By Lisa Byers
No one knew just how it would go.
When Conneaut School District announced the merges of Linesville, Conneaut Valley and Conneaut Lake last year, there was quite a bit of skepticism, particularly on the athletic front.
How would players, who were once supposed to despise those from the other two schools, come together as one and compete for the same goal?
Well … just ask Kristen Baker.
Not once has Baker questioned the merger or what role she, as a standout athlete from Conneaut Valley, would play once school began this past August. Instead, she has made the very most of the opportunity and has played a pretty big role in what has, so far, been a successful year at Conneaut Area Senior High School, particularly this basketball season.
The junior accounted for nearly 30 percent of the Eagles’ scoring and thrived on the defensive end of the court to lead Conneaut to a 19-4 mark overall, a 12-0 record in Region 3 and the District 10 Class AAA playoffs in its inaugural campaign.
It is Baker’s consistency throughout the season and the impact she made on and off the court that made her an easy pick for the 2013 Meadville Tribune Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
“In a nutshell, she’s a natural athlete,” said Conneaut head coach Bill Stevenson. “She is 100 percent all of the time. Even when you were teaching her something new or correcting something, it’s all effort.”
And it’s all effort all the time for Baker for one reason: She wants to win. Not as an individual, but as CASH. She wants to see it work.
“We all just came together the first practice and knew what we wanted to get done this season,” Baker said. “And we strived for that goal every practice and worked harder and harder every day.”
It didn’t matter who wore orange or maroon or black prior to this season.
“That was what it all came down to,” Baker said. “We knew what we wanted to get done and we came together as one big family and got it done.”
Thanks, again, to the example Baker set.
“I think she had a lot to do with it,” Stevenson said. “She’s a great student, a great athlete. She is involved in probably every club there is (at CASH). She’s a dynamic kid and is helping to bring these three schools together.
“She is everything you would want a daughter to be: A good student, a good athlete and just a good kid.”
Baker wound up averaging 14.9 points and six rebounds per contest, and together with Challen Litwiler formed one of the most potent tandems in the district.
The two combined to score 602 points on the year — more than half of the Eagles’ 1,111 point total.
“They worked extremely well together,” Stevenson said. “They worked the high-low together … Defensively they worked well together. They complimented each other very well.”
It was that defensive game that helped Baker stand out and something she said she takes great pride in. Baker’s task at Conneaut was to play out front in its press. She was able to snatch away the ball frequently and turned those steals into either easy layups or assists to Litwiler.
“I feel my defense is the best thing I do on the basketball court,” Baker said. “I feel it is probably the most important part of the game.”
And it certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
“Baker was probably the most consistent player this year,” Saegertown coach Steve Scott said. “She was tough, especially defensively.”
Yet, still, it’s the team’s finish at the end of the day that satisfied Baker the most and has made her even more hungry for the 2014 season to begin. Stevenson, too.
“I am very pleased with how the season went,” he said. “We lost four games. Two at the beginning, Grove City and then Franklin (in the playoffs).
“We don’t quite have what it takes to be a triple-A team yet. It’s such a different style of game. I think we made vast improvement. We beat some quality teams and we played really well with other ones. But we’re not a triple-A school yet. We’re trying to be. But really we are still three single-A teams put together.
“Our mentality is we’re a triple-A team, but our performance hasn’t met that expectation.”
The key now is that the Eagles know what it takes to get there.
“I’m expecting a very, very good summer,” Stevenson said. “We know we have to be in a gym all summer. We have to play all season long to get where we want to be.”