OLD FORT - Growing up, just about every girl has heard the story of Cinderella. The tale of a young girl coming from nowhere, surprising everyone to become the star of the ball has always had its appeal. So, it's no wonder a group of girls would enjoy playing that role in real life.
In Old Fort, there's no fairy godmother, pumpkin stagecoaches or glass slippers. Just a pretty good basketball team. A team that's come out of nowhere to exceed the expectations of just about everybody, and become the surprise story of the first month of the high school basketball season.
"I kind of like the Cinderella story," Old Fort junior guard Sammy Miller said. "It proves we're a better team this year. But, we work a lot better this year together, and it helped us tremendously."
A year ago, first-year coach Jennifer Miller took over a Stockader team with a roster dominated by underclassmen. The team went through its share of growing pains and struggled to a 1-22 record.
One year later, the roster now features a core group of experienced juniors and a talented incoming freshman class.
The results: Eight wins. No losses.
Even if no one else knew it, the players knew this would be a better season. Undefeated-at-Christmas better? Maybe, maybe not. But the holidays are just a little happier this year with the zero being in the loss column, as opposed to the good side of the ledger as it was last year.
"I honestly don't know if I expected it or not," junior forward Sara Bell said. "I knew we'd be better, but everyone expected us to not be much different that year. So, I think we're surprising a lot of people, and I myself am surprised and I'm really liking it. It's a lot more fun to win than to lose."
Coach Miller even admitted she didn't know much improved the team would be. All she knew was that the team came in with the right mindset, and put in the work to make the turnaround possible.
"I didn't know what to expect. All I know, you just have to keep pushing. What's the past is the past. You just let it go and you just keep looking to the future," she said. "We came in, lifted, we shot every day, we got in the gym, we played open gyms, we all worked to get better. We just forgot about last year. Although, you don't want to just forget; they didn't just forget. They remembered, which feeds you to get better and better, 'cause you never want to go back to that. They came in ready to work."
With each win, the memories of last year's one-win season slowly fade away. But no matter how high the win total gets, some memories will stick around, carrying a purpose with them.
"It's really helped motivate us, to show people (we're better)," junior guard Shelby Bilger said. "Last year everyone sort of laughed at us. It's a lot of motivation. Last year these girls just laughed at us, so let's just show them we have experience and we have everything we need to put together a tough team.
"I'd like for teams to forget about last year and take us seriously, but it really adds motivation for us to look at how we were last year, and to just be like 'we've come a long way.' But, I want to show everyone that we're better than last year and last year's nothing like this year at all."
So what is it about this year's team that's so different?
"The difference is definitely, I got to think, experience and depth," coach Miller said. "Having a year under out belts, the systems are in and now we're just progressing with them. The girls are extremely intense in practice and it carries over into games. We're deeper this year. We easily fill a JV and varsity team now. We struggled with that last year with numbers. I just think that helps a lot."
Though relatively new to the coaching realm, Miller knows what it's like to have a season like the one Old Fort had last year. Miller was a senior on the Heidelberg women's basketball team that finished 1-24 in the 2010-11 season. She said she knows the lessons that can be taken from a season like that, and is proud of how her Stockaders have risen up from their tough season.
"I give them a lot of credit from last year. We obviously only won one time. ... They basically came out every game and played hard. I think that is a huge accomplishment.," she said. "I went through that when I was at Heidelberg. My senior year, we only won one game. If there's one thing I learned through that, you have to keep going, you have to make yourself better. And they did that.
"They came out this year, we have a lot more help with handling the ball this year. Which is so nice, because the girls that were forced to handle the ball a lot last year don't have to do it as much, and their confidence has just went up tremendously. It's so great when you have people that can do things, and you're not forcing girls to do things that isn't their strength, because their actual strength's just come up. They rise out and it helps confidence all the way across."
All the aspects that have come together, the rise in the experience level and quality of new players, has enabled Old Fort to change up its style of play a bit.
