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Dream Team Girls Coach of the Year: Montgomery led Mustangs' turnaround

Mar. 22—HARROD — Aaron Montgomery chuckled when he thought about how much he didn't know about Allen East girls basketball just three years ago.

He didn't know the Mustangs only had four winning seasons in the past 15 years. He had to introduce himself to the players during a summer league game at Waynesfield-Goshen and kept asking the players' names and grades. He barely realized the Mustangs only won three games the year before he arrived.

"When I first took over, I really didn't know what I was getting myself into," said Montgomery, who came to Allen East after several years on and off as an assistant coach for Kenton's boys basketball team. "You see the record maybe, but I had no idea. I was kind of just going in blind."

But once he met those players, he didn't see a perennial loser. He saw potential.

"The thing that stood to me that day was how willing they were to work, how hard they played, and just the way they listened," Montgomery said.

In his third year with the Mustangs, they tied a school record with 21 wins. Instead of picking up just three wins, they only had three losses, setting a school record. They advanced to the district championship before falling to Northwest Conference champion Delphos Jefferson.

"We kind of knew the effort it was going to take, and it wasn't going to be easy because we lost two seniors who were so valuable to us last year. We had some holes to fill," Montgomery said.

The Mustangs certainly stepped up. Rilynn Jones, a 5-foot-7 junior guard, averaged 16.3 points per game with 3.1 rebounds and 3.7 steals, earning all-Northwest Conference and first-team all-Northwest Ohio. Savanna Brooks, a 5-8 senior forward, tallied 14.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, on her way to a first-team NWC and second-team all-district year.

"I feel like we've definitely proven ourselves," Brooks said earlier this year. "Allen East basketball is never looked at as a good team, and proving them wrong by winning big games really helps."

In the process, Allen East picked up back-to-back winning seasons, going 17-7 last year and 21-3 this year, and introduced a style of girls basketball built on frustrating ballhandlers with tight defense and playing physically.

"We teach constant pressure," Montgomery said. "We want to make other teams feel uncomfortable. We're OK with being comfortable when someone else is uncomfortable. ... It's something that they've really bought into is that mindset of I'm going to pressure you. I'm going to get up in you, and I'm going to get a steal, or we're going to make you work for every opportunity."

With that mentality baked into every practice, the Mustangs became pros at dribbling through pressure when they were on offense. Montgomery said he knew he could be a tough coach but prided himself on teaching accountability, saying it's a valuable life skill.

He was proud of several players who will continue playing sports in college, with Brooks playing basketball at Ohio Northern, Soraya Jackson playing volleyball at Ashland University, and Aubrey Young playing soccer at Indiana Tech.

"I'm happy for our kids who get to experience the next level," Montgomery said. "I hope that when they get there and their coaches in their respective sports are giving them instruction, they're thinking back to, 'Yeah, I remember when coach Montgomery said something like this.'"

Montgomery said he was disappointed by the finish in the district finals, saying the Mustangs were "flat" in the game, but he was proud of a second-half comeback effort by his team. They're not done changing the culture of what it means to be a Mustang basketball player just yet.

"I think our kids are going to be hungry. The younger girls are going to be hungry to get back and experience something like that," Montgomery said. "That's always the goal, to make a run in the tournament."

Reach David Trinko at 567-242-0467 or on Twitter @Lima_Trinko.