Lakota West girls' hoops program built on commitment

WEST CHESTER TWP., Ohio -- Abby Leisure doesn’t just play for the Lakota West girls’ basketball team.

The senior forward was a dedicated fan of the program long before she wore the Firebirds’ uniform. Even in grade school, Leisure envisioned herself playing in the Lakota West gymnasium.

“I used to come to all the games especially in (grade school) when they made their state run,” Leisure said.

“We would come to all the games and sit behind the bench – me and my dad – and we were just in awe of Amber Gray and all the players. That’s what kind of drives you because you see them and they are so successful.”

In West Chester, girls’ basketball is a way of life. And it starts with longtime head coach Andy Fishman.

The 52-year-old special education teacher lives just a few miles from the school. He has won 73 percent of the games (335-123 record) since establishing the Lakota West program in 1997.

Hired as an assistant coach by former Lakota Thunderbird coach Cindy Feltman, Fishman shaped his defensive philosophy in the early 1990s.

He also learned about how to build a program from longtime Mercy coach Mary Jo Huismann and gained a knowledge of in-season and in-game adjustments from Mount Notre Dame coach Dr. Scott Rogers.

You won’t find another coach in the Greater Cincinnati high school basketball scene – boys or girls – with more energy than Fishman.

“In 25 years of education, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as passionate not only about their sport, but girls' sports in general, as Andy,” Lakota West athletic director Scott Kaufman said.

The team is upbeat and just has fun at games. 

There are different handshakes. Fishman constantly claps his hands and paces along the sideline. The assistant coaches are enthusiastic and demanding at the same time, too.

But, despite a 23-1 record and being the reigning Division I state champions, the Firebirds take nothing for granted. Every day is a gift, Fishman likes to say.

The Lakota West seniors understand that significantly. It’s why they don’t want the Firebirds’ season to end anytime soon.

The Firebirds defeated Princeton for a third time this season, 91-42,  in the sectional tournament Tuesday night. Lakota West plays Loveland in a sectional final at 6 p.m. Saturday at Lakota East.

“We share that this is the most exciting part of the year,” Fishman said last week.

“We got to put in the work. Even now our practices are pretty intense. We have great commitment. It’s real easy, I believe, for our girls to stay focused because they understand there are goals for every day. We talk about it a lot – the reason why they start to play this game is that it is fun.”

The players make sacrifices in and out of the season with their time. You have to be all in with a passion for basketball at Lakota West, where the team has won 38 consecutive Greater Miami Conference games in the regular season. But the dedication is worth the effort.

“It’s very high,” said senior point guard Danielle Wells. “He expects a lot of us - obviously to do good in school and be on time for things.

“Sometimes we have to give up other things we might want to do like go to out to parties - we don’t do that. We are usually here for extra shooting after practice and before. It’s pretty demanding.”

Without Fishman’s positive encouragement on and off the floor, the Firebirds may not be one of the state’s most elite programs.

“Every time we come into the huddle we are crazy and bring energy,” senior forward Lexi Wasan said.

“It just brings an overall mood to our practice. If you didn’t have that type of energy in our practices, I don’t think you would be able to get through it because it’s so intense all the time. Everybody has to be each other’s best friends and teammates.”

Tom Jenkins, director of the Ohio Girls’ Basketball Report, said Fishman is incredibly invested into his program and it pays dividends.

He has been effective at communication within the younger levels of the district program for a sustained period of time. He is active in youth camps. Skill development within the program is at an elite level.

Fishman excused himself during a late-morning interview last week. He and his wife, Felice, had to set up for a lasagna dinner the night before the Firebirds’ first postseason game last weekend. Another journey was about to begin.

Just like the regular season, the postseason is about team. Fishman is quick to credit a page full of influences over his career and give credit to staff assistants like Matt Lykins (offense), Carlton Gray (defense), Scott Barker (out of bounds/specials) and junior varsity coaches Brigit Reder, Andrea Schwartz and Krista Doan.

Strength Coach Izak Tanner and Shawnee Early Childhood School Assistant Principal Kevin Thomas are among others who have been influential in the program.

All those coaches bring a different element to the team. The players appreciate that. Wasan said she will apply everything she's learned from the basketball program to her college career and beyond.

“We always talk about how it impacts you as a person because basketball is going to end like anything,” Wasan said. “But it teaches us commitment and responsibility to something bigger than just yourself. It impacts you.”

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