HUDSON — The Stow-Munroe Falls girls basketball team has featured its share of great players over the years.
In the mid-2000s, a potent offensive machine named Kristi Zeller, whose shooting range was more likely measured in miles rather than feet, helped turn the Bulldogs into a juggernaut.
Stow’s path to greatness was taken a step further by Zeller’s heir apparent, Liana Jennings. With Jennings at the controls, the Bulldogs had their greatest season ever when they reached the Division I state final in 2007.
Prior to this season, Stow knew it could jump on the backs of its “big three.”
This trio featured former maroon and gold legends Lizzy Stefanov, Lexi Petit and Emily Andrassy, who led the Bulldogs to more than 80 victories during their storybook four-year careers.
Therefore, Stow, which has enjoyed an overwhelming amount of success ever since Bob Podges became its head coach 21 years ago, faced a gruesome reality when its players took the floor this winter.
Well, it seemed that way, at least.
Thanks to a 61-35 rampage against Hudson last Saturday at Ray “Buck” Hyser Gymnasium, the Bulldogs are sitting pretty among Northeast Ohio’s elite once again.
Stow improved to 10-1 overall and 6-0 in the Suburban League National Conference. By the way, the Bulldogs have won the last three National Conference championships.
Against the Explorers, who have been owned by their main rivals since the 2013-14 season, Stow got a boost from a resilient playmaker who may have been hidden in the woods prior to this winter.
She is junior guard Lilee Carlson, who scored 13 points and controlled the game when the Bulldogs put Hudson away in the second half. Stow, which had some issues defending from long range, ended the game with a 31-8 run.
“I think our energy came back,” Carlson said. “A lot of the momentum was with them with all the 3s they were making. When we started to step up on defense and our offense was starting to hit shots, I think the momentum changed and went our way.”
Before the Bulldogs settled matters for good in the second half, the Explorers knocked down a pair of long 3-pointers to cut Stow’s lead to three (30-27).
As it turned out, Hudson did not convert another triple the rest of the way.
“They have some really good 3-point shooters on their team, so we were really up on them, making sure, even by the volleyball line, that they weren’t shooting the 3,” Carlson said.
Carlson didn’t convert from beyond the arc either. Nevertheless, it’s a safe bet no one from the winning team was complaining.
The silky smooth junior picked her spots to efficiently score her points in a variety of ways. She converted layups off fast breaks and dribble penetrations and also made some buckets from mid-range.
And when Stow put the pedal to the metal after halftime, Carlson had the honor of flooring her team’s accelerator. She scored all of her points in the final 16 minutes.
“People don’t understand that she waited her turn, which is rare in our society today,” Podges said. “She had played with a bunch of kids who had been here before and started.
“Now she realizes that it’s her turn to take that primary role. She has done an outstanding job with it.”
It has been an exhilarating ride thus far for the Bulldogs’ gifted junior captain. It has been a painful one too.
Carlson has been playing with an injured right thumb that has forced her to alter her game in recent weeks.
“It kind of messes with my shooting because it’s my shooting hand,” she said. “I’ve been taping it and playing with it and it hasn’t been too bad.
“I tried to go left a little more because on my right, it’s a little harder to dribble. Other than that, I just played the same game.”
Since Carlson has been able to play the “same game” despite some pain, it has been the same story for Stow, which hopes to compete for yet another district title.
As their history has proven, the Bulldogs have made district final appearances a regular thing in the last two decades.
Carlson’s highly-skilled teammates have made that happen in the past. Now it’s her turn.
“We’ve always been really successful so it has been really fun playing with the older people from my freshman year,” Carlson said. “I’ve gotten so much better.
“They’ve impacted my game so much. They made me so much of a better player that I wouldn’t have been if I was that big player from the start.”
Pardon Carlson if she may not be satisfied with another trip to a district title game. She’s far more interested in playing at a rather large venue near the ides of March.
Here’s a hint: A certain highly talented maroon-and-gold clad guard visited that prestigious location a dozen years ago.
“That’s always the goal, to get down to Columbus,” Carlson said. “We’re hoping that we can make it pretty far and stay healthy.”
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.