In the 2010-2011 season, an incredibly young Chautauqua Lake girls' basketball team shocked CCAA Division 3 by turning in a 10-2 record.
The situation has only gotten better this season, as the Lady Thunderbirds (10-0, 6-0) have stormed their way to a perfect record.
"We were young last year," Chautauqua Lake coach Eric Schuster said. "With these young kids having another year of experience under their belts, they go from the deer-in-the-headlights look to saying, 'hey, we can do this.'"
Chautauqua Lake’s Tara Hunt (14) drives to the basket while being guarded by Silver Creek’s Jade Lewis?(23) during their non-league girls’ high school basketball game. Head coach Eric Schuster and his Lady Thunderbirds have played to a perfect record this season.
One of the big differences this year has been the play of a pair of freshman - Jenna Einink and Ashton Albanesius. Einink came on strong last season and was named a first-team all star, but Albanesius wasn't even sure she'd be playing varsity basketball this year.
"Last year, Jenna was the big surprise," Schuster said of Einink. "We knew that she was very talented. With Ashton, it was up in the air whether we would even ask her to play varsity. We decided it would be good for her. Her biggest thing is that her attitude has been great. She gives 100 percent every day."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Lady Thunderbirds have the critical element of experience in senior Jill Einink - Jenna's older sister. Jill has been at the varsity level for three years and has endured the good times as well as the bad.
"She certainly takes a leadership role," Schuster added of Jill. "When we need that tough shot, we put the ball in her hands. She leads by example and is willing to take on that leadership role."
If the team hopes to accomplish big things this year, it'll have to cope with the loss of sophomore point guard Courtney Hewes - who suffered a broken wrist Thursday and is done for the season.
"You can only feel bad for her," Schuster said of Hewes. "She really sets the tempo of our team. She's probably not going to score 20 points, but she's really solid all the way through. She'll dish out five assists, grab 8-10 rebounds and score 10 points. But we have Tara Hunt, who will step right in and run the point."
The Lady Thunderbirds' biggest test of the season comes Tuesday night. They will host the also-undefeated Ellicottville Lady Eagles.
"It's a very important game," Schuster continued. "Our goal at the beginning of the year was to win the division so we're definitely shooting to win this game. We've said all year that we're going to take it one game at a time. So far, we've taken it one game at a time and haven't overlooked anybody. But the kids are really looking forward to this game."
Coaches have often said that a team can learn more in a loss than in a win, but don't consider Schuster one of those coaches.
"These kids are so competitive," he said. "It's pretty much win or go home for them. We can say that a loss isn't the end of the world, but they're going to be very disappointed if we lose. If we lose, they'd bounce right back. Last year, we got blown out against Pine Valley. We played them a second time and it was like we were a totally different team."
A major adjustment the Lady Thunderbirds are dealing with is how to handle success. Prior to last season's success, Chautauqua Lake girls' basketball didn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of its opponents.
"We take it in stride," Schuster said of the recent winning streak. "At Chautauqua Lake, we haven't been in this position for a long time. We surprised ourselves last year, being so young. The biggest thing I've stressed is that you can never be satisfied with where you're at. There's always something to improve on. We're doing that every day."
No matter how good a team is performing - and clearly the Lady Thunderbirds are at the top of their game - there are always improvements that can be made. Schuster points out that his team is in an unusual spot - his team might be too athletic.
"We have height and we have speed," he clarified. "We have great athletes. Sometimes I think they take that for granted. We've been talking about boxing out and rebounding. We have to do the little things. The first phase of our offense is to get the rebound out and go."
The fact that this Chautauqua Lake team is so young has to be terrifying for its Division 3 rivals. With a core of exceptionally talented freshmen and sophomores, it's not a stretch to say that the Lady Thunderbirds could be the team to beat for years to come.
"I hope so," Schuster said. "We have a good youth program now. I believe there's 41 girls, grades 3-6, participating in the program. With help from parents and the community, that's what makes a successful program. The stands were packed for our last game with Westfield. It was a lot of fun."
In his third season as head coach, Schuster has proven to be the perfect fit at Chautauqua Lake. He's installed a system that works and has the girls believing in it. His intensity is directly reflected by how his girls play on the court.
"They give it everything they have and put it all on the line," he concluded. "That's a testament to all of them. They like to win almost as much as I do."