After two straight 20-win seasons, Stow-Munroe Falls’ position among Northeast Ohio’s best girls basketball programs is well-established.
This winter, however, the Bulldogs are dreaming even bigger. Having three four-year starters will do that for the program.
Stow coach Bob Podges enters his 20th season in charge of the Bulldogs with a team that deep, experienced and looking to make a run at states.
"Our aspirations are extremely high," Podges said. "We have a group of kids that have won 20 games each of the last two years. We need to take the next step, win the district title, go to regionals and see what happens. We’ve been put in tough spots in the district finals the last two years. We weren’t very healthy at the end of the season either."
Despite a rash of injuries to key players, Stow finished 22-3 last season, including 13-1 in the Suburban League National Conference, tying with Wadsworth for the conference title.
Stow lost only one player from last year’s team to graduation, although Theresa Parr was a key player, as she is now playing at Notre Dame College.
Stow returns nine letterwinners from last year, five of which have starting experience. What’s more, Podges said the team is "healthier than expected" entering the season.
"Many of our younger players got much better this offseason," Podges said. "We’re going to be a significantly deeper team this year. There are plenty of underclassmen who are pushing for time."
Podges said all that depth will allow Stow to push the pace this winter.
"We’re going to play a transition-style game on both sides of the ball," Podges said. "We’re also going to give our starting five more time to rest this year. We’re trying to drive to the basket as much as possible."
On defense, Podges still will use the "pack line" variation of man-to-man defense as his base, but plans to "spring a man-to-man press" on occasion.
Podges expects another rigorous year in the National Conference.
"Wadsworth is always going to be really good because of their tradition and coaching," Podges said. "At the end of the last season, Nordonia had three of the best players in the division coming back. The coaching change at Twinsburg is going to be beneficial to the program as a whole.
Jeff Camp Sr. and Jeff Camp Jr. return as varsity assistants for Stow, while Jim Gotschall takes over as Stow’s junior varsity coach.
The Bulldogs’ backbone will be the "Big Three" — senior guards Emily Andrassy and Lexi Petit and forward Lizzy Stefanov, all of whom have started since their freshman year.
Stefanov (6-foot-1) averaged 11.9 points and 8.5 rebounds as Stow’s starting forward. Having recently signed to play volleyball at Tulane, Stefanov could breach the 1,000-point mark this winter.
"She does so many things well because of her athletic ability," Podges said. "I believe one of the best reasons she is such a good basketball player is because she plays volleyball. She can guard the post and the guard player."
A 5-6 shooting guard, Andrassy returns after averaging 9.5 points, 4.2 assists, 5 rebounds and more than a steal per game last winter. A ferocious driver and defender, Podges said Andrassy has developed her outside shot.
"She’s out there consistently at the 3-point line," Podges said. "She’s a real threat. If she can hit the 3, she’ll be unstoppable on offense. She really is the captain of our defense."
There was never a question if Petit (5-3) would return after tearing her ACL in Stow’s first playoff game last winter vs. Walsh Jesuit. The question was whether she’d be the same feisty point guard who averaged 7 points and 5.5 assists per game last season.
"She was released on Oct. 22 to play," Podges said. "That night in open gym, she was still that aggressive and in-your-face player she’s always been. I give he a lot of credit. Her decision making has gotten so much better."
Already loaded with talent, Stow’s senior class got two unexpected boosts.
First, senior guard Claire O’Verko (5-4) returned to the program after not playing basketball since her freshman year.
"I’m ecstatic to have her back in the program," Podges said. "She’s a quality kid and the quality athlete."
Also, Stow will have a foreign exchange student from Slovakia join the team, as senior forward Petra Tancinova (6-1) will play major minutes.
"It was quite evident she knows what to do on the basketball court," Podges said. "She’s very sound fundamentally and has great foot work. Her biggest difference is getting used to the physicality of the American game."
Physicality is a big part of junior Kira Philpot’s game. Podges said the 6-1 junior forward had "a tremendous offseason" after averaging 4.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and will start at the No. 5 spot.
"She’s become very solid and very reliable," Podges said. "She’s a physically imposing presence."
Injuries hobbled junior forward Molly Richards (5-9) for much of last winter. Coming off a very solid volleyball season, Podges looks for Richards to be a big contributor off the bench.
Sophomore Lilee Carlson (5-8) had an excellent freshman year, averaging 6 points, 3.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game until breaking her collarbone in the middle of the season. Fully healthy, she’ll get the nod as Stow’s starting three guard and will also serve as Stow’s primary backup point guard.
"She might be our best on-the-ball defender," Podge said. "Lilly won’t give up. She’s a lot stronger this year."
Sophomore Bella Adams (5-8) also saw major minutes as a freshman, and will see time at both the three-guard and forward spots.
A trio of sophomore call-ups from the junior squad also are pushing for time in shooting guard Faith Kyer (5-5), point guard Ellie McCoy (5-3) and three-guard Krista McDowell (5-8).
Two freshmen also will see time on the varsity squad. Podges calls freshman forward Kristen Chimeleski (5-9) "a very talented basketball player" and envisions her in a Lizzy Stefanov-type of role going forward.
Meanwhile, freshman Emily Yaceczko (5-10) is a "classic post player," whose defense is already on par with the varsity squad, according to Podges.
In part to insure his team would be fully healthy entering the season, Podges moved the start of the season back a bit. The Bulldogs will open the season Dec. 1 at 2:30 p.m. when it welcomes North Royalton to James G. Tyree Gymnasium.
Stow will travel to Wadsworth Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MLeonard_RPC