In his third season as Alliance's girls basketball coach, Rod Smith has fielded a youthful team that is trending upward.
With a sophomore-heavy squad loaded with guards, the Aviators have posted a 5-10 record in their first 15 games, with the latest win a 63-47 decision over Eastern Buckeye Conference rival Minerva Wednesday night in Harry Fails Gymnasium.
That win snapped a losing streak of 160 games against conference opponents, including 157 in the regular season. The previous conference win was a 40-35 home-court decision over Northwest when both teams were members of the Northeastern Buckeye Conference.
"I knew Alliance hadn't won a conference game for a long time, and one of our goals was to start winning some conference games," said Smith, who coached at the youth level before succeeding Gary King as coach prior to the 2019-20 season. "We played well against Minerva. We moved the ball well, took good shots and made some shots, and forced them to come out of their 2-3 zone and play man-to-man defense."
Youthful Alliance team starts all underclassmen, including twin sisters Ella and Payton Smith
Sophomores Mar'Zae Gantz, Ella Smith and Jayla Callock led Alliance scorers with 14 points apiece. Callock, who leads the team in scoring (10 ppg), also contributed six rebounds. Sophomore Payton Smith netted eight points, while junior Mianna Ford and sophomore Kellynne Paalaoao contributed six points apiece.
Alliance led 10-8 after one quarter before extending its advantage to 29-12 at halftime.
"We were able to hurt them with our full-court press, forcing some turnovers and scoring off them," Rod Smith said.
Brimming with confidence, Alliance extended its lead to 30 points in the second half, but Minerva, which won the first meeting 58-47, started sinking 3-point field goals to shave its deficit nearly in half.
"They played well and we could [collapsed], but there was no panic from our girls," Smith said. "We continued playing with confidence and were able to make enough free throws to close out the game."
Smith, whose first two Alliance teams won a combined three games, generally starts four sophomores and one junior. Ella Smith and Payton Smith, two of his three triplets, are two of the sophomores. Ella Smith, who only recently returned to the lineup after recovering from an injury, is a 5-5 guard. Sister Payton Smith, who stands 5-4, also is a guard, while the 5-4 Gantz and 5-7 Callock are the other sophomore starting guards. Kellyenne Paaloalo, who stands 5-8, starts at center, with Ford, a 5-4 guard, and D'Nyya Hancock, a 5-6 freshman, are usually the first players off the bench.
"Ford is our most experienced player and she's our captain, but we like to bring her off the bench," Rod Smith said. "She gives us energy and a positive attitude."
Before defeating Minerva, Alliance also recorded non-conference wins over Waterloo (58-46), Akron Springfield (58-53), Cleveland St. Martin de Porres (63-25) and Ravenna (76-45). The latter two wins came in a holiday tournament on Ravenna's home floor.
With a guard-dominant team, Alliance likes to press and play a transition game, which is similar to the style the Aviators employed the first two years. One difference in the first 15 games this season is an improved half-court game, which had translated into better offense.
"We know teams like Marlington, West Branch and Salem are good defensively and will make you play half-court, so we've worked hard on developing an offense with more movement," Rod Smith said. "We have the guards who can handle and pass the ball, so we've decided to use a read-and-react offense which requires good passing, cutting and [high-percentage] shooting."
Rod Smith's Alliance girls basketball team developing the work ethic for continued success
In past years, teams like Marlington, West Branch and Salem often held Alliance in the teens. While the Aviators have lost a combined four games to those programs this year, they've been more productive offensively, losing 57-38 and 66-28 to the Warriors, 53-35 to the Dukes and 49-29 to the Quakers.
One conference win doesn't completely turn around a program, but Smith hopes it will instill more self-confidence in his players and motivate them to get even better.
"We know the magnitude of the win, because the quality of play in the entire conference is very good," Smith said. "Teams like West Branch, Marlington and Salem have done a lot the last couple of years, and I want our kids to be a part of that, but they're going to have to continue to have the right work ethic. They also need to recognize our weaknesses and turn them into strengths."
This article originally appeared on The Alliance Review: The Alliance girls basketball team snapped a 12-year conference losing streak