For the first time in school history, the Chautauqua Lake Lady Thunderbirds will have an opportunity to bring home a Class C New York State Public High School Athletic Association girls basketball championship after moving past Keshequa 76-62 in Far West Regional play last Saturday.
Coach Eric Schuster’s team will embark on their inaugural trip to Hudson Valley Community College in Troy today as they prepare for the biggest game of the season at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday in a semifinal contest against Haldane, which is ranked No. 1 in the state.
Chautauqua Lake, ranked sixth in the state, will carry its 22-1 record into the semifinals against the top-ranked Blue Devils and hope to advance to Sunday’s title game at 1:45 against the winner of the other semifinal between second-ranked Hoosic Valley and fourth-ranked Harpursville.
“(Wednesday) and Thursday we had our normal practice and then Friday (the fans and parents) are going to have a little send off for us at around 8:30 a.m.,” Schuster said. ”We want to get there around 4 p.m. and then we’ll have an hour to practice at a local gym at night.”
He added, “We’ll face Haldane out of Section 1, and to be honest with you I see a lot of Keshequa (who the Lady T-Birds defeated in the Far West Regionals) in them.”
“They play an up-tempo style like we do with man-to-man pressure. One thing that I noticed is that they seem to be fundamentally sound both defensively and offensively. I think that our kids are ready and up for the challenge.”
A quick look at Haldane’s recent games will tell you that the Blue Devils are no slackers on defense as their past four opponents have only managed 35, 32, 27 and 38 points.
The good news for the Lady Thunderbirds is that Haldane is also low scoring on offense as it has averaged just 44 points a game over the course of the season.
That style of game should play to the strengths of Chautauqua Lake, which averages 57 points per game and has had no trouble scoring at any point during the season.
The Lady Thunderbirds even managed to put up 46 points against Class AA Jamestown during a tournament meeting earlier in the season despite the Lady Red Raiders’ very athletic starting five.
Chautauqua Lake has also been remarkably confident and calm during its run into the postseason despite fielding mostly juniors.
After holding an eight-point lead on Keshequa, the Lady Thunderbirds were outscored in the third quarter and had to dig deep before finally punching their first ticket to states.
“We had an eight-point lead at halftime and I told the girls that we didn’t play our best basketball,” Schuster said. ”We made a few changes and then I had a timeout with a few minutes to go in the third quarter. I just said, ‘You are going to have to give 100 percent and just bite your lip.'”
The message did not fall on deaf ears as the team went on to score 27 in the final quarter.
That sort of resiliency could be crucial Saturday if Chautauqua Lake struggles with the pressure of its first state tournament or has difficulty against Haldane’s shutdown defense.
While stars Jenna Einink and Ashton Albanesius have been making headlines for the Lady Thunderbirds all year, fellow junior Courtney Hewes has flown under the radar with her outstanding season and figures to make a splash at HVCC.
Running the floor as a guard, Hewes has been excellent on both ends of the hardwood with nine points, four rebounds, four assists and six steals per game.
“We have a lot of different leaders, the one that gets lost in the shuffle is Courtney,” Schuster said. ”She is up and down sometimes, but she is the type of leader who sets an example with how hard she plays.”
He added, “Jenna is our leader on and off the floor and Courtney is the one who is our floor general and she sets the pace for our team; we are a totally different team without her.”
Hewes has helped keep the Chautauqua Lake offense in rhythm during tight spots when Einink and Albanesius have had to deal with heavy pressure inside.
You can bet that the Blue Devils will do their best to take away buckets in the paint Saturday, which should open up more chances for Hewes to make passes as well as try and knock down open shots.
Allie Monteleone will be Haldane’s equivalent at guard and will draw the majority of the defensive pressure from Chautauqua Lake.
The junior is averaging around 19 points per game, just one behind Einink, and also contributes on the glass with seven boards per contest.
Monteleone is hitting her stride at the right time in the year as she dropped in 27 against regional opponent Tri-Valley after hitting 20 points back-to-back in her previous sectional games.
Complimenting Haldane’s dominant guard play will be seniors Cali Schweikhart and Sam Lisikatos.
Lisikatos typically fills in scoring for the Blue Devils when Monteleone sees pressure and has broken the 20-point mark several times this season while Lisikatos will have the difficult task of fighting for rebounds with Albanesius and Einink.
Schuster and his team have made a point of staying relaxed and enjoying their new opportunity to play at the highest level.
“I do know that our school and community have been very supportive,” Schuster said. ” I just think that it is something that we needed and it’s been enjoyable. (The experience) has been fun and our boys basketball team really enjoyed it, they have come up with their own blog, the Mayville Maniacs, and they have been posting on there about our team.”
The Lady Thunderbirds are soaking in their first-ever trip to states and with a team full of juniors it appears they could be making a repeat visit next year.