TRENTON -- The Edgewood High School girls basketball team surprised last season, despite a sudden coaching change two days before the opener.
Now, even after graduating four starters and transitioning to a third head coach in 18 months, the Cougars are on track to meet even bigger goals for the 2020-21 season.
Guided by first-year coach and former assistant Matt Tolliver, Edgewood (16-1, 6-0 Southwestern Ohio Conference) already clinched a share of the SWOC title but can lock up sole possession with a win tonight at home against Mount Healthy or in the conference finale at Harrison on Feb. 3.
“I think last year with everything that happened, it took a fourth of the season, maybe halfway before we really figured out things and ended up playing good basketball,” said Tolliver, who served as an assistant under interim coach Bob Hunt last year before the two swapped roles this season. “We had a lot of injuries, so a lot of these kids were getting more and more minutes than they would have. This year it was an easy transition. They knew what to expect, and we were able to hit the floor running right away.”
Looking for a break from head coaching following a successful eight-year run at Little Miami, Tolliver originally came on board as an assistant to Greg Brown before Brown was forced to step away the week of the first game. Hunt assumed the interim head coach position, knowing he would only be a short-term hire, and Tolliver found himself wanting to get back into it after helping the Cougars to an 18-win season for just the fifth time in program history last season.
Tolliver applied when the job was re-opened last spring and was pleased to get his opportunity to stay. He led Little Miami to a 99-85 record in eight seasons with three SWOC titles in his last four years. Edgewood had a chance last season to share the title but Little Miami clinched when the Cougars lost to Talawanda in the second-to-last game. They beat Little Miami in the finale.
“I feel like since the beginning of the season, having Zoom calls and meetings with our coaches, we knew we were on the same page,” senior Chloe Butler said. “We set higher goals and we’re achieving them now. We were really motivated after losing that game last year (to Talawanda), and we’ve really improved a lot.”
Players said they were relieved not to have to go through a big change this year.
Tolliver already had implemented a new offense when he joined Brown’s staff, and Hunt handled the defense last year. Four new starters have made the team quicker and more athletic, so the Cougars are pushing the tempo on offense and increasing the pressure on defense even more this season.
“It’s really good to see how we’ve learned from all of those challenges,” senior Callie Hunt said. “We learned to play with five players, trust our teammates more, knowing someone would step up every moment and that’s been really good to have that.”
Hunt was the team’s lone returner from the initial starting lineup last year and remains a steady force inside, but senior guard Chloe Butler took on a bigger role as the 2019-20 campaign went on, and now leads Edgewood with 13.9 points per game.
Hunt adds 11.6 points per game, while sophomore guard Jessica Moore averages 10.0 points, freshman Rylie Homan chips in 7.3 points and junior Lizzy Allen contributes 5.6 points per game. Seniors Kinsey Burton and Celie Ratliff play big roles off the bench.
Tolliver said Hunt and Butler complement each other well – Hunt playing inside but also one of the best 3-point shooters and Butler as more of a thrasher “worming her way to the basket.”
“Either one normally leads us, and we know if we can get 25-30 points combined from them, we are going to be tough to beat with others chipping in,” Tolliver said. “With the team we have, the thing that makes us so good is anyone can beat you on any given night. They’ve all had big games. If you take Chloe or Callie away, someone else steps up.”
Rebounding is the biggest area of need for improvement on a pretty small team, but Tolliver said the Cougars are playing with confidence through a schedule that has constantly changed because of COVID cancelling games.
Edgewood was added to the Journey to the Tourney field at Lakota West, where the Cougars suffered their lone loss to No. 3-ranked Toledo Notre Dame. They were down just two about 90 seconds before halftime, but Notre Dame scored the final seven points to take a nine-point lead into intermission and Edgewood couldn’t recover.
Despite the 66-41 setback that snapped a 13-game unbeaten streak to open the season, the Cougars have all their goals still ahead of them. Winning the conference is the first box to check, followed by finishing undefeated in the SWOC, hitting the 20-win mark and winning a sectional title.
“We made a sectional final last year and had to play Mount Notre Dame, which was just on a different level, but we gained confidence through that, and if we could do it last year, maybe we make that next step this year,” Tolliver said. “I think we have a decent chance to do that now. With the season we’ve had and the team we have, it’s a definite possibility. We’re still chasing our goals. It’s not going to be easy, but these girls believe we could do it.”
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