The leap from high school to Division I basketball often means going from superstar to role player.
Players go from the foundational building block their teammates thrive off of to not knowing if they’ll play from game to game. That is the process the young Ohio bench is working through this season.
Of the trio, only Burke has appeared in all 23 games for the Bobcats. None of the three average more than 17 minutes per game.
"My role that game might be cheering everybody on from the bench," Doseck said. "Play your role."
But the young players that make up Ohio’s future know their roles. They embrace them and they are thriving within them.
Jan. 25 against Western Michigan, the Bobcats needed a jolt.
They trailed 30-29 with 4:49 left in the first half, and their starting point guard and center had each left the game with injuries. To that point, the Bobcats had recorded as many made field goals as turnovers: two.
Katie Barker had just entered the game.
Barker faked a cut to the basket from the left corner, then faded behind the 3-point line around a screen from Burke. Guard Taylor Agler found Barker for a wide open 3-pointer.
Thirty-nine seconds later, Barker found herself open on the left wing once again, after Agler grabbed a rebound and sprinted over half court against the unprepared Broncos defense.
Again, Barker converted. Western Michigan called a timeout the moment her second 3-pointer went through the net.
Barker’s brief storm on the opposing defense was the beginning of an 18-1 run, in which Barker contributed half of the Ohio damage. It wasn’t the first time the bench had lifted the Bobcats, and it wouldn’t be the last.
The previous Saturday during the Feb. 4 game against Eastern Michigan, Doseck contributed 12 points to Ohio’s 17-1 bench scoring advantage. Burke finished off Toledo with a basket and foul that gave the Bobcats a nine-point lead with 1:21 remaining.
That is what was expected of the young, energized Bobcats for much of the season.
"(Our role) is just coming in and providing a spark or to keep the spark going," