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Girls Basketball: Rootstown’s success dates back 10 years with 3 different coaches

Girls Basketball: Rootstown’s success dates back 10 years with 3 different coaches


By Tom Nader

Publisher and Editor


At 11-0, few girls basketball teams in the state have started the 2023-24 season like Rootstown.

The Rovers have dominated the beginning half of their schedule, winning games by an average margin of victory of 33.4 points per game.

Off-season and preseason work certainly played an integral role in preparing the team for the season, but the deeper understanding of the program’s success dates before this year tipped off.

Long before.

Ten years, in fact.

The building of today’s championship-level play began during yesteryear’s random weeknight practice.

When they were 8 and learning how to dribble.

When they were 9 and learning what a pick-and-roll was.

When they were 10 and learning how to play help-side defense.

When they were 11 and learning how to beat a press.

Inside all of the small moments created big talent.

Many coaches, with many lessons to build a base knowledge of fundamentals.

Consider it evidence 1A for the power that a youth basketball program can have.

Having three high-school coaches over the last decade that have embraced the youth program has been vital.

All of which have placed their fingerprints on the current success of the Rovers.

Chip Bittecuffer (2014-18).

John Zelenak (2018-2022).

Joe Leonard (2022-present).

For Bittecuffer, he stepped in with a mindset to sharpen the skills of the current high-school players, while shifting a new, enthusiastic and involved approach to the youth program.

He was the first Portage County coach to place his youth teams into the Springfield Youth Girls Basketball League, which is now the home of many teams from the county.

To coach those teams, Bittecuffer selected varsity players.

“It was not to keep the parents out, but to build the whole program into a longstanding reloading stage,” Bittecuffer said. “Who better to teach it, but the ones that are living it? We developed some strong leaders in doing this, but without the parents’ continued focus to get their young ladies to anything and everything, our youth program would not have been as successful as it was.”

It was also a long play for Bittecuffer.

While the high-school program’s loss totals still trumped the win totals, he could see the program shift happening.

“The process takes time. Most don’t understand that,” he said, “but investing early pays off later. They put the work in. We just created the opportunity.”

Zelenak took over the program after previously coaching the Streetsboro High School girls.

“It was my second true opportunity as a head coach, so I set out to achieve much higher goals than the first time,” he said.

At Streetsboro, Zelenak’s goal was to help build a program that had not celebrated success consistently.

At Rootstown, one day after his practice when he was taking uniform inventory, he looked into the rafters and saw multiple championship banners from the 1980’s.

“They were dominant then, and I thought, that is what I want for these kids. Sustained success and many league titles in a row.”

Similar to Bittecuffer, Zelenak knew that in order to establish that kind of success, he would need to split his time between his current high-school team, while still investing time and energy into the youth program.

“I figured my approach was to show the kids, every single one of them from senior year to third graders, that I loved being around them and in the gym with them,” Zelenak said. “In return, I hoped they would fall in love with basketball and would want to start a tradition of excellence. I also wanted to teach them the values like family togetherness and cohesiveness are important and to make sure you remind the ones closest to them that you love them daily. I figured once that started to happen, the rest would fall into place.”

And it definitely has.

With Leonard, who previously was the head coach at Tallmadge, now leading the group, in his second season with the Rovers, the program has now won back-to-back Portage Trail Conference championships.

Over the last four seasons, the Rovers have averaged 15.5 wins per year and on track to win more than that this season.

The Rovers are also considered a favorite to win the PTC title again, which would be the program’s third consecutive.

And Leonard continues to build off what the program had before he took over, while still injecting some of his own personality into the future of it.

He has placed a priority on making sure his coaching staff, at all levels, closely fits his philosophy and desired program direction.

“We added some coaches with many years of experience and a few former players to the staff. We also have several current players coaching the youth leagues this year,” said Leonard, who has also gotten involved throughout the middle school and youth programs.

“The youth is the future, so I really have worked hard to try to make our middle school and youth girls feel like they are part of the program,” Leonard said. “We included the middle-school girls in our media-day experience, and we have taken them to a college-basketball game with us. Over the summer, we added open gyms for our youth girls and brought back our summer youth camp last year. The youth girls now play at halftime of our home varsity games, and we allow them to sit on the bench to be team managers for the game. We have also added Player of the Game awards for the youth and middle-school teams.”

All part of helping kids find success and fall in love with the game of basketball — just like today’s high-school players experiencing 10 years ago.

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