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PREP GIRLS BASKETBALL: St. Louis eyeing first conference title since 2000

St. Louis center Bri Alspaugh (44) is surrounded by Breckenridge defenders as she tries to get off an outlet pass at St. Louis High School Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (Photo by Skip Traynor)

Breckenridge's Madysen Stoneman (14) tries to stop St. Louis guard Brogan Holmes (12) at St. Louis High School Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (Photo by Skip Traynor)

The return of Walter Berry has brought more than just a familiar face back to the basketball court at St. Louis High School.

After taking a year off for the birth of his child, Berry returned this winter for his 12th season as head coach of the girls program.

Thanks to one of the deepest roster that he’s ever coached, Berry has the Sharks ranked ninth in the state in Class C. More importantly, his Sharks are off to an 8-1 start with a perfect 5-0 record in Tri-Valley Conference West play.

“I knew that we could get out to this start. We know that we’re good team,” Berry said. “My last year coaching would have been the sophomore year for these seniors and we won a lot of games that year by beating the teams that we should have beat, but we weren’t beating the upper echelon of teams. We were trying to get to the point of competing with those teams, which is what we did by the end of the season.”

Berry says the timing was right for his return to coaching.

“Some circumstances came up this year and I was able to return to coaching. I wanted to be able to see this group through,” he said. “This group knows that they have the potential. Right now, we’ve been playing very unselfishly, but we’re also winning a lot right now so that makes it easier to keep playing the same way.”

Senior-laden lineup

Few area teams can match the depth that St. Louis has this season.

With seven seniors on the roster, including six that have been members of the varsity program since their freshman year, lack of depth and experience has not been a problem for the Sharks.

Seniors Bri Alspaugh, Ryan Fagins, Taylor Smith, Brogan Holmes, Michaela Austin, Amanda Corder and Elis Cotosky help comprise what might be the deepest team that St. Louis has had in years.

“Our depth has really been a big factor for us this year. We have seven seniors on our team, with six of those seniors having played on the varsity team since their freshman year. Our girls have played a lot of varsity ball, and this group has played together since they were little kids,” Berry said. ”The girls have had a winning season every year since they were freshmen, so experience and depth have been two really big keys for us.

“We also really don’t have a lot of superstar scorers that can put up huge numbers. What we do have are deep players that are capable of putting up 15 points any given night.”

Confident Sharks

With multi-sport athletes like Alspaugh, Holmes and Austin leading the charge, the Sharks are a confident bunch.

“The girls are at the point in their careers that they can go out there and just do their thing. We put five, very confident players out on the floor all the time, and we’ve also got confident players on the bench that can substitute in,” Berry said. “The girls look for mismatches. The girls are not out there looking to get points for themselves. These girls are out there looking for the mismatches on the court in order to get us a win. The girls are trying to put their teammates in good situations, so they’re not just running around and playing.

“I think the difference with this group is that they just understand the game. This group has been a winning group their whole careers, but this is what is taking us to a whole new level.”

Defense wins games

The Sharks have race out to their strong start thanks in part to their stingy defense. Through eight games, St. Louis has held three opponents to under 30 points and five opponents to under 35 points. The opposition is averaging just 35 points per game against the Sharks as their press is proving to be more than effective.

“We have been pressing a lot more this year because of our depth and the athletes that we do have in the group. We really are a diversified team, though. We can play fast or we can play slow, so we can do a lot of different things,” Berry said. We’re pretty good at taking away what the other team does well. We’ve got a lot of defensive plays, but we just try to keep it simple and get to the ball.”

Despite having not played competitively prior to her freshman year, Fagins is one player that has transformed into a defensive force.

“The first year that she had ever played basketball was her freshman year, so she had never touched a ball until her freshman year of high school,” Berry said. “She was a real quiet kid and she was really raw when she first started playing, which you would expect, but she’s such a great athlete. This year, she’s made such a big difference because she rebounds the ball so well and she likes to play defense. She’s a huge defensive weapon for us because she can guard the center and the point guards. Not only is she really athletic, she plays with a lot of heart.”

Eyes on the prize

The last time that St. Louis claimed a conference championship in girls basketball came back in 2000, when the Sharks captured a Central State Activities Association title, and you’d have to go back 16 years to the last time they won a district title in 1998.

The start that the Sharks have gotten out to has them believing that this is the year that the hardware drought ends.

“The girls want to win a league and a district title this year. If you ask the girls, those are probably the first two things that they would say that we want to do,” Berry said. “We’re off to a good start, but we’ve got a long way to go and there’s a lot of work to put forward. It’s something that is keeping us excited, though.”

After being dominated by Michigan Lutheran Seminary and Saginaw Valley Lutheran that past decade, Berry says the TVC West is one of parity this winter.

“When we first made the transition, Michigan Lutheran Seminary was really good, and then Valley Lutheran was so good for so long with a couple Division II and Division III athletes on their team, so they just kind of crushed the other teams the last couple of years,” he said. “Our league is pretty tough. We compete with the TVC Central and we’ve certainly handled the TVC East pretty well. Valley Lutheran is a little bit down this year, but it seemed for a few years that everyone was competing for second behind Valley.

“I don’t believe that there is a dominant team this year, though. We’re certainly not a dominant team that isn’t unbeatable, but we’re a good team with a lot of good players. Like I said, we’re not a superstar team, but we’ve got a lot of good players.”

Last Updated: 1/15/2014 4:52:06 PM EST

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