By CHRIS LARICK
It would be wrong to say that Renee (Freeman) Drake was born with a silver spoon in her mouth.
But it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say she was born with a basketball in her genes.
Drake’s father, Paul Freeman, was an excellent player at Pymatuning Valley, coached for many years and has already been selected to the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame. Her three brothers all played basketball (well) and Renee grew up watching two of them play.
"Larry Bird was a household name,” Freeman said. "I don't remember basketball ever being introduced to me. It was just always there. It was a way of life in our family. I was five years old when my brother Sean began his freshman year at PV. The teams he played on were very successful.
"He was a standout player himself and is also in the ACBF Hall of Fame. The games were exciting. The atmosphere was exciting. Watching my brother and the PV Lakers compete and succeed was super exciting. It drew me in. Sean was my athletic idol growing up. I wanted to be like him. So naturally, once the school offered basketball in the fifth grade, there was no doubt that I was going to play and never look back.”
It seems to follow that Drake became an outstanding player herself, leading to her induction into the ACBF Hall of Fame on Apr. 7, joining her father and brother there.
In the sixth grade the Lakers began to play competitively under coach Dave Roberts. A successful team at that point, they won a few tournaments. Drake’s father, Paul, coached the seventh and eighth-grade teams she played for, continuing the coaching he had been giving her since she was very young.
"My father lives and breathes fundamentals,” Drake said. "My teammates to this day still talk about him pounding the fundamentals in us. You weren't allowed to join practice until you had conquered the left-handed layup correctly.
"My dad made me the basketball player I was. He taught us the fundamentals very early on. He taught my brothers and I how to play the game right. (We spent) many hours in the gym with him. No doubt he was the best coach I had.
"Maybe more importantly he instilled in us a competitive edge, hustle, passion, and a refuse to lose attitude.
"My mom (Evelyn) also loves basketball and has always been a die-hard Cavs fan. Girls didn't play basketball when she was in high school. I bet she would have played. Even though she never had a chance to play, she always supported us and was one of our biggest fans in the stands."
At 5-foot-10 by her freshman year, Drake played the post for the majority of her high-school career. But in her senior year, with a lot of height in Julie Bentley and Autumn Sevich in addition to Drake, she was pulled out onto the wing as a guard.
"I definitely developed my guard skills more that year and developed a better outside shot and became both an inside and outside threat,” she said.
The Lakers became a very good team, bordering on the great. They certainly had a great team her sophomore year (1996-1997) going undefeated in the regular season and finishing 21-1, 9-0 in the East Suburban Conference for the first of two straight years.
In her sophomore year, key teammates included Marisa Jenkins, point guard; Roberta Janowski, guard.; Jessica Burlingham, center; and Erica Pashley, guard.
“We had a lot of talent that year and were a well-rounded team,” Drake said. "Marisa was a pistol at the point. She's what made us go. She was an incredible passer.
"Roberta was tenacious. She could take the ball hard to the hoop, but could put a shot in your eye. Jessica was a beast. She was unstoppable inside with her size and power. Erica was a multi -threat too with the ability to take the ball to the hoop and a good shooter.
"And we all played hard defense and got on the floor. We were a tough group of girls. We pushed each other and made each other better. We just wanted to win. It was a season never to be forgotten and like Coach (Melody) Nowakowski told us at the end of the season after we lost to Brookfield in the second round of districts, 'Nobody can ever take that season away from us.’ "
In what may be a first for Ashtabula County girls basketball, six players went on to play sports in college.
Drake, who averaged 10.3 points and 10 rebounds that year, played basketball and softball at Geneva College. Jenkins, who averaged 10 points, six assists and five steals, played basketball at Waynesburg College. Janowski, who averaged 12 points and five rebounds, played basketball at Case Western Reserve.
