YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) - On December 19, 2016, Crestview's talented senior player Alexi Gates hit a career milestone of reaching 1,000 points. That in and of itself might not seem that unusual, but Gates' accomplishment proved to be just the first of a record number of five ITCL girl basketball players reaching the coveted 1,000 point plateau.
"For the past couple of years, I've seen like one or two every couple of years but it's crazy so far to see five. And having three of them be my best friends with Karlee and Kaitlyn popping up on the same day that was really neat for me to see that," Alexis remarked.
In addition to Alexis, both Lisbon's Karlee Pezzano and Jackson-Milton's Kaitlyn Totani reached the milestone on January 9th. The fourth and fifth members of the club came on January 23rd with South Range's Maddie Durkin reaching the mark, while Kaitlyn's twin sister Ashley joined on January 26th. All the girls are seniors except for Durkin who is a junior.
Four of the five girls, Alexis, Karlee, Kaitlyn, and Ashley all played together on the same Ohio Lakers AAU team this past spring. As a result, they have all elevated their level of play and have grown close as friends despite playing for different schools.
"We were pretty good," Alexis said. "We played against a lot of tough teams. We didn't have any size but we did pretty well."
"We always had good teams, we made it to the championships in a lot of the tournaments," Ohio Lakers coach Rod Meeker said. "But those are all shooting guards, we needed a solid post player. We never had that 6'1, 6'2 player so when it usually came to the championship game we ran into somebody that was a post player that was going to dominate."
"That was a fun group to watch," Crestview girls basketball coach Rick Gates commented. "Every weekend in the spring during the AAU season I got to sit in the stands. That was a fun team to watch."
"Girls AAU basketball, if you want to get better you pretty much have to play AAU so you can continue beyond the high school season to get into the competition so you can work on your skills and repetition," Meeker explained. "That avenue is there and the ones who want to get better, that is what they do."
"I felt she needed to play against better competition for her to get better," twenty-five-year veteran and current South Range coach Tony Matisi said of Durkin. "She played with a Cleveland elite team. She was with them last summer. Florida, Georgia, Dallas, playing with kids from Cincinnati, and Cleveland."
Gates also talked about how girls basketball has changed over the past eight years that he has been coaching them at Crestview, "I think basketball right now is a sport that some of the girls have chose to really put in a lot of time in the offseason. Most schools have skill sessions, offseason camps and a lot of the girls will even go to some private instruction now. But essentially now most of the girls that are really dedicated will play basketball about ten months a year."
"Look at the five," Matisi said. "I think in the last three, four, five years the kids are getting so much better at a younger age with AAU, specialized camps and stuff like that. I think that trend is only going to continue."
Another big contributing factor to seeing the spike in girls reaching 1,000 points is just the style of play on the girl's side. No longer is half-court basketball the norm, girls basketball mirrors the boys with up-tempo, full court action.
"That is a huge point," coach Gates exclaimed. "I know with both my groups and the travel groups, we love to pick it up full court. We love to trap. We love to run the ball. I hate to use the word, but girls play more like the boys have. Very few teams like to play just half court and that style of play has changed with the girls."
"The style has really changed," Alexis agreed. "It's gotten way more physical. Even in just the past five years. Girls (basketball) has really evolved recently and lifting is part of basketball. I know my AAU team all lifts."
Alexis also brought up an additional factor as a player, "Shooting. We have to really focus on that. That is a big part of girls basketball. There are girls that can shoot lights out in this area. All four of the other girls are that way."
Coaching in the ITCL may be another factor that's flying somewhat under the radar. The league has a number of quality coaches that have brought experience from boys programs to their schools. Coaches like Jamie Entrikin (Lisbon), and Gates have coached boys basketball before taking over the girls programs at their schools.
"Looking at the coaches in the league, the coaches we go up against night in and night out like Matisi, Jamie Entrikin at Lisbon, coach Moshella (Columbiana). There are just a lot of quality coaches that have been around and a lot of them have been on both sides of the floor with both the boys and the girls like myself."
Entikin pointed out that he feels there is a combination of factors leading to the increase in 1,000 point scorers, "I think the game has changed a little bit with the three point line. I also think guys have started to speed the game up, but also, you'll get one or two good players on a team that you'll run everything through."
Alexis described what makes the other four girls so special, "I've played with Karlee for the past four years. She is amazing. She plays just like the boys, she goes in, she drives, her moves are ridiculously crazy. She shoots lights out also, so she is a double threat. It's hard guarding her when you play against her."
"Kaitlyn, the same way. She is so quick, just like her sister (Ashley). They are both amazing. They can both shoot lights out and drive. They are hard to guard too. Ashley, the same thing."
"Maddie Durkin is just a powerhouse inside and she can also shoot the three. So that's impossible to guard. They are all really hard workers. I don't really know Maddie, but you can tell that by playing her. She is a hard worker and loves the sport, just like all of us do," Alexis conclude.
"Karlee is quiet," Meeker said. "She doesn't say a whole lot, but I would call her my silent assassin. She just goes out and does it. She leads by example. All around great player."
"Kaitlyn and Ashley, I'll say the same for both of them. They are super smooth ball handlers. If a team we were going to face had a tenacious press defense it didn't worry me because I knew with Kaitlyn and Ashley the ball was going to get down the court, the press was going to be broken," Meeker explained.
"Alexis is a jokester," Meeker remarked. "Which makes for a good time. But on the court, she is super confident. She is confident in her skills and her abilities. If something needs to be done she is the first one to say 'coach, I'll do it'."
With this being the last year of the ITCL, girls basketball is going out with a big bang, especially with these outstanding players showcasing it. But perhaps more importantly, girls basketball in this area will continue to grow and thrive as the girls themselves improve their skills.
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