing. The Lady Pirates had holes in their lineup they needed to fill stemming from graduation losses of players instrumental in winning the first two league titles. However, Tasker knew he had plenty of talented girls with the game experience needed to fill the void, and girls eager to carve their own place in Southeast history.
“We did have some holes to fill, but we knew we had kids with a lot of experience over the last two years that have played in some big games, so we did have high expectations,” said Tasker. “(The girls were) wanting to make their own name. They kinda felt they were known for the players the last few years that won the championships and they wanted to prove they could do it on their own.”
To fill the void, Southeast has had different players step up in different areas of the game. Junior Mya Levels has helped solidify the inside game and established herself as one of the top players in Portage County. Levels is averaging 17 points, 11 rebounds and over four blocks per game,. She is joined in the post by seniors Lindsay Speidel and Nikki Murphy who together present a frontcourt that can rival any team in the state.
“We have three tall girls in the middle,” said senior guard and captain Erikka Coontz. “We like to use our inside game a lot and that also sets up everything else we do.”
Coontz herself has helped strengthen what was thought to be a weak spot for the Lady Pirates coming into this season.
“(Coontz) has had a really solid year for us,” said Tasker. “That was our one weakness coming into the year, we weren’t sure who was going to stabilize our perimeter game especially our shooting, and Erica has done a nice job with that, and opening things up for our size inside.”
The seeds for this year’s success were planted when Tasker took the team to the highly competitive Eastern Ohio Basketball Camp in Sherrodsville. Despite going without Speidel, who was suffering from a knee injury, Tasker felt that was the point where the team began to gel.
“We went down there short handed and basically got pounded our first two or three games, then all of a sudden something just clicked,” Tasker said. “But you could see it starting to come together and the girls making the commitment to each other.”
Speidel points to an early season showdown with Mogadore Field as a game that has propelled the Lady Pirates to the point they are at. In the battle of the preseason favorites in the Metro Division of the PTC, Southeast broke open a close game with a 25-8 forth quarter performance to get a 60-45 win.
“Our first game with Field, that was supposed to be ‘The Game’,” Speidel said. “That set the tone, because we were supposed to be the two main contenders, and winning that really set us up.”
Coontz, Speidel and Murphy are joined by Ali Austin, Kelsey Hill and Kera Lemasters in a senior class that both the coaches and players describe as a family.
“We have a lot of team chemistry and its fun playing with each other,” said Coontz. “We’re very close. After we played Field the second time I don’t think I’ve ever cried for being so happy. Looking around at every senior, we really have something special going on. We play for each other.”
“We use the word family all the time and this really is it,” Tasker said. “These kids want to see each other do well more then they want to see themselves do well. It’s a group that really enjoys playing basketball together and really enjoy being around each other and that’s stabilized the program.”
“Everybody is so close, we’ve known each other forever,” added Speidel. “We just know each other so well, Erikka will know when I’m getting ready to post-up and she’ll get it to me, we all know where everyone’s going to be.”
The Southeast family is looking to end a streak of first round losses in the tournament. The Lady Pirates have not won a tournament game since 1999. A streak that this year’s team has been anxious to break.
“We have struggled in the tournament and I can not put my finger on it,” said Tasker. “The last two years we have been the better team and have been beat the first round as a higher seed.
“This team has been looking beyond the regular season. We knew if we played like we’re capable of the regular season would take care of itself. This team is really geared up for the postseason. They want to win a couple tournament games and our goal is to get to the district championship game.”
This year the pieces appear to be in place for Southeast to make such a run.
“I think we’re a little different team this year then in the past,” said Tasker. “I think we got the defensive stoppers we need, the inside game we need and also the perimeter game. We’ve been missing a little bit of that each year.”
Although an undefeated season did not start off as one of the goals for the Lady Pirates, 20-0 is now in their sights. The team however is more focused on making a run in the tournament.
Speidel believes that the team has a lot to prove not just for themselves but for the entire Portage Trail Conference.
“In our district, people think the PTC is a joke, every year people think it’s not a tough league and that’s why our record is so good, we hear that year after year,” said Speidel. “Winning would be huge just because it would be making our PTC look good and we are a tough league and giving us respect, not even just for Southeast, but for us in general if we win.”
The Southeast Lady Pirates have earned the second seed in the Austintown District. They will get their first chance to make a statement when they face Cortland Lakeview in the first round on Saturday, February 9.
“We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder right now. Hopefully that will work out for us,” said Tasker. “We’re taking it like we’re against everybody. It’s like it’s Southeast versus The World and that’s the mentality we’re using.”