by MICHAEL LEONARD | SPORTS EDITOR
When Bill Johnson took over the Tallmadge girls basketball program, he had to focus much of his effort on fundamentals and getting his players to learn his system.
Three years later, things are a little bit different.
“Of our varsity girls, six of them have been with us since I started with the program,” Johnson said. “We have a group of very committed girls who don’t slow down for anything and pick each other up. They don’t ever let me down.”
Little wonder why Johnson is very optimistic heading into his third year in charge.
Tallmadge finished 15-6 overall and 9-5 in the Suburban League last season, which was good for third place in league behind perennial powers Wadsworth and Green.
The season did end on a sour note, however, as Tallmadge was eliminated by Cleveland Heights Beaumont (53-46) in a Division II sectional final contest.
“The way it ended was definitely bittersweet,” said Johnson, who has guided the Lady Blue Devils to a 24-18 record during his two years. “That year kind of set the foundation for us though.”
Tallmadge lost only two players to graduation in Haley Congrove and Anna Vassalotti.
“Anna and Haley were good leaders and they taught the young girls well,” Johnson said. “The thing is those two accounted for 44 three-pointers last year. That’s where we will miss them.
“That said, this year, we have post players who can score. We’re going to be going inside more.”
Although the Lady Blue Devils have experience in the post, Tallmadge’s two biggest obstacles remain the same as last season: Lack of size and lack of depth.
The Lady Blue Devils will carry only eight varsity players this winter.
However, Johnson expects his team’s philosophy — and a lot of motion — to overcome any obstacles.
“We’re small, that’s obvious,” Johnson said. “Right now, if we stay healthy and play ‘Tallmadge basketball,’ we can be competitive with anybody.”
“Tallmadge basketball” means a lot of pressing, both in the half court and full court. Johnson said he expects about 60 to 70 percent of his team’s offense to come from its defense via turnovers and fast breaks.
When the Lady Blue Devils play half-court offense, expect a ton of pick-and-rolls.
“The confidence we have in each other and with our offense means we feel that we can attack the basket from a lot of different directions,” Johnson said.
Leading the charge scoring-wise for Tallmadge will be senior Leah Makuch (5-foot-8), who will start at the three-guard and/or forward spot. Makuch was named second-team All-Suburban League last season after averaging 9.7 points per game.
Johnson said it is Makuch’s versatility which makes her dangerous.
“Over the summer, she really worked hard on her all-around game,” Johnson said. “She has free reign to shoot.”
The Lady Blue Devils got a boost when senior Demi DeLorenzo (5-6) decided to return to the program after taking her junior season off. Fresh from leading the Tallmadge volleyball team to regionals, Johnson said DeLorenzo will start at the shooting guard spot.
“She brings athleticism and a competitive spirit,” Johnson said. “Every team needs that.”
At 5-foot-10, senior Amanda Brumbaugh’s job will be to provide Tallmadge with an inside presence from the starting center spot.
“I told her, ‘If you just go out there and box out and rebound, you’ve done all we need you to do,’” Johnson said.
The engine of the Lady Blue Devils’ offense is junior point guard Kelsey Rice (5-9). Rice was named first-team All-Suburban League after averaging 6.2 points, 6.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game last season.
Although she is an excellent passer, Johnson said he needs more scoring from Rice this season.
“She needs to be more selfish,” Johnson said. “We need her shooting 12 to 15 times a game to be successful.”
Junior forward Mary Ryan (5-8) provides more versatility in the post. She averaged 6.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season.
Junior guard Kirsten Lightel (5-7) will likely be Tallmadge’s first reserve off the bench.
“Last year was a little bit of an eye-opener for her playing as a sophomore on varsity,” Johnson said. “Defensively, she’s excellent because she’s so long and athletic.”
Rounding out the Lady Blue Devils’ starting lineup is junior three-guard Hallie Allen (5-5). Allen is Tallmadge’s No. 1 defender and top returning outside shooter, but Johnson is seeing her add a new dimension to her game.
“She’s trying to handle the ball better so she can drive to the basket more,” Johnson said. “I like what I’m seeing.”
Sophomore guard Joanna Catalano rounds out Tallmadge’s varsity roster after returning from a knee injury last season.
Johnson’s coaching staff remains intact with Steve Newlon and Derek Widuck serving as varsity assistants. Brent Hovey serves as head junior varsity coach.
Tallmadge is scheduled to open its 2012-13 season at home Nov. 27 against Streetsboro. Junior varsity tip time is set for 6 p.m.