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Clark, Alexander adjust to keep LWA on track

Lawrence Woodmere Academy teammates #11 Caroline Clark, left,

Lawrence Woodmere Academy teammates #11 Caroline Clark, left, and #3 Hayley Alexander manage to crack smiles during a timeout. (January 27, 2010) Credit: James A. Escher

It was a neat little venture with some of the unlikeliest of leaders for Lawrence Woodmere Academy - the private school with the small girls basketball team and the big shoes to fill.

With its star senior having graduated and one of its leading scorers jumping ship for the hallowed halls of the Holy Trinity team, Lawrence Woodmere, a tiny IPPSAL squad, was teetering even more on the edge of basketball obscurity.

The keys to regaining any semblance of previous form: a wide-eyed sophomore known for passing first in Hayley Alexander and certified Division I soccer star Caroline Clark.

Unorthodox as it may have been, the formula has worked for the team once known for its ability to score almost at will. The Tigers are steadily headed for the postseason. In December, they showed their mettle with a win over Our Savior New American - currently the strongest team in IPPSAL and likely the greatest competition down the stretch. With a 9-4 record, LWA is third in the league. The top four make it to the playoffs. Our Savior and Portledge are the top two.

"In my opinion, we're definitely in the playoffs" said coach Mike Cohn, who last year led the Tigers to an 18-1 record and an IPPSAL championship. "We don't have a lot of experience [now]. It's a learning process."

Cohn has approached the new challenge with ingenuity. He firmly believes that his group of freshmen and sophomores, though a little on the short side, have what it takes to claw their way to the top.

The road, though, no longer looks like scorched earth. With the graduation of Jamie Confino and Ataya Horn's transfer, the Tigers have embraced a more defense-oriented, cerebral type of play.

Enter Alexander and Clark.

After the big overhaul, "we were like, how are we going to survive?" said Clark, the team's only senior. "But we found a way."

Indeed, Alexander has redefined her role - going from a pass-oriented point guard to the team's leading scorer. She scored a season-high 30 in a victory over Waldorf on Jan. 13.

"I knew I was going to have to start scoring if we were going to keep winning," Alexander said. "I guess I'm more aggressive now. Shoot first, then pass."

Clark, meanwhile, who will play soccer for Providence in September, helms the middle.

"For any sport, you need athleticism and a working mentality," Clark said. "All you need to do is find a way to win."

In this case, it is a clamped-down defense and an emphasis on perimeter shooting. Lawrence has introduced a 1-2-2 zone press "and it's really helped trap [opponents],'' Clark said. The new methods are a credit to Cohn. He says he talks more now than he did in the days of old - there's more actual teaching involved, he said. What's more, the Tigers actually listen.

"With a younger team, you need more time [to explain] because there's not a lot of given knowledge," Cohn said. "It's been a little bit of a struggle . . . [but] they're starting to come in to their own."

Cohn proved his point on a brisk Wednesday afternoon. Woodmere was mostly deserted, save for a scattering of students congregated in the cafeteria and the incessant sounds of bouncing coming from the school gym. With so many athletic teams, the times for practice are few and far between, Cohn said. Instead, he asked his girls to arrive at the gym about an hour before game time to try out new strategies. On the menu this day is a box-and-one defense.

Cohn took his time explaining the steps to the 10 or so athletes (about the entire team) lined up in the paint. They listened intently. When Cohn finally left the court, the team erupted into impromptu one-on-ones and gleeful chases. There is a level of athletic immaturity that comes with being so young, Cohn acknowledged, but the talent is most certainly there.

Lawrence dropped its afternoon game against Portledge, but bounced back days later with a blowout win against Knox.

"It's a transition period," Cohn says before the games. "It's a work in progress."

Progress, of course, being the key word.

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