TROY - Five years ago, Chautauqua Lake girls basketball was a far cry from playing in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class C title game.
That just makes this season that much sweeter.
In years past, the program was more worried about competing against regional opponents from around Section 6 than making any sort of run deep into the postseason, but now that has all changed.
Photo by Jay Young
Chautauqua Lake coach Eric Schuster congratulates Jenna Einink, left, and Courtney Hewes after the Lady Thunderbirds’ state semifinal win over Haldane on Saturday.
Turnarounds of this kind are rare in high school sports, where perennially great schools can often dominate for decades and prevent upstart teams from making an impact.
Getting the chance to play for a state championship is always a sweet feeling, but for the players, coaches, parents and fans of Chautauqua Lake there is something a little bit special about this first time.
"Yeah it's been really awesome,'' said Thunderbirds Principal and Athletic Director Josh Liddell after watching his team rout Haldane, 61-39, in the semifinals on Saturday. "I tell you what, it is amazing to see how many people made the drive all the way out here. It seemed like we doubled the number of people that (Haldane) had and it just tells you how important this is to the community and how much they care about the girls. It's been an awesome run and we hope that it continues tomorrow."
Liddell certainly was not exaggerating about the support from the Chautauqua Lakes fans, who funneled into HVCC in droves to cheer on their team.
The Lady Thunderbirds faithful took up nearly two bleacher sections of the arena and gave Schuster's team the feel of playing at home despite being 300 miles from the comforts of Mayville.
For a while it looked like Chautauqua Lake was feeling the nerves of playing on the NYSPHAA semifinal stage against the Lady Blue Devils, but by the end of the game there was no doubt about who had the better team.
Schuster's squad displayed an elegant combination of talent, confidence and athleticism in its win over Haldane and a lot of that has to do with the man calling the shots.
"Oh I tell you what, (this team) is night and day from what it was six years ago,'' Liddell said. "You know when Eric stepped in he stepped into a struggling program and he has completely turned it around."
Of course the Lady Thunderbirds haven't gotten this far by relying on one coach or one player.
They keep on winning because of a team mentality that includes all players, coaches and fans.
No game illustrates that better than the Lady Thunderbirds semifinal win over Haldane in which stars Ashton Albanesius and Jenna Einink were hampered by foul trouble.
With their two best players on the bench, Courtney Hewes and Tara Hunt rose to the occasion and gave their team its biggest win in school history.
"It hasn't been just Eric though,'' Liddell said. "The girls have really dedicated themselves and the parents, the whole thing has been a real culture shift for this basketball program.''
The best thing about Chautauqua Lake girls basketball is that the players know exactly who they are from the ground up, with no affectations. They know what works, what doesn't and what a run to the state championships means to their fans.
Even in the face of some serious problems in the semifinals, the pressure never got to the Lady Thunderbirds and their coach.
"We're always going to come out with nerves," said Schuster. "From the hotel bus ride to here there wasn't a peep. Whether it is focus or nerves or a little bit of both, we are that way. I try to tell the kids once you get out there and the adrenaline starts flowing a little bit we'll find our niche and we'll be fine. We've been saying that all year long."
It is safe to say that focus is now the best word to describe Chautauqua Lake girls basketball.
Six years ago it was a team that no one was worried about and today it is the team that you really hope you don't have to play.