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Warrensville Heights overcomes lack of strength in numbers by favoring a familial approach

The Tigers beat Toledo Notre Dame at the Classic in the Country despite having just six players available for the game.

By Ryan Isley | Photos by Jeff Harwell

BERLIN, Ohio — The Warrensville Heights girls basketball team might not be big in numbers, but the players consider themselves one big family.

The Tigers defeated Toledo Notre Dame Academy 53-49 at the Classic in the Country on Monday despite having just six players suited up and available for the game.

“(Notre Dame) is a great program, and they have been for a long time,” Warrensville Heights coach Ourtney Bryant said. “For us to come from a small school like we are, and we only had six players dress today due to injury, it shows a lot.”

The limited number of players is nothing new for the Tigers, who took home the district championship last season while having only seven players in the program.

And while the program still has just nine players listed on the roster this season, one of them looms large in Zennia Thomas, who transferred in this season after playing three years at Brush.

The 6-foot-2 senior didn’t disappoint at the Reese Center, scoring 23 points and securing nine rebounds in the victory.

When Thomas made the move to Warrensville Heights, the transition was smooth.

“We have known each other for years,” Thomas said. “It was like going to family, coming home.”

That feeling of family isn’t accidental. It is an atmosphere Bryant works hard to maintain within his program.

“We are family on and off the court — it’s bigger than basketball,” Bryant said. “A lot of people say it but it’s really bigger than basketball. We are really a true family.”

Being a true family means making sure everyone in the program has a sense of comfort at all times. Bryant said he will not stand for anyone coming in and disrupting the unity the Tigers have built.

“No matter what, when you are part of my program, I set it up so that everybody is going to be comfortable,” Bryant said. “If you are throwing some different frequency than we are operating off of, you gotta go. That’s how we run things.”

Creating a true family atmosphere comes in handy when things happen like they did Monday for the Warrensville Heights program.

The Tigers were originally scheduled to play Mason at 11:40 a.m. Thanks to a snowstorm that dropped a foot or more of snow throughout the area Sunday night and Monday morning, event officials had to make some changes and moved Warrensville Heights to a 2:20 p.m. game against Notre Dame, which has been in the Division I state semifinals each of the past three seasons.

As if changing opponents wasn’t challenging enough, Bryant had to jump through hoops just to get his team to the game.

The drive from Warrensville Heights to Berlin Hiland High School is about 90 minutes in perfect conditions.

With the amount of snow that had dropped, that drive would take longer Monday. But the players and coaches were at the school waiting for the bus anyway — only it never showed up, which led to another ordeal.

“The bus canceled on us without telling us,” Bryant said. “We had to make phone calls to the superintendent for the superintendent to get in contact with the lawyer to make sure it was OK for the parents to bring their own kids to the game.”

The team eventually got approval for parents to take the players to the game. It was just another roadblock for the program, but there was no way Bryant was giving up on allowing his team to play in the Classic in the Country.

“We wanted to be here, the girls wanted to be here,” Bryant said. “Not one time did I think about canceling. Berlin Hiland is something special. I wanted the girls to come experience it, and they did. To win at Berlin Hiland is special no matter who you play.”

The players felt the same as their coach — they just wanted to play basketball.

“We were mad. We thought we weren’t going to play,” Warrensville Heights guard Jada Ward said. “When he told us we could play, we got really happy.”

And whether the game was against Mason or Notre Dame or any other team, the Tigers were ready for anything.

“For us, it’s just about playing basketball,” Thomas said. “Even though they are a Division I school, we still have Division I talent just like them. It’s all about competing.”

Beating Note Dame was great for the Tigers, but Bryant says the work put in before the game is just as important as the game itself.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about winning for me,” Bryant said. “Winning is the biproduct of doing things the right way.”

The players have embraced the family atmosphere, and they appreciate the support they receive on and off the court from Bryant. That support in turn makes them want to play harder.

“No words can amount to how grateful I am for him,” Thomas said. “To be able to do something successful as a biproduct of what he put into me, that's what it’s about.”

While sitting with Thomas and Ward after the win over Notre Dame, Bryant pointed at the girls when talking about what winning means for him as a coach.

“I win when she goes to college for free and when she goes to college for free, and they graduate from college and they get into their families and their careers,” Bryant said. “That’s when you win as a coach.”