By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
Joe Leonard saw everything he needed to see this summer to know that the Rootstown girls basketball team was comprised of tough players that loved the game.
Playing at the Eastern Ohio Camp during the off-season, the Rovers played a handful of games outdoors in sweltering and unforgiving 90-degree weather.
“There was no complaining, just competing,” Leonard said.
What started then still has not slowed.
Rootstown has pushed itself to a 12-1 overall record and it is undefeated at 5-0 in the Portage Trail Conference in a quest to repeat as league champions.
They have not been immune to adversity, though, with head coach John Zelenak taking a leave of absence just before the start of the season for professional reasons.
Top assistant Joe Leonard stepped in as the acting head coach and what could have been a distraction to derail a promising season has become an afterthought.
Leonard’s calm approach, coupled with the confidence of his players through preparation, allowed the Rovers to transition seamlessly when the coaching staff made its shift.
Leonard, who just joined Rootstown’s staff this year after spending two years as the head coach of the Tallmadge High School girls, had been working with the Rootstown girls over the summer and stepped up with a knowledge of the roster and the team’s offensive and defensive principles.
“Stepping into the role (as head coach) was made easier, because I was here for the work in the summer,” Leonard said. “I met most of the girls during summer camp and workouts in the fall. I had a clear understanding of the offense and defense and really didn’t change many things. The girls could concentrate on basketball and getting to know me better and not worry about a new offense or defense.”
The Rovers have responded, with sophomore Nadia Lough leading a balanced scoring attack, while the team’s signature zone defense continues to wreck havoc on its opponents.
To this point, Rootstown’s only loss of the season came in its third game against powerhouse Chippewa. Since that defeat on Nov. 25, the Rovers have rolled off 10 consecutive victories, with their chance for No. 11 coming tonight at Warren John F. Kennedy.
Rootstown’s success has blossomed through well known concepts: Hard work and execution.
While Lough is a dynamic scorer, she is not ball-dominant and the team’s approach is more about getting good looks as opposed to who is taking those shots.
Additionally, one of the Rovers’ most dangerous offensive weapons are their offensive rebounds that consistently lead to easy putback layups — most notably by Lough and junior Brooklyn McIntyre.
“This group never shies away from working hard and competing,” Leonard said.
And they truly do it as a group.
Kylie McColloch, Abby White, Lindsay Smith, Melanie Plecko, Aubrey Kline, Addy Germann, Porter Smith, Sasha Nichols, Lough and McIntyre all have their roles on the team and are good at the roles they have.
When your top players are also your hardest workers, your program is in good shape.
“Nadia is such a hard worker. She puts in so much time that you can’t help but follow her lead,” said Leonard, who graduated from Holy Name in 1988 and the University of Toledo in 1992. In addition to his time at Tallmadge, his previous coaching stops include Padua (5 years; JV boys), Holy Name (3 years; freshman boys) and Strongsville (1 year; JV boys). “Brooklyn is a quiet leader because of her work ethic and hustle, but also Abby White and Kylie McColloch are both well liked and respected in the locker room.”
For the Rovers to achieve their goal of repeating as PTC champions, they need to hold off Southeast, which is just one game back in the standings, with the Rovers having three league games to play.
Leonard has seen everything he needs to see to know that his Rovers are up for the challenge.