For instance, in the last 10 years, three SL teams that didn’t win a league championship played in the state final four. Others, like Highland way back in the early 1990s, Copley in the mid-1990s and Norton in the late-1990s, didn’t win the SL but went on to play in regional tournaments.
One thing, however, always stayed constant: Wadsworth won the championship. That truism held again this year, as the Grizzlies won their 13th consecutive SL title and 17th in 18 years. They won it outright on Wednesday night, beating Tallmadge 74-55, the stand-alone championship coming with an assist from Copley, which defeated Revere.
And with help from Revere, which beat Green. Twice. Green earlier defeated Wadsworth twice, most recently two weeks ago, right before losing to Copley.
Follow all that?
“It’s been nuts,” Revere coach Kory Malkus said before her team’s game against Copley. “When we lost to Wadsworth (in double-overtime three weeks ago) I didn’t know if we’d actually have a chance, considering we had to finish with Green and Copley.”
Turns out, Revere didn’t.
Copley, which beat Green and Revere down the stretch, couldn’t pull the ultimate SL upset trifecta. A week ago the Indians went to Wadsworth and lost 64-63. Had the Indians won that game and everything else gone the same, the Suburban League championship would have been a four-way split, with all four front-runners owning 11-3 league records.
That’s exactly how close this league was this year. And that’s what made it so much fun to follow and watch. It’s not just competitive basketball. It’s outstanding basketball. Wadsworth, Green, Copley and Revere could compete well with just about any team in the state.
“I saw the other day one of the area papers had the four top teams in the Suburban ranked in the top 10 in Northeast Ohio,” Tallmadge coach Jeff Manion said. “Seeing them first hand, they are what they are. They’re solid basketball teams. They are fundamentally sound and they run the floor really well. To stay in the games with any of them you have to play a perfect game.”
Throughout most of Wadsworth’s run, which began in 1990-91 when Sarah Wilfong and Stephanie Martin – daughter of John Martin, the program’s architect – were patrolling the court, the Grizzlies didn’t have much competition. Early on, Highland and Revere gave them a scare or two. During the mid-90s, it was Copley, which won the league championship in 1995, the only year Wadsworth didn’t win it.
Then along came Katelyn Vujas, Elisa Inman and Kate Lyren, who led the Grizzlies to four outright championships, losing just two league games along the way. That group made three final four appearances, winning the 1997 state title.
When they graduated, tradition, as they say, did not. The talent stream continued, as did the SL titles. From 2000-2007, they continued to win year after year, usually with ease.
“We had years where 12 of our 14 league games were just miserable,” said Wadsworth assistant coach Mark Postak, who has been the Grizzlies’ lead assistant for four head coaches, spanning nearly the entire 18 years of dominance. “Now, Tallmadge plays hard, Cloverleaf plays hard. Everyone plays hard. And they have some talent. You better be ready to play. The league is very much on an upswing.”
When four-year starters Cassie Schrock (Eastern Michigan) and Jen Uhl (Bowling Green), who led Wadsworth to the 2006 final four, graduated last spring, many folks thought the team’s run would finally end.
Green returned a solid nucleus, including four-year starter Amanda Rose. Revere had Dayton recruit Casey Nance back. Copley returned two four-year starters, both of whom played key rolls on the Indians’ 2006 final four squad.
“We set our goals at the beginning of the season,” Wadsworth senior Britt Busson said. “I thought we did a good job maintaining our focus after falling down. Everyone falls down. Nobody’s perfect. We just stayed focused on our main goal.”
The main goal is winning the Suburban League, keeping the trophy in Wadsworth, getting another picture on the wall of champions. There is still work to be done. It starts Monday night in the Akron Ellet Sectional. But nothing can be accomplished without first winning the league.
And the Grizzlies know full well that every season is seven-against-one.
“We look up in the gym and the banners and the last time we see a SL championship for girls basketball is 1978,” said Revere’s Malkus, whose team let a share of the title slip through its grasp.
Wadsworth twice stumbled this year, both times against Green. The first time, the Grizzlies could blame themselves. The second, a 17-point loss, they could only tip their caps to the Bulldogs, who outplayed them for all 32 minutes.
Wadsworth boarded the bus after that game thinking there was little chance for another championship. Then, in what head coach Andrew Booth compared to the domino-style happenings that led Ohio State to the top of the BCS standings this past football season, things started falling in place for the Grizzlies.
“It was just like every game could be an upset,” Wadsworth senior Sam Pecnik said. “We knew we had to play our hearts out every game. We would win a game and then we’d hear one of the other teams got upset. Then we’d be tied. I don’t even know any words to explain the way it went.”
It went how sports fans could only hope a league would go. Half the teams had a good chance to win the championship. Three of the eight teams were in first place in the last two weeks of the season.
For fans, players and coaches alike, it was sporting drama at its best.
“What better league to be in?” Tallmadge’s Manion posed. “Who wants to be in a league where you know you’re going to win the title at the beginning of the year? You want that constant testing night in and night out and that’s what you have in this league.”
And, put to the challenge for one of the very few times during a remarkable run, the Wadsworth Grizzlies were up to the test.