"We have a new dynamic on the game," Sammy Miller said. "We're focusing on speeding up our game tempo much more this year from last year. We're just trying to score and run the ball up the floor, and score more than we did last year."
"This year we're coming out a lot stronger," Bell added. "We're a lot faster. Basically, everything is different from last year to this year. Last year we wanted to focus mainly on slowing it down, making them come at us. This year we want to take it at them. We want to be strong."
While the on-the-court game has improved, another big improvement has come in the mental side of the game. It's a side that coach Miller preaches, and has already paid off this year in a come-from-behind win against Seneca East. The mental aspect is something Miller said she saw developing at the end of last year.
"One thing I'm so big on is mental toughness," she said. "You have to have composure as a player. You have to be mentally tough. They definitely showed that against Seneca East. Last year, from the beginning from when I started with them until they end, their mental toughness increased tremendously. At the end of the year, our one win was an overtime win. Just with that, I could see from the beginning to the end how that improved, since that game was towards the end of the year."
Dec. 13 against Seneca East, Old Fort rallied from being down 13 with under six minutes to go to claim the win. Bell, who hit the game-winning shot that night, admitted it's a game her team might not have been able to win last year.
"I think this year we're a lot more confident," she said. "Last year we would've been like 'Oh, we're down 13, there's no way we're going to win this.' This year it's 'We're down by 13, we can still win this.' We have more confidence and ability to think we can still win, instead of 'We're losing, let's not make it a terrible loss.'"
Bell, Sammy Miller and Bilger are part of the junior core of the team along with Sam Hartsel, Michaela Davidson and Addi Reineck. It's a group that has been with the program since their freshman year, weathering the struggles and growing in talent and experience.
Added to the mix this year is a freshman group of Alli Adelsperger, Mackenzie Ward, Peyton Miller and Jordan Magers. All see time in the varsity rotation. Sophomores Hali Kimmet and Alyssa Pence round out the varsity roster. There are no seniors on this year's version of the Stockaders.
Chemistry issues have been non-existent, as the girls refer the team as more of a family.
And the family is having a lot of fun winning.
"It's a lot of fun this year because it's a lot less frustrating," Bilger said. "Last year I loved my team, even with how we lost a lot. But it's a lot more fun because I love my freshmen. I love working with them, and I played with them in volleyball and now basketball. It's a lot of fun just getting to know them."
"I don't see an age difference on the team. I fell like we're all one team," Bell added. "It's not 'Oh, those are freshmen; we're juniors.' I feel like we're all together as one team, like a family."
The family thing holds especially true for Sammy Miller, who's sister Peyton is one of the freshmen who has made a huge impact already on the court for Old Fort. But, she says the bond between the team members is more than just one sisterly bond.
"They're all like family, even though one of them is family," Sammy Miller said. "We have a great bond together. Even from Day 1 of practice, we immediately had chemistry and we've all worked together great. We've accepted them, they've come in and done the work. We all expect a lot out of them and they come through."
Coach Miller graduated from Clyde, where she starred for the Fliers before moving on to play at Heidelberg.
Despite struggling through her first season as a coach, she said there was never a doubt in her mind about coming back and finishing the job. Partially due to the atmosphere she found as a coach and teacher in the Old Fort system.
"This is a great community. Supportive parents, supportive people. Even if they don't have kids in the high school, they come out and support you," she said. "I love teaching here. I definitely knew this is a place I want to stick with, which is why I came back and put so much time in. It's a great community, and a great school to be at.
"You don't ever want to be 1-22, but when the girls come out and they play so hard and they're eager to get better, you can't every be disappointed with that. As a coach, you're here to coach basketball, but you're also here to put values and teach them things they're going to use in life forever. Just to see them come out and try every day, and they get knocked down and they just stand back up, and they keep trying, those are great attributes for a player and just for a person in life."
The final chapter in the Old Fort Cinderella story is far from written. The second half of the schedule features most of the top Midland Athletic League contenders, and tough non-conference tests against teams such as Genoa and Arcadia. But if the first month has proved anything these Stockaders have moved on from being simply a fairy tale to being serious contenders.