Burlingame added 13 points and nine rebounds that year at PV before taking her talents to Lakeland Community College, then the U.S. Army national team. Pashley, who had seven points and three steals, ran track at Findlay, and Bentley, who contributed four points and four rebounds to the total, played basketball at D’Youville College..
Others on that team included Anne Casciola and Tiffany McKay.
Janowski, Jenkins and Burlingame graduated that year. During Drake’s junior and senior seasons, Pashley
and Bentley continued being valuable players, while new key players included post player Autumn Sevich, and guard Melissa Ballentine.
"Erica Pashley and I were inseparable on the court,” Drake said. "We started off in fifth grade together, played in 3-on-3 tournaments together, played varsity together freshman year and both went on to being leaders on the court for the next three years. It was fun to play with her.
"When you played with someone as long as we did, it just makes it easier to know how to complement each other on the court. Julie Bentley and Tiffany McKay were other players who had played with us since fifth grade.”
The Lakers were coached by Melody Nowakowski, who had starred at PV as Melody Holt and is now in the ACBF Hall Fame, all four years of Drake’s high school career.
"She was an amazing coach,” Drake said. "She motivated us. She pushed us. She worked us hard. She didn't accept anything but our best. We bought into her system. We respected her.
"We trusted her decisions and, in return, she trusted us with our own decisions on the court as well. We worked hard, but had fun. With her at the helm, we compiled 69 wins over a four-year period. I am thankful that I had her as my coach. I am also thankful for the assistants we had over the years: Kim Triskett and Jeff Compan."
In addition to her sophomore season, the Lakers posted records of 16, 7-2 second in ESC as freshmen; 19-3, 9-0. ESC champs as juniors; and 13-8, 9-5, when Pymatuning Valley moved to the bigger-school NEC when Drake’s group were seniors.
"Our undefeated season is untouchable,” Drake said. "It’s every team's dream and we accomplished it. So the memories from that season are irreplaceable. But it was a huge disappointment when we lost to Brookfield in districts. I would love to get that game back. They were a good team: guard-oriented, quick and great shooters. We just matched up differently. But I think we all believe that on any other given night we could have beaten them.
"Then to go on, after losing three starters to graduation, to win back-to-back ESC championships was just awesome. We lost our first game that season after coming off the undefeated season. It was a hard pill to swallow because we had hopes of going undefeated again.But it put us in check and made us work harder and we only lost three games that season.
"The championship game was unforgettable. We played our archrival, Grand Valley, at PV. The gym was packed. The atmosphere was electric. The student section was crazy. On film, you couldn't hear the ball dribbling on the floor because it was so loud in the gym. Everything was on the line.
"We won in overtime. And there was pandemonium as the stands cleared to run on the floor to celebrate with the team. That night was like the type of basketball atmosphere that I watched my brother Sean play and succeed in. That type of basketball atmosphere was why I fell in love with the game. I accredit that to Laker Nation. PV has a great community of fans that support the high school teams. It makes playing the game even more fun."
In Drake’s senior year Pymatuning Valley switched to the tougher NEC, where it had to play bigger schools like Jefferson and Geneva and compete against legendary coaches Rod Holmes and Nancy Barbo.
"We had a good team that year, a real good team, but our competition was very tough,” Drake said. "But we made a statement that year for sure. We went 9-5 in the conference, beating Jefferson and Geneva on their home courts, pretty impressive when we were up against other ACBF Hall of Famers like Kelly Kapferer, Becky Hamper, and Nara and Rhea DeJesus.
"I think that year and our success in the NEC and our wins over teams like Jefferson and Geneva validated our success in previous years. Too many times people would say the ESC was a weak conference, but here we were, now in the NEC, winning games and beating bigger schools with excellent basketball programs.
"We had a chance to make a run in districts that year. If we made it past the second round, we really liked our chances with the opponent we would play. But we lost a heart-breaker to Hawken which came down to the last seconds of the game. That's another game I'd love to get back.”
Unimpressed with such awards, Drake didn’t keep track of her individual awards, though she remembers being all -state honorable mention her junior and senior years.
