The 16-3 record and four titles that have accompanied it are just small indications of the bond shared by the Horseheads girls basketball team.
Bigger signs of unity have come in difficult times, including a devastating injury to returning starter Marlea Nolan before the season and a devastating loss for head coach Andy Scott just before the sectional final.
Scott’s father, Thomas Scott of West Elmira, died at age 68 on Feb. 25 after a battle with Parkinson’s disease. Two days later the players wore blue bows in their hair in his honor as they dominated Union-Endicott, 62-25, for Horseheads’ second straight Section 4 Class AA title.
“We knew it was not only for us, but it was going to be for him and his dad and we really wanted to win and bring it home for him,” senior guard Jen LaViola said.
Said Scott: “They’re good kids and it’s a family on and off the court.”
Junior forward Amanda Schiefen, who first got to know Scott when she was the team’s water girl in sixth grade, echoed his comment. “We spend a lot of time together. We’re like a little family,” she said.
Scott’s leadership has helped build Horseheads into the premier Class AA girls basketball program in Section 4 and one of the best in the state. Horseheads has won eight sectional championships since he took over as varsity coach before the 1999-2000 season.
The program has reached the point where little girls in the school district aspire to someday become a part of it and the seniors on the team make sure they leave the team in the best shape possible.
“We’ve always followed Horseheads basketball since we were little and we used to come to the varsity summer camps,” LaViola said. “We just would work hard and want to be like them when we grew up. We knew that we would be stepping into big shoes when we got up here, but we were up for the challenge and ready to do it.”
The next challenge is the biggest on the court this season. The Blue Raiders take on defending Class AA state champion Ossining of Section 1 in a state quarterfinal at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Binghamton University Events Center. Ossining was a 69-49 winner over Horseheads last year in regionals.
The winner advances to the final four at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy on March 14 and 15.
“Our expectation is to win and go all the way to the state championship,” senior guard Ellie Leszyk said.
Coach sets the tone
Scott was Horseheads’ junior varsity coach for two seasons before taking over the varsity in 1999.
He has become perhaps the most successful girls basketball coach in Elmira-area history, compiling a 242-80 record in 15 seasons and guiding the Blue Raiders to 10 division championships along with the eight sectional titles. Horseheads made it to the state semifinals in 2001 and the state finals the next year.
“He’s very intense when he needs to be, he’s very supportive when he needs to be,” Schiefen said. “He’s fun sometimes. We work hard, but we still have fun at the same time.”
LaViola has emerged as a top player in her first season as a starter, averaging 9.8 points and 3.5 steals per game and hitting 89 percent on her 39 free throws. She said Scott is a big reason for her success.
“Mr. Scott has been such a positive influence on me,” she said. “He’s pushed me to be better than I ever thought I could be. He really helps us and he’ll stay after if we want to work on something after practice. He’s dedicated enough to go up and scout three hours away to help us. He’s just a great coach and I look up to him.”
Scott gives a great deal of credit to the program’s other coaches, with Mark Romanski and Sara Blauvelt teaching the basics at the modified level and Jerry Laney coaching the JV team all 15 seasons.
Thomas Scott was a boys basketball coach at Hermon-DeKalb High School in DeKalb Junction, located in the northern part of the state. Andy Scott said his dad would have been proud his obituary ran in the newspaper the same day as a story on his team’s victory in the sectional final.
“He was a big influence on us because he was a coach at one point and he did a lot of great things for me to give me some qualities to hopefully be a good leader, a good mentor for these guys,” Scott said.
“It was a tough week, but it was like a roller-coaster week. I had these guys winning a sectional title, I had a funeral to attend to, my daughter got second in the state for the (Elks Hoop Shoot Free Throw Competition), which was cool. It was busy and I’m pretty much exhausted.”
Leszyk came to Horseheads after playing on Elmira’s winless team as a sophomore. The combined record for the Blue Raiders in her two seasons is 33-7 and she has played a big part in that success.
“It’s been fun and one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Leszyk, who will play at Division II Le Moyne College.
Scott said one of the more impressive aspects of this year’s team is the players’ ability to motivate themselves and each other without much prodding. That goes hand in hand with the tradition that has been built.
“I remember when I was a freshman, sophomore on the team, the seniors and upperclassmen were very helpful and they helped me become who I am now,” LaViola said. “So I wanted to be like that when I became a senior. I hope the underclassmen feel the same way I do.”
Said Leszyk: “It comes from him and it catches on to the seniors and then we just motivate ourselves and get the rest of the team going. With the confidence he gives us, we know we can go all the way.”
Scott said it’s more about the girls than him, with the other two senior starters — Erin Strollo and Abbey Benesh — also providing leadership.
“It comes from good parenting. Those kids are very self-driven, which I like,” Scott said. “All four of (the seniors) know where they’re going to college, they know what they’re majoring in already. They’re good leaders, they’re very focused. They’re soft-spoken kids who talk to the kids and take the younger kids under their wing.”
The team-first approach is reflected in the stats. Schiefen, a 6-foot-1 junior forward who is a Division I prospect, lead the team at 14 points per game and Leszyk is second at 13.2. Scott said elsewhere Schiefen could be a 2,000-point scorer and Leszyk a 1,500-point scorer.
The stats of the two AAU teammates are kept down in part because of a lot of lopsided wins, but also because, like the rest of the team, they’re not concerned with their own numbers.
“They’re unselfish. It’s been like that for a long time,” Scott said of his team.
“(Amanda and Ellie) know it’s a team-oriented game and if it’s only one or two players they’re focusing on, it’s a lot easier to stop a team. But if we have other kids step up like we have this year, all of the sudden it’s not as easy.”
Said Schiefen: “We all want the same exact thing and we work very well with each other to get where we want to be.”
Horseheads was expected to return three starters from last season in Leszyk, Schiefen and Nolan. But late in the volleyball season, Nolan suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that took away her junior season.
“I hated to see her go down. It broke my heart for her because she worked so hard, but someone else stepped in,” Scott said. “If you have a program like that where the kids have worked so hard, it’s not just two or three girls who are working in the offseason. All 15 of those kids are there every day. They don’t miss.”
This season has provided big moment after big moment, including a 63-58 win over Penfield that gave the Blue Raiders their sixth straight title at the Josh Palmer Fund Elmira Holiday Inn Tournament at Southside High School. Last season Penfield beat the Blue Raiders, 62-33.
“With them being the No. 1 public school in New York state at that time, I think it gave us a lot of confidence for the rest of the season,” Leszyk said. “It just showed us we’re a much better team than we were last year.”
Horseheads has played top competition all season, with seven games against ranked teams. The Raiders lost twice to Section 4 Class A champion Maine-Endwell and their other loss came to Section 3 Class AA champ Cicero-North Syracuse.
This season also brought the Raiders’ first STAC Tournament title, which included a 55-52 overtime win over the state’s top-ranked Class B team, Oneonta, in the semifinals and a 59-26 dismantling of Owego in the championship game.
The titles and wins have been almost secondary to the joy of the journey.
“They’re a good group of kids to be around and it’s definitely been a pleasure with all that’s gone on in my personal life to have this group who can persevere and have some self-guidance,” Scott said. “And then Jerry’s been a lot of help as well.”