Cornerstone Christian girls basketball: Conditioning, defense have Patriots geared up for another postseason run

Feb. 14—The loud shrill of her whistle halting the action at her team's basketball practice, Coach Lisa Stopp removes the whistle from her mouth and utters the two words no one in the gym REALLY wants to hear.

Patriot run.

It's a drill that calls for players in Stopp's Cornerstone Christian girls basketball program to run laps for 10 minutes, with the last person sprinting to the front to lead the next lap.

"There's no ball," Stopp said. "It's just flat-out grit. ... Oh, I'm sure there are quite a few groans, but it's not loud. It's under their breath."

As unpopular as that drill might be. It's a key ingredient — a necessary evil if you will — to what has made the Cornerstone Christian girls basketball program so successful not only this year but in each of the eight previous seasons under Stopp's tutelage.

The same goes for all the line drills the team goes through every day, running the stairs in the school, the full-court zig-zag drills.

It all comes down to conditioning. Because that's what Stopp's style of 32 minutes of defensive mayhem calls for in order to be successful.

That style of play has led the Patriots to a 14-7 record this season against a challenging schedule, and it's also a big reason why the Patriots have had the success they've had in Stopp's nine-year tenure, a run that includes three appearances in the state tournament along with two losses in regional final games and two losses in district final games.

"When I came in (for the 2015-16 season), there was a lot of talent, so I was blessed," Stopp said. "Cornerstone had never been in the OHSAA before that. They had won the Christian National Tournament before, but my first year here was our first year in the OHSAA. Buying into the mindset that defense comes first has been a big part of our success."

The Patriots have unnerved opponents with a myriad of defensive looks all season long, from their trapping 1-3-1 full-court press to their 2-2-1 half-court trapping set. In a Feb. 13 win over visiting Independence, the Patriots went with 32 minutes of full-court man-to man defense.

Regardless of what defense is being played, it's 32 minutes of pure energy. And that means preparation, with practices that by and large revolve around conditioning.

"It's hard," said Mylia Bell, one of two seniors on the team, "but we don't get as tired as other teams do. Coach Stopp said it's all about how we need to play defense, so we are always working on defensive slides, zig-zags and a lot of running because we know defense wins championships, not offense."

Dekotah Barnes, a junior, noted the success of the Cornerstone program under Stopp's tutelage. Players have changed over the year, but the one constant is defense. No matter who graduates, defense doesn't.

As Stopp tells her team, "Control the controllables." Defensive effort is atop that list of controllables.

"When you see us play, everybody is talking on defense," Barnes said. "We're calling out the cutters, everybody knows where the next pass is going so we can anticipate that. You have to be in good shape to play that way, so we're constantly running in practice to make sure we never get tired when it counts in game time."

Frustration from the other team? Yeah, that's a byproduct of the high-octane style of play.

"You can see the other team get frustrated," Bell said. "It's kind of funny."

Said Barnes with a giggle, "Mylia and De'Asia (Davis) are our best defenders. They give the other teams a lot of headaches."

In the Patriots' 43-39 win over Independence, Cornerstone forced 32 turnovers, 20 of which came in the first half. The pressure defense resulted in a number of steals and conversions. Stopp pointed out her offense, particularly the ability to capitalize on those turnovers, remains a work in progress, but that points will come.

"We just want to make the other team as uncomfortable as possible," Stopp said. "I don't think we've reached our peak yet. We're turning teams over, but we haven't hit our peak yet in how we translate that into points. Once we do that..."

Stopp didn't finish the sentence, but she didn't have to. When all those turnovers convert into points, the Cornerstone girls basketball team is going to be tough to deal with just like they have been since Stopp took over the program prior to the 2015-2016 season — a first season, by the way, that resulted in a trip to the Division IV state final four.

Cornerstone is the seventh seed in the upcoming Division IV girls basketball tournament. The Patriots open tournament play on Feb. 24 against the winner of Fairport and East Palestine, the start of what they hope is another long tournament run that — as usual — is fueled by defense.

"It's who we are," Stopp said. "It's our staple."

It's a staple that has the Patriots believing.

"We lost last year in the district finals and that team went all the way to state," Bell said of the season-ending loss to New Middletown Springfield. "I think we can do that this year."

Barnes agreed.

"We haven't hit our peak yet," she said. "I think we can be way better. I KNOW we can."

Patriot games

The Cornerstone girls basketball program is 112-58 (and counting) in Coach Lisa Stopp's ninth year at the helm. Here is a year-by-year look at the program's success, including three state tournament appearances:

22-23: Lost to New Middletown Springfield, 41-31, in a Division IV district final

21-22: Lost opener to Fairport, 48-42, in a Division IV sectional game

20-21: Lost to Loudonville, 63-43, in a Division IV district final

19-20: Was to play Fort Loramie in a Division IV state semifinal (canceled because of COVID-19)

18-19: Lost to Minster, 65-31, in a Division IV state semifinal

17-18: Lost to Buckeye Central, 57-43, in a Division IV regional final

16-17: Lost Berlin Hiland, 57-36, in a Division IV regional final

15-16: 23-4, Lost to Waterford, 52-42, in a Division IV state semifinal