As he begins his 18th season as coach of the Central Catholic girls basketball team, Steve Pfahler has come full circle, and then some.
When he took over the Irish varsity for the 1989-90 season, Pfahler's first goal was getting Central back on top of the City League after it had won 10 titles between 1971 and 1988.
Pfahler (333-73 record) guided the Irish to the first of what would be 10 more CL titles in 1992, a near decade-long dynasty that would include eight straight league championships and 84 consecutive CL wins at one point between 1997-2004.
There were three trips to the Division I state semifinals in four years (1998, 1999 and 2001) and, during that span, it appeared that Central was miles ahead of any other northwest Ohio program with its trademark pressure defense and vaunted transition game.
But that gap narrowed quickly when a few area teams worked hard to improve.
First it was Northview of the Northern Lakes League, which overtook the Irish, won four straight district titles and advanced to the state semifinals in 2004 and 2005.
Start broke Central's 84-game win streak in CL play and, after five consecutive lopsided wins by Central in
City championship games, runner-up Bowsher made strong showings against the Irish in the 2002 and 2004 City finals. The Rebels finally defeated Central in the '04 district semifinals.
And then came Waite, which upset Central in the 2005 City semifinals en route to winning the first of three straight CL crowns.
Despite being knocked from the top, Pfahler says the target has never left his team's back.
"I would guess that we're still the biggest game on everybody's schedule around here, just because of the tradition," Pfahler said. "I don't want to sound egotistical, but I think 90 percent of the [area] coaches grade their teams by how well they do against us.
"They were still shooting for us even when we weren't the most talented team. We established an identity that we won't be able to get away from, and that's because of the success we've had, even long before I got here."
Just when some folks began to peg Central as just another decent City League contender, the Irish regrouped late last season and returned to familiar ground in tournament play.
Humbled 67-45 at home by Waite in league play, and beaten again by the Indians 56-50 in the City championship game, Central bounced back to upset the defending district champion Tribe 56-49 in the D-I district semifinals.
Opinions vary as to exactly when Central began its turnaround after a 4-5 start last year.
"We lost to Waite in the City championship but we got our confidence back and regrouped as a team," said junior post player Brianna Jones, a first-team All-City player last season. "Then, after we beat Waite, that really gave us a boost of confidence.
"Basically, we finally formed a trust in each other as teammates. After that we stayed focused the whole game and played through our problems. We didn't hang our heads."
Senior guard Sharise Calhoun saw the turnaround starting earlier.
"We started to turn it around in the middle of the season after we lost to Notre Dame," said Calhoun, a fourth-year varsity member. "We knew we were a better team than that, and we had to come out and play harder and prove ourselves. We needed to gain our confidence back and trust each other and get better team chemistry."
Pfahler dates the transformation of his team to last Dec. 30.
"I think it started after we lost at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary," he said. "They beat us pretty bad and Calhoun was hurt, and it was one of the worst games I've seen a Central team play. We basically laid down.
"We had a talk after that game and I told the girls, 'You probably don't like me very much right now, and I don't like you.' That was a Saturday game and we took Sunday off. When we started practice again we simplified some things and just turned them loose.
"Our kids re-dedicated themselves, the practices got better, we worked on free-throw shooting, which was killing us, and the kids started to trust each other."
Whenever it was that the ship was actually righted, the Irish ultimately topped Start in the district final and hammered Strongsville 61-39 in the regional semifinals before falling to Findlay 49-43 in the final.
With the regional final advancement, Pfahler's program had thus gone from CL contender to City champion to perennial league powerhouse to a place among Ohio's elite teams to fallen giant, and back toward budding powerhouse status.
Full circle, and then some.
"The last few years we needed to ask ourselves what we needed to do to get better," Pfahler said. "We needed to redefine the things we did during the season and in the summer."
"You have that hunger to be successful every year, and we have it more now than ever. I think it means more now because it's harder than ever to win a City championship. That's because there's more good teams."
As it enters the season, Central, which yielded to Waite's favorite role the past two years, cannot avoid that team-to-beat label this year.
The Irish return all five starters plus four capable subs from last year's regional final team.
"This year we have a lot of flexibility in what we're capable of doing," Pfahler said. "We have a lot of size inside, and we have five solid guards. We have a lot of interchangeable parts, and these girls have formed a bond. "Also, it didn't hurt for them to see what the volleyball team did in winning a state championship. They hope that they can do that someday."
The experience of recent years has taught Pfahler that there are very few pushovers anymore in a greatly improved City League.
"As everyone else continues to make their programs better, we are always striving to raise the bar here," Pfahler said. "In the long run, that competition is good because it makes it better for everyone. To the other teams' credit, they accepted the challenge and got better. It's all about the game progressing.
"Everyone reaches a point where you have to come back down to earth and re-examine yourself. I'm honored to be part of a City League where the coaches have worked so hard to get their programs better."
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