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High School Basketball

Gazette Coach of the Year: Medina's Karen Kase has made 'Better Together' more than a slogan

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    Medina girls basketball coach Karen Kase is the Winter Coach of the Year after guiding the Bees to a 23-3 record and a District Championship.

    RON SCHWANE / GAZETTE

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“We had 29 alumni come back this year and speak to the team, come in the locker room or to practice. That’s the tradition and ‘Better Together’ aspect. They lived and breathed it.” — Karen Kase

An 18-game winning streak, 23-3 record and Valley Forge Division I District championship this season will never lose luster in Medina girls basketball lore. They are accomplishments cemented in history, ones that can be researched easily by future generations.

Digging deeper, however, will be far more complicated. The Bees have come a long way in Kase’s six seasons as coach and are now entrenched among the Northeast Ohio elite through hard work and determination, but the true purpose of the program goes far beyond the court.

Medina doesn’t create basketball players. It creates women.

Arguably no one in Northeast Ohio does chemistry and sisterhood better. The Bees play together, believe together, party together, cry together and laugh together in such a pure way that even opposing teams take notice.

“Better Together” isn’t a catchy slogan. It’s a lifestyle.

Kase, the 41-year-old Gazette Winter Coach of the Year, spent 12 years behind the scenes in the WNBA learning the ins and outs of what it takes to be successful at the highest level. This is her vision.

“We have a lot of slogans and things on the wall — mantras, I guess — but ‘Better Together’ started with ‘Hass’ (former Medina coach Chris Hassinger), and we kept it because it fit,” she said.

“We’re stronger as a group than we are as individuals. No matter if we’re talking about a game, a press break, a certain aspect of the game, academics or community services, we’re stronger as a unit than one single person. They have totally bought into that, and they know it’s true.”

The thick layers create an unbreakable bond. While many teams do similar team-bonding exercises, Kase is delighted Medina’s do not need to be emphasized because they are expected and, more importantly, enjoyed.

Each season, off-the-court activities become highlights. This year was heading to All Fired Up!, a painted pottery studio on The Square. The players organized slumber parties and dinners — “The time they spent together probably broke records,” Kase proudly joked — and the Little Sis program that pairs a junior varsity or varsity player with a youth player ranging from third to eighth grade has created program excitement.

There are small tokens of unity even on game days, ranging from matching equipment to hairstyles. There also are subtle messages like wearing a hair ribbon to support a parent battling health problems or writing Aly Dwyer’s initials on shoes after the sophomore guard tore her ACL midseason.

“That’s real important in this day and age when they’re on their phone so much losing that face-to-face contact,” Kase said. “We’re trying to bring that back.”

The bench is a marvel of enthusiasm. A player who checks out of the game gets a low-five from everyone before taking a seat, all 10 bench players scream out Kase’s play to ensure their teammates can hear it and everyone celebrates in unbridled joy when a seldom-used player scores.

Kase has two favorite examples from years past: When the 2017-18 team embraced Swedish exchange student Klara Bergholtz like a long-lost sister and when Steph Durbin, a lightly used backup who was voted a team captain in 2014-15 because of her fantastic attitude, enjoyed her time with Medina so much that she became a student manager at Wittenberg.

“Part of it is because one of my jobs in professional sports was to grow the game,” said Kase, who worked in communications and media relations with the WNBA. “I want more girls to enjoy basketball and take as much as they can from it.”

Winning, of course, only enhances the fun. And my, oh my, did the Bees do that this winter.

Kase knew a special season was likely — “No way I could have predicted we would win 18 games in a row, but I figured we’d be near the top of the conference,” she said — because Medina had the right pieces. There was length with center Lindsey Linard, forward Sarah McKee and forward Abby McMullen. There was perimeter toughness with guards Madison Luthy, Alexa Nau, Katie Neate and Dwyer. There was instant energy off the bench with specialists Elizabeth Stuart (3-point shooting) and Rowan McDonald (physical post play).

The Bees saw the fruits of their labor after narrowly beating defending D-I state semifinalist Wadsworth in a foundation game days before the season began. An elite defense continued to feed a rapidly improving offense, and the Bees picked up a clutch win at defending Greater Cleveland Conference champion Solon before returning from their annual trip to Orlanda, Fla., with a

12-0 record.

Momentum was rolling like a fever pitch after clenching victory from the jaws of defeat in overtime at Euclid. A dominating win over Elyria at Quicken Loans Arena that followed was yet another memory.

Then Medina’s world came crashing down in a 44-43 loss at rival Brunswick and 63-54 home loss to Solon in the same week. Both losses were fluky in the forms of a high-difficulty buzzer-beater by Gazette MVP Angela Fink and a poor third quarter vs. the Comets.

Medina went from a one-game lead in the GCC to finishing in second place.

“I don’t think I slept,” Kase said. “It took a lot of work and one-on-one conversations to build confidence back up and come up with a revised plan. We acknowledged that sucked and it was devastating and we fell short of some of our goals, but we still had a lot to do.

“We said, ‘We are going to make a (tournament) run, and if you don’t believe we’re not going to do that, don’t come to practice tomorrow.”’

Everyone arrived the next day for yoga, another team-building exercise designed to clear the mind.

The move worked.

Karen marveled at how locked in her team was over the next five games. There was nothing even resembling a letdown as Medina closed the regular season with easy wins over Copley and Wooster before blowing through the Valley Forge District by an average of 15.0 points.

The euphoria finally hit Kase during the closing seconds of a 51-32 victory over St. Joseph Academy in the championship game. She hugged and high-fived every player on the bench and looked toward the stands, where junior varsity players, parents and school board members celebrated.

The No. 1 goal Kase set when she took over in 2013 had been achieved. The Bees were heading to regionals for the first time since she was a sophomore player in 1993.

“The way we played that week at Valley Forge was extremely confident, joyous, free and trusting of each other,” Kase said. “We were playing two private schools that had beaten us in the past (Magnificat and St. Joseph), and to me it was really fun to watch, really fun to ride the bus, really fun to prepare.”

Medina appears poised for another sterling season in 2019-20 with All-Gazette picks Linard and McKee returning to the starting lineup. Stuart, Dwyer and McDonald figure to step into bigger roles, and Regan Todia, Hailey Tripp and Shannon Wojciak will be back after leading the junior varsity to a 19-3 record.

Kase will again embrace the high expectations because this is her dream. She’s the head coach at her alma mater teaching the game that she loves.

She also knows that, win or lose, Medina will always be “Better Together” — on the court and in life.

Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.


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