After winning five games last year, the Clay Lady Eagle cagers matched their win total in just seven games this season.
It’s all part of a turnaround that has seen the program go from just one win two years ago to five wins last season to a 5-2 start in 2013.
Led by the trio of Morgan Connor, Haley Hess and her twin sister Hannah Hess, the Eagles were 5-2 and 2-1 in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference heading into the weekend.
Connor, the junior shooting guard, leads the team at 16.6 points per game, followed by Haley Hess (13.7) and Hannah Hess (10.3). Hannah Hess leads the team with 3.9 rebounds and Connor is second at 3.6. Haley Hess, a sophomore, is the team’s sixth man and Hannah Hess is one of the club’s few post players, despite being just 5-foot-8.
“It has been a process,” said second-year coach Corey Slovak. “The group of six juniors — they were very successful as freshmen. They won the TRAC as freshmen (15-1) and some of them played JV last year. They took it on the chin (last year) and played varsity before they should have (but) that experience was invaluable. The Hess girls helped the JV team go 14-8 last year. The girls learned how to win and the big thing is learning how to do it at the varsity level.
“Everything is bigger, stronger and faster (on varsity). The thing that I’m most impressed with this year is the girls’ mental toughness.”
The six juniors he’s referring to are Connor, Haley Orr, Sam Enck, Hannah Novak, Maddison Grimes and Jessie Bohland.
Because of their lack of size, Clay runs a four-guard lineup. Joining the 5-7 Connor in the starting lineup is 5-5 senior point guard Kayla Schaeffer, who leads the team averaging three assists. The other two guards are Orr and Enck (8 ppg.), both of whom are 5-6.
Slovak credits Orr and Enck as being the club’s two best defenders.
“They know they are drawing the top two offensive players on the other team,” Slovak said. “Sometimes it is a six-foot player or a point guard. They’re versatile and smart and they have that edge to them in terms of that defensive mentality.”
Novak (5-8), who averages 3.1 rebounds, and Haley Hess (5-6) are the first two players off the bench. Senior guard Brooke Gallaher (5-5), and Grimes and Boland, both of whom are 5-9, round out the rotation and help to provide some size.
What stands out about this undersized group is their versatility.
“I tell the girls that you need to learn how to play two to three spots on the offense,” Slovak said. “We have three players that can handle the ball and that makes it hard to press us. Our philosophy is that if teams press us, we’ll turn that into our offense.
“Overall, I will adapt to what players I have. We’re small. We’ve got seven guards on the team and we’ve got some good shooters. We are going to look to get out in transition and shoot threes. We are an up-tempo team. We live by the three, die by the three. The girls know that and they know who we are and don’t try to do things that aren’t part of their strengths.”
This season, there are two prominent victories that serve as a microcosm for the Eagles’ turnaround, and in both they put up some big time points. The overtime win over Fremont Ross (74-70) and the win over Waite (70-63), both of which came on the road, signaled a change in the team’s psyche.
“(Beating Waite) was tough.” Slovak said. “Against Fremont Ross, we went to overtime and those are a couple of games that I don’t think we win last year.”
The victory over the Little Giants saw the Eagles rally from a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime. A number of players came up big in that game, most notably Enck, who had a game-high 21 points, followed by Haley Hess (19), Connor (14) and Hannah Hess (12). The win over the Indians, which came on the road Monday night, saw Clay hold off Waite after they cut an 11-point deficit to three late in the contest. The other wins came against Delta, Lake, and Findlay.
“Even the two games we lost to Perrysburg and Central Catholic, those were both three-point games with three to four minutes left,” Slovak said. “We are turning the corner.”
The success of the team stems from their commitment to getting better during the offseason.
“(The girls) shot four nights per week during the offseason,” Slovak said. “There were a group of five to six girls that were in (the gym) during the summer. So far, it’s paid off.”
Slovak says if the Eagles are to continue their winning ways, they’ll have to stay focused and remain mentally tough as they get into the heart of their TRAC schedule.
“The kids are buying into the philosophy of not backing down,” Slovak said. “As we learn to be a little bit smarter, we’ll be okay in the long run.”