“Awards, honors, and stats were never important to me,” she said. "I just wanted to win. Period.”
During her career at PV, Drake scored 946 points, hitting 46 percent of her field goals. She totaled 798 rebounds, 228 of them in one season, and added 244 steals.
At PV Drake also played softball and volleyball. She was a four-year starter for the softball team, playing two years at first base then two years at shortstop.
“I received post-season honors all four years, but I don't have those specifics available right now,” she said. "For volleyball, I played JV and varsity my freshman year and then was a starter for varsity my sophomore, junior, and senior years. Again, I earned some post season honors but I don't have those specifics at this time. My senior year, I was allowed to throw the shot put when it didn't interfere with softball. I had thrown the shot put in junior high, but gave it up in high school due to softball. I didn't compete in many track meets, but I did place in the championship meet when PV won.”
As Drake neared graduation, colleges approached her with different offers.
"I was mainly recruited by Walsh University for basketball, Geneva College for basketball and Clarion University for softball,” she said. "I always wanted to play softball in college but never thought I could play basketball in college because I wasn't a very tall post player.”
She wound up at Geneva College on a scholarship for both basketball and softball. She became a starter for four years on the basketball team, playing forward and scoring 1,153 points (seventh all-time at the time of her graduation) and 766 rebounds, (fifth all-time when she graduated).
She also became a four-year starter on the softball team, playing first base her freshman year and shortstop her sophomore, junior and senior years.
"For softball we went to nationals two years,” she said. “And I was a part of a historical season my senior year when the team had a record of 42-12. During that season I scored 54 runs, which is still the record for runs scored in a single season.”
Drake graduated with a degree in elementary and special education and later added her master's degree in reading from Geneva as well.
She was fortunate enough to be able to get a teaching job in Andover right out of college, teaching special education at PV. But fate soon beckoned.
"Going into my second school year, I received a call from legendary Ron Galbreath, my coach from my senior year of college,” Drake said. "He wanted me to return as his assistant at Geneva College.
"I couldn't refuse the amazing opportunity to learn from one of the best. So I packed my bags and moved back to Beaver Falls and coached with Coach Galbreath for three years. I then had an opportunity for a teaching job along with a head coaching position at the high school level. So I left Geneva, and taught special education at Western Beaver in Industry, PA.
"I was the high school girls head basketball coach and high school head softball coach there as well.”
She spent two years there, leaving when her first daughter was born. Her intention was to be a stay-at-home mom, but then she received another phone call from Geneva, offering her her dream job as head women's basketball coach at Geneva College in addition to assistant softball coach .
She went there and spent two years there, before her second daughter was born. At that point she decided to pursue another kind of dream, of staying at home with her babies.
"I have been a stay-at-home mom since,” she said. "I have volunteered coached for recreational softball and coached junior high softball last year for Beaver Falls Middle School. Also, I am currently on the Board of Advisors for the future Neighbood North: Museum of Play in Beaver Falls. It's a committee that has been pulled together to make a children's museum a reality for the kids of Beaver Falls."
Drake met her husband, Jason, in college, when he was playing baseball at at Geneva College.
"He worked at the fieldhouse and would watch me at basketball practice and games,”Renee said. " He claims that it was my passion for the game that attracted him to me.
"I guess basketball does help in life beyond the court. It got me a husband.😊 We have been married for 13 years and have four children, three girls and a boy: Addison (9), Stevie (7), Sawyer (4) and Bailey (3).
Drake currently plays in a volleyball league.
" It's been fun playing again,” she said. “I have always loved volleyball. Other than that I try to workout on a regular basis and I enjoy running. I ran my first half-marathon two years ago and hope to do another. But time for myself is a rare thing when raising four young children. The majority of my days are filled tending to their needs and activities. They are getting involved with sports and I couldn't be enjoying that more. I can't wait to see them fall in love with the games.”