The Chautauqua Lake Lady Thunderbirds are making their first trip to the state semifinals this coming Saturday.
What should scare every Class C team in the state is the fact that Chautauqua Lake's success is just beginning.
Over the past nine years, coach Eric Schuster has built a program based on bringing up players to the varsity level at a young age as well as developing a robust youth program.
Led by players like Jenna Einink, above left, Courtney Hewes and Ashton Albanesius, Chautauqua Lake advanced to its first NYSPHSAA?Class C girls basketball semifinals after defeating Keshequa in the Far West Regionals on Saturday at Finger Lakes Community College.
Now, nine years later, the team and the community are seeing that emphasis on youth come to fruition.
"We've been this way for awhile and it goes back to when we brought some of these girls up as eighth and ninth graders," Schuster said. "It's been great and I think that is how good teams are made. There are always growing pains. Even with the young kids we have now. They are very talented, and even though they are learning from the more experienced players, they are still going through some growing pains."
Growing pains aside, the youth movement at Chautauqua Lake has produced some of the area's best players.
Jenna Einink is one of those players.
Einink, a junior, is playing in her fourth varsity season this year and has been the Lady Thunderbirds physical and emotional leader since the season began.
"Jenna is definitely our team leader," Schuster said. "I see a lot of growth in just that. It's more by example than with words both on and off the court. I think the word for her is passion. She just really has a drive. She wants to play at the next level and she has really pushed herself.
"She's always pushing herself and is always playing basketball," Schuster continued. "Whether it be AAU, summer leagues, camps and so on. She has certainly put the time in."
That time and dedication has paid off to the tune of 20-plus points and 12 rebounds per game to lead the Lady Thunderbirds to a 21-1 record and a state tournament bid.
Fellow junior Ashton Albanesius is another player who got an early start to her varsity career and she, like Einink, has developed into a force for the Lady Thunderbirds.
Albanesius joined the varsity team as a freshman and has developed into a player capable of recording a double-double every time she sets foot on the court.
"From the time when Ashton played jayvee to the point where she is now, the improvement is unbelievable," Schuster said. "She understands the game so much better than she did as a young player. I think most of that has to do with confidence. She has become a very confident player."
This year, Chautauqua Lake's roster consists of 12 players. Only two are seniors while seven are juniors. The rest of the roster is made up of two freshmen and one eighth grader.
With that much youth on a team there needs to be some form of senior leadership and this year it has come from Tara Hunt and Ashley Moulton.
"When you look at the stat sheet Tara isn't a big scorer. What she does bring to our team is that she's just one heck of a defensive player," Schuster said. "Throughout the playoffs we have been playing a lot of diamond-and-one (defense). It doesn't matter the size of the other team's best player, we know Tara is going to be (matched with that player)."
For Moulton, it has been a journey to get where she is now. A role player up until her senior year, Moulton has really stepped up when her team needed her most down the stretch.
"She has really come into her own this year," Schuster said. "She was more of a role player her sophomore year and even as a junior she came off the bench and saw limited action. This year she knew she would have to step up and be a starter and she has given us good time. The last 10 games it is nothing to see her approach double-double stats every game."
Schuster brings a team-oriented philosophy to Chautauqua Lake and the players are buying in. Einink and Albanesius have certainly carried the load this season, but the players know the team as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
"We pride ourselves on being team players," Schuster said. "We aren't going to do it with one or two players. It's going to take all 10 or 12 of us. We talk about good grades, how you conduct yourself on and off the floor and just working together. Doing this as a group is what we've talked about every year and they really have done that."
The players aren't the only ones who have bought in. The community has rallied around the Chautauqua Lake girls and have supported them every step of the way on their journey to Troy for the state tournament.
And it's not just the immediate Mayville area.
This school year, students from Ripley began being tuitioned to Chautauqua Lake in a merger between the two school districts. As a result, the Ripley area has also caught the Lady Thunderbird fever.
"I couldn't thank everyone enough," Schuster said. "My phone has been blowing up with text messages from people you wouldn't even expect saying, 'Hey, great job. Your kids play well as a team.' The area of Chautauqua Lake, Mayville and Ripley has been great to the kids, the coaches and everyone involved. I couldn't ask for anything better."
With Chautauqua Lake's two best players being juniors, and a roster loaded with underclassmen talent, the short-term future looks very bright.
But short-term goals haven't come at the expense of long-term success.
Schuster has also helped build youth and AAU programs that could ensure the success of his program for many years to come.
"We've put a few programs in place. We have four kids playing AAU basketball and our youth program had 52 kids playing this year between third and fifth grade," Schuster said. "It's a lot of work, but these kids just have to play. You aren't going to be really good if you don't play a lot of basketball. Plus we have five great managers who are very young and just love basketball. I think the outlook is very bright."