In the past three seasons, the Mason Comets and Lakota West Firebirds girls basketball teams have reigned unchallenged by the rest of the Greater Miami Conference (GMC).
As of February 11, the Comets and Firebirds had combined for 90 straight wins against the other eight GMC schools. The last school to beat Mason or Lakota West was the 2013-2014 Princeton Vikings. Those Vikings were headlined by Kelsey Mitchell, who now averages 22.8 points per game for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Those ‘13-14 Vikings defeated Lakota West on March 8, 2014 in the regional final of the postseason tournament. The same team defeated Mason on February 1, 2014. Since those dates, both the Comets and Firebirds have an undefeated record (combined 87-0) against the rest of the GMC.
Lakota West head coach Andy Fishman said the sustained dominance of the two schools over the rest of the league is due in large part to his and Mason head coach Rob Matula’s length of career at their respective schools.
“If you look at it from a program perspective, you’re talking about two programs that have had the most coaching continuity,” Fishman said. “Sycamore was good for many years in the GMC when Paula Hayden was the head coach for 10-15 years running and she was the most tenured coach in the GMC. I think that coaching continuity and leadership has a lot to do with it. You have to have that, and you have to have families that are willing to commit to the way you do things in your program. It’s a combination of that leadership and also the players and parents and everybody buying into what you’re doing.”
Fishman is currently the longest tenured girls basketball head coach in the GMC at 20 years. Matula is not far behind as he is currently in his 12th year with Mason. Matula believes the key to the success of his and Fishman’s programs is the level of talent that has come through the schools.
“I think it takes a lot of talented players number one,” Matula said. “With talented players, you have the opportunity as coaches to really hone their skills and hopefully take them to the next level. We’ve been very blessed here, and West in the same boat, to have not only talented players but depth of talent. I think that’s probably what is separating these two schools right now. That’s not saying there isn’t talent at other schools. That’s not saying coaches at other schools aren’t good coaches and aren’t trying to hone the skills of those players. It’s just right now West and Mason seem to have a deep talent pool compared to some of the other schools.”
GMC historian and Lakota West co-Sports Information Director Bob Ashby points out that Mason and Lakota West are both blessed with large schools, and thus a larger pool of girls basketball players, but the success has resulted from more than having a slight advantage in size.
“It is instructional to note that Lakota West has a 10 game win streak going over Lakota East and have a series record of 30 wins to only three losses versus East,” Ashby said. “This disparity exists even though both schools have always had about the same enrollment, with East now slightly larger, and the same even handed philosophy regarding various sports and boys versus girls. The most glaring difference between our two Lakota schools is that East has had 4 head coaches during this West 10 game win streak and has had 7 different head coaches to West’s one over the last 20 years that these two schools have existed.”
This dominance is not only tallied by the win streaks, but often by the margin of victory. The Comets and Firebirds are the only two teams in the league averaging a margin of victory greater than five points per game in conference games, with Mason coming in at 31.8 ppg and West leading the way with an average win of 39.2 ppg.
In both matchups against their Lakota counterparts this season, the Firebirds have obliterated the Thunderhawks in the first half, heading into the break leading by a combined 69-3 score. Fishman said the team tries to maintain their standards needed in order to improve from each game, regardless of the scoreboard.
“I think it’s important from a program perspective, what we do is we have standards,” Fishman said. “There are certain things we’re trying to accomplish every game. It’s not based upon who we’re playing, but it’s based upon our pillars of what we’re trying to do. In a game like (against Mason), it’s a great environment where that bottom line is we have to do these four things. And whatever the outcome is, if we can do those four things, then we come out getting better. It’s always what we’re doing to get better. It is a challenge; I’m not going to tell you that doesn’t present any challenges. We would prefer to play in more competitive games.”
Matula said he always wants his team to focus on what they worked on in practice, but that he doesn’t believe in running up the score.
“You gotta continue to maintain that you’re going to get better,” Matula said. “You have to really focus in on the details of what you had practiced during the week and to truly try to develop that muscle memory of those things that you really want to get better at. With that being said, I do believe that it makes it difficult at times to get your team entirely game-ready, and again that’s no disrespect to the other schools, but I know that I don’t personally want to take a 20 or 25 point lead and make it a 40 or 45 point lead. I just don’t believe in that. I don’t think that’s classy or being a very good sport. Yet you have to juggle: are you getting your team ready for big games when they do happen.”
Lakota West won the regional championship, and ultimately the state championship, in 2015. Mason was crowned regional champions a year ago after defeating the defending-champ Firebirds in the regional final. In order to gear up for these postseason runs, teams often try to schedule tough teams at the end of the season. The GMC conference schedule, however, requires each school to play 16 conference games, many of which come at the end of the year.
When asked what could be done to give the Comets better competition leading into the tournament, Matula admits it would be beneficial to have some tough out-of-conference games at the end of the year.
“I don’t know what can be done except that it would be nice to be able to have a little bit of leeway in the number of non-league games, abilities to go to different parts of the state, out of state,” Matula said. “To maybe upscale the non-league games so that you can increase the number of games that are tight and give you the ability to really get ready for tournament-type atmosphere games. Any point (in the season helps), but if you can backload that and get yourself ready, that would be nice. I don’t know specifically how to do that. I think that would be up to somebody either smarter than me or our athletic directors.”
The Comets and Firebirds split their regular season matchups this year, with Mason taking a 44-42 victory on December 3, and Lakota West taking a 64-61 advantage in a game on January 29. Matula said the matchup is enjoyable because he knows they will get a back-and-forth nail-biter.
“It’s kind of cyclical, right now it’s West and Mason (at the top of the GMC),” Matula said. “You’ll see other teams will build that depth of talent. But right now, it’s fun. When we get to go head to head with them, and know that it’s going to be a great game, and know that people are going to be in the stands, and the crowd’s going to be really jacked up for it, it makes it very exciting.”
Fishman suggested that although the teams in the GMC won’t change, they could modify which teams play one another twice.
“The league is the league, and that’s not going to change just because of girls basketball,” Fishman said. “Perhaps we can get more creative with scheduling. Maybe, and Rob (Matula) and I have spoken about this, perhaps doing something where we can modify the schedule to where you only play your league opponents once and then perhaps splitting it from that point and taking your top tier and your next level tier and having separate scheduling to block those with more of a competitive balance.”