By Jay Young
Chautauqua Lake Central School opened its doors for the 1996-97 school year following the merger of the Mayville and Chautauqua districts and Rick Anderson was given the initial job of starting a new girls basketball team from the ground up.
Chautauqua Lake coach Eric Schuster congratulates Jenna Einink, left, and Courtney Hewes after a win in the semifinals of the state Class C tournament.
P-J photo by Jay Young
Anderson had spent the last 15 years as the head coach for Mayville's girls team, but despite that experience there were more than a few obstacles to overcome during the inaugural season with the Lady Thunderbirds. The veteran coach was forced to start a new team from almost nothing in a totally new environment.
After Anderson spent five years at the helm of the Lady Thunderbirds, he was followed by Steve Luccariello for three seasons and Cheryl Burns for one. Present coach Eric Schuster took over in 2009-10 and did not inherit a team that was contending with the best Class C programs in New York.
Now that has all changed.
Not only did Schuster lead Chautauqua Lake to its first-ever team title when his Lady Thunderbirds claimed the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class C championship this year, but he's also built up a program that is in line to compete for years to come.
"Coach Schuster has been the driving force to the Chautauqua Lake girls basketball program's success the past few years," said athletic director Josh Liddell. "When he first became head coach in 2009, he inherited a program that had only seven varsity girls on the team and only two wins the previous year."
During the onset of Schuster's career at Chautauqua Lake there was not a deep pool of young basketball talent to draw from and that was the first thing that he set out to change.
Starting youth programs to build up interest in any sport is never easy, especially when you consider the fact that it is going to be several years until high school teams can reap any of the benefits.
But that was what needed to happen in order for Chautauqua Lake to make any steps toward regional and statewide competition and Schuster was unconcerned with the challenges and the timeline of building a great team.
"From day one, he understood the importance of building up the youth program," said Liddell. "He was instrumental in creating and developing what we call our Shooting Stars program, which is a Chautauqua Lake elementary girls basketball league. The program has been very successful and is one of the reasons everyone is so excited about the future of Chautauqua Lake girls basketball.''
Focusing on skill development may not be the quickest way to turning around a basketball program, but it is the right way.
Not only did the Lady Thunderbirds capture their first state title in 2013-14, but they also did it with a roster full of young players.
Only seniors Ashley Moulton and Tara Hunt will be missing next season. The rest of Schuster's roster will remain intact for another possible run to the state tournament.
A lot of championship teams make their mark because of rosters that are loaded with experienced seniors, but the Lady Thunderbirds look like they might be even better next season.
The only way to achieve that type of depth with a young team is by having great youth players.
Liddell sees Schuster's success in relation to some of the other great basketball coaches from around Western New York.
"In this area there have been and still are some great girls basketball programs with some of New York state's top basketball coaches,'' he said. ''Teams like Sherman with Mel Swanson at the helm and Pine Valley with Tim Nobles have been so successful because they have remarkable coaches who care about their girls and their community.''
He added, "Coach Schuster is very similar to Tim and Mel specifically in regards to caring about his girls and the community. He also has the coaching ability to be one of the area's great coaches and he has already begun to carve out his own legacy in only five years as a head coach."
Swanson and Nobles have both been named The Post-Journal Coach of the Year and now Schuster joins them.
Above everything else, successful coaches tend to build a family atmosphere around their team and their community, which is something that Schuster has been able to combine with his talented roster of players.
Even with big games on the line, the Lady Thunderbirds' head coach remains mild-mannered and focused on enjoying the game. He has had the opportunity to watch his players progress and develop since their time in youth programs and revels in the opportunity to watch them succeed.
"As for winning our first state championship in school history, it was extra special because so many of these kids have been on this team for three and four years," Schuster said. "These are not just kids on your basketball team, these are 'special' kids who are part of your family. They won the biggest prize in high school athletics and if they can take that (along with all the hard work) and apply that to life after high school and even basketball, I am confident they will all be very successful.''
Thanks to all of his hard work now the village of Mayville and the students of Chautauqua Lake can look forward to more wins in girls basketball, and more fun along the way.
"He has an innate ability to get his girls to fully respect him all while still making their basketball experience enjoyable,'' Liddell said. ''Even as they made their run through the playoffs, anyone close to the program could tell you that Coach Schuster's girls were relaxed, having fun and always focused on the ultimate goal of winning states."
That is a goal that Schuster and his team can look forward to having for years to come.