High school girls basketball: Underclassmen showing growth for Tallmadge

Ashley Bastock
Akron Beacon Journal
Tallmadge freshman Sydney Becks led the Blue Devils with 15 points in a 52-21 win over Coventry in a Division II sectional semifinal Wednesday night. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

In the Tallmadge girls basketball team's 52-21 sectional semifinal win over Coventry on Wednesday night, the Blue Devils showed just how far their young core has come this season.

Three games ago, an already young team got younger with a lineup change that now has the Blue Devils (7-6) starting five underclassmen, including four freshmen.

"One of the things that I quickly learned is that they have played their whole lives together," coach Joe Leonard said. "They get along very well and I think they're all the best of friends, so that always helps. They genuinely share the ball with each other. Some of them have progressed quicker than others. I like the energy that they bring and they just really play hard."

Tallmadge's starting five now consists of Lexi Gray, Sydney Becks, Ashlyn Severns, Mia Zappola and Maya Dexter, who is the lone sophomore.

Dexter — who finished with 10 points in the win — was in the four freshmen's shoes just a year ago, and has been drawing on that experience as the undoubted leader of the group.

Tallmadge's Maya Dexter, left, reaches for a loose ball against Coventry's Gabby Dick during the first half of the Blue Devils' 52-21 win in a Division II sectional semifinal Wednesday night. Dexter is the lone sophomore in a Tallmadge starting lineup that includes four freshmen. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

"I know last year there were a lot of nerves that went through my mind," Dexter said. "But when I was a freshman a lot of the seniors, I had three or four seniors and they always told me that it was OK and to just be calm. So I tell them that it's OK and to move on because we have the next play." 

The lineup change first came against Barberton and Copley last weekend, a new look following a two-week-long COVID-19 shutdown. 

The change wasn't so much about getting younger players more experience as it was about finding a smaller lineup that would be able to effectively run a trapping press.

"Prior to the quarantine, we had two games against Kent where we beat them at the buzzer on a last-second shot and we went with a smaller lineup," Leonard said. "So we were going with the smaller lineup during crunch time in the second half because we really wanted to turn up the pressure. We knew that this lineup was there. I just hadn't made it the starting lineup." 

Tallmadge freshman Mia Zappola, center, puts up a shot against a host of Coventry defenders during the second half of the Blue Devils' 52-21 win in a Division II sectional semifinal Wednesday night. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

Although the trapping press that helped force 35 turnovers was the highlight of the Blue Devils' win over Coventry, the freshmen also have no qualms about getting involved on the offensive end of the court.

It was Becks who paced the Blue Devils with 15 points against the Comets. Severns had eight, Zappola six, and Gray four. 

"We have a lot of chemistry because we know each other and we know how we play together," Becks said. "So I feel like it's really nice for us to be together playing." 

Even before the lineup change, Tallmadge has always been a young team. Early in the season there were some games they lost by 40, and Leonard acknowledged things haven't always gone smoothly considering so many kids received little or no varsity playing time last season.

But the point has been to stick with those underclassmen so they can continue to learn, even in a season that is so stop and go, in hopes that it better prepares them for the future.

"There's going to probably be more of those days," Leonard said. "Down the road if we continue to develop and these girls work hard — they're going to be here during the summer, they'll be here during the fall and spring —and if they do that, the sky's the limit for this group."