His previous five seasons as Susquehanna Valley girls basketball coach had seen the program steadily rise from Southern Tier Athletic Conference doormat to one of respectability.
But this season, Chad Freije felt his team was ready to take things to an even higher level. He envisioned his Sabers challenging for a Section 4 title, despite the fact that his roster would feature a significant number of freshmen and sophomores manning significant roles.
So why the optimism?
“The first few years (I was here), we had a few athletes that played basketball,” Freije said. “Now, we have basketball players who are athletes.”
Those basketball players, under Freije’s direction, lifted SV to heights never previously experienced. First came the program’s first Section 4 title with a 55-49 victory over Norwich in the Class B final, followed two weeks later by a New York State Public High School Athletic Association championship that came courtesy of a 51-45 victory over Hoosick Falls on March 21 at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy.
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Not too surprisingly, Freije was the clear-cut choice for Elite 10 Girls Coach of the Year by the sports staffs of the Press & Sun-Bulletin, Elmira Star-Gazette and Ithaca Journal. The honor culminates quite a rise for the 2004 SV graduate from a rookie season in 2009-10 during which his squad failed to win a single game.
“Those first couple of years, I was learning how to motivate girls,” said Freije, who spent a season as an assistant JV boys coach at SV before taking over the varsity girls head coaching job. “You have to be a little more encouraging and positive, that was a change from coaching boys.
“But the biggest thing was making sure everybody played together as a team. You might have some issues with your teammates off the court, but once you’re on the court you need to play together as one.”
That was a message that SV especially took to heart this season. Yes, there were the practice jerseys adorned with the word ‘ONE’ spelled out on the front and the numeral ‘1’ on the back, but more importantly it was in the way that the Sabers played on the court.
The Sabers were an extremely unselfish bunch on offense, always willing to make the extra pass or two. Defensively, the team was a cohesive group, its mix of ability and communication while administering its full-court pressure turning the Sabers into one of the Section 4’s stingier squads.
It was a squad that routinely went 9-10 deep, each player accepting less playing time than perhaps she’d see on another team for the greater good.
The result was a season that produced 19 victories in 25 games, doing so despite a varsity roster that had some considerable turnover from a year ago with only six returners in Shayna Lee, Erin Nolan, sisters Caitlyn and Courtney Knapp, Holly Manchester and Jordyn Williams.
“The girls had played so much together in the offseason, so they pretty knew what each of them could do,” said Freije, who since taking over as head coach has put an emphasis his program’s participants commitments to offseason basketball, whether it be through AAU or summer league ball.
There were a few bumps in the road. After an 11-2 start which had SV poised to win the STAC Central Division title for the first time, the Sabers lost back-to-back games in February to Seton Catholic Central and Owego that dropped them out of the division lead.
“That was the time some doubt began to creep in, that maybe we weren’t over the hump and where we thought we were,” Freije said.
However, faced with a potential third straight loss, SV rallied from a double-digit halftime deficit for a 65-55 victory over Norwich. Though failing to advance to the STAC playoffs, the Sabers wouldn’t lose a game of significance the remainder of the season until a loss to eventual champion Staten Island Academy in the State Federation semifinals.
“Obviously winning the Section 4 title was big,” Freije said. “Everything after that was a bonus.”