Back on right track

By Tom Hardesty Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Last year's loss is this year's gain for the Crestwood girls basketball team. Just a few minutes into the opening game of the 1997-98 season, disaster struck the Red Devils when veteran starting point guard Jessa Byrnes-Ellenberger, then a junior, blew out her left knee and was lost for the rest of the year. The injury to Ellenberger, a key player not only on the floor with her basketball skills but in the locker room with her leadership ability as well, put in motion a domino effect that eventually led to a 3-18 record _ Crestwood's first losing season in 15 years. Red Devils coach Loren Barkhurst was forced to move other players out of their natural positions to compensate for the loss of Byrnes-Ellenberger, and therefore was forced to bring up some junior varsity members to help fill gaps on the varsity. "Right off the bat, that caused us to have to scramble and decide who was going to run the point, who was going to handle the ball," said Barkhurst, in his 12th year as the Red Devils' head coach. "We had other ballhandlers, but it took a while to click. We spent the rest of the season just trying to get back on our feet." However, in a strange twist of irony, the injury to Byrnes-Ellenberger turned out to be the impetus behind the Red Devils' fast start to this season. They returned seven letterwinners off last year's team and, with the help of a healthy Byrnes-Ellenberger, have fashioned a 6-2 overall record and are in first place in the Portage County League American Division at 4-0. "It's given us depth this year," said Barkhurst. "That's one reason why we've had a big turnaround. Not only do we have Jessa back, but we have (sophomore) Jen Risch, who now has a whole season under her belt as a varsity player, and playing (sophomore) Megan Urban at post last year is giving us depth inside. "And coupled with the two freshmen (Andrea Haylett and Emily Musil), who played a lot of AAU ball, that's a good nine right there." The turnaround has been dramatic. Not only have the Red Devils doubled their win total last year in only a month, they have done it in convincing fashion: they are scoring 71 points per game while allowing just 45. They have scored 90 points once, 85 points twice and 81 once. "So far, we've out-depthed other teams," said Barkhurst. "We like to push the ball up the court and keep the tempo high. This is the best depth I've had since I've been coaching here." And it's the kind of depth that doesn't taper off the deeper into the bench Barkhurst goes. Consider that the Red Devils' two second-leading scorers, Musil and Risch, and top rebounder, Urban, all come off the bench. Musil and Risch each score 9.7 points a game while Urban grabs 7.5 rebounds a contest. Five-foot-7 senior guard Kristen Rhoda is the team's leading scorer at 15 points a game. She also comes up with three steals per contest. Byrnes-Ellenberger (5-6), who appears to be fully recovered from her devastating ACL injury, averages 9 points, 4.5 steals and 3.7 assists from her customary spot at point guard and is a key ingredient in the team's pressure defense. Rounding out the starting lineup are 5-6 senior guard Erin Hennicke (5 ppg), 5-11 senior center Emily Zabor (3 ppg, 6 rpg) and 5-8 senior forward Mary Jo Novotny (5 ppg, tied for the team lead in rebounds at 7.5). Off the bench come Urban, a 6-0 center who adds seven points to her 7.5 rebounds; Musil, a 5-6 guard, who contributes 2.5 steals to go with her 9.7 points; Risch, a 5-6 guard, who averages 3.3 steals and three assists as well as her 9.7 points; and Haylett, a 6-0 forward, who scores 5.5 points and hauls down five rebounds a game. But it's not just a matter of having experience, depth and talent _ which obviously doesn't hurt _ that has fueled this year's reversal of fortune. The Red Devils were simply hungry to show that last season's three-win showing was a fluke. "We look for a big year every year," said Barkhurst. "I don't recall a season where we didn't expect to challenge for the league title, so last year was quite a shocker for everybody in our program. The girls took it pretty hard, but they worked hard in the offseason _ they went to a lot of camps and a lot of open gyms. They did a lot of extra work in the offseason. "A lot of people like to make it out like, 'Well, Jessa's back.' But it's not just that. It's a combination of things. Everybody is responsible for our turnaround. All the girls deserve credit." However, it's hard to deny that having Byrnes-Ellenberger back on the floor has had a huge impact on the Red Devils' psyche. "When she got hurt last year, it was a big emotional challenge for the team," said Barkhurst. "I don't know if we ever got over the emotional side of it. That lack of leadership at the ballhandling position was something we struggled with. "The first game of the year (this season) there was some hesitation on her part and everyone else's part, but now we're eight games into it. The upperclassmen have done a nice job of being role models for the underclassmen, and the five seniors and four underclassmen have blended really well." And Barkhurst wants to see this progression continue game in and game out. "We're early in the season yet and we've only played four PCL games," he said, "so right now we're trying to get better and get ready for the bulk of the season. There's still a lot of room for improvement." And they've come a long way already.

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