After winning a District 11 title as the head coach of the Panther Valley girls' basketball team in 1998-99, Rob Kovac later took over Jim Thorpe's program and is now in his fourth year at the helm.
Kovac would be the first to admit that his first three years as an Olympian weren't as easy as he thought they would be. Following his initial season (2007-08) in which his team finished 2-22 and was forced to forfeit games due to suspensions, Kovac started to rebuild the program. The Lady Olympians improved by seven games (8-14) the next year and finished a game better at 9-13 a year ago.
Fortunately for Kovac and his 2010-11 squad, all the hard work and dedication that they have put in to restoring the program has finally paid off.
Jim Thorpe is currently 9-2 and is enjoying its best start to a season since it joined the Schuylkill League's Division I. Kovac says he and his girls haven't changed anything. They are just more mature and comfortable in the system.
"I would say maturity is the biggest difference from the past few years," said Kovac. "I mean we are still young and have only one senior, but three years ago we did a lot of house cleaning and didn't have many girls left. Now we have six juniors and a senior who have played a lot of games against a lot of good opponents. We learned the hard way, that's for sure. We have gone from getting pounded, to being competitive to now winning ball games.
"The girls have also accepted their roles. I don't think some of my past teams were able to do that. The girls basically know that Celeste (Robinson) is going to lead us in scoring most nights and that Chelsea (Smelas) is our No. 1 option inside. The others contribute where and when they can."
The Olympians' scoring is up nearly 15 points from last year and Robinson is the main cause. The junior guard has taken her game to a whole other level and is posting some ridiculous numbers. Robinson has almost doubled her average from last year (12.6 ppg to 24.7) and has five 30-point games so far this season. Three of those outbursts came in a row against MMI Prep, Williams Valley and Panther Valley. Her most recent 30-point efforts have come against Lehighton and Weatherly.
Perhaps more importantly, Robinson has raised her free throw percentage from 39.7 percent to 61.8 percent. That jump will help considering Robinson is averaging five free throw attempts per game.
"I think she finally realized what an athlete she is," said Kovac. "She is just so gifted athletically and has a different gear in the open court. She may be the most explosive kid I have ever seen in transition.
"She works hard on the offensive glass and everything is coming together. It speaks to all the hard work she has put in. I think her 31-point effort (against Shenandoah) at the end of last year was a precursor to what she could do this year."
Smelas, Jim Thorpe's lone forward, has also seen her average climb by five points. Fellow guards Brittany Holland and Kristen Lawrence combine to average six points apiece, which is on par with last season's performance. Junior point guard Nina Batts barely scores, but is the perfect running mate for Robinson. Both can get up the floor in a flash and make it difficult on opposing teams since they are at the top of the full-court press. Chasity Mosteller and Jenna McElmoyle are key contributors off the bench.
The Olympians recently enjoyed their first-ever victory over North Schuylkill in which they won 63-60. Unfortunately, they dropped their first game of the year five days later to Palmerton. Jim Thorpe has since lost to Blue Mountain as well, but Kovac is pleased with what his team has learned in the process.
"When two good teams play, one good team wins and one good team loses," Kovac said. "The North Schuylkill game was proof that we can win the close games. We then faced some adversity against Palmerton with Celeste fouling out, but we were still one shot away from winning.
"I think the main thing is that the girls are playing with confidence. They are so much more mature and understand what needs to be done in order for us to win."
Kovac believes that this year's team has joined the ranks of the other good teams in the Schuylkill League and will contend for a playoff spot. Kovac feels that it is a five team race for two playoff spots in Division I with Tamaqua, Pine Grove, Blue Mountain and North Schuylkill. Still, the Olympians must continue to improve since there are no easy nights in their division.
"January and February will prepare us to be a tough out in districts," said Kovac. "We want them to worry about us. Instead of us worrying about how we are going to play teams, we want them thinking about how they are going to play us.
"It's been gratifying so far. To think how far we have come in three years is amazing. Not only are we winning, but we have quality kids in the program. That means more to me than being 9-2."
LEHIGHTON SHOWS HEART ... The Lehighton Area High School is hosting a special basketball game dedicated to fighting heart disease and strokes.
The games will be played on Saturday, January 8 at 4 p.m. (JV), 5:30 p.m. (boys) and 7 p.m. (girls) against Panther Valley. Proceeds from this special event will be donated to the American Heart Association to help support its mission of building healthier lives free of cardiovascular disease.
Since 1924, the American Heart Association has helped protect people of all ages and ethnicities from the ravages of heart disease and stroke. These diseases, the nation's No. 1 and No. 3 killers respectively, claim more than 870,000 American lives a year.
TOURNEY CHAMPS ... Three area teams claimed tournament championships over the holiday break.
The Northern Lehigh and Tamaqua girls both brought back trophies to their schools. The Lady Bulldogs knocked off Colonial League rival Palmerton to claim the Lady Indian Holiday Classic crown, while the Lady Raiders knocked off host Southern Lehigh to win the Lady Spartans Christmas Tournament.
Northern Lehigh's boys team also won a title, claiming its own Slatington Rotary Tournament. The Bulldogs downed Jim Thorpe for top honors.
Aimee Oertner was co-MVP with Palmerton's Kelsey Kay in Lehighton, while Amy Zehner was named the most valuable player in Center Valley. In the boys tourney, Jordan Waylen was named MVP.
ONE FOR THE BOOKS ... According to Marian boys scorekeeper Mark Keip, the Colts recently reached a milestone.
Late in the first half of Tuesday's game against Shenandoah Valley, the Marian program reached 90,000 career points.
The Colts went on to win the game by a 37-29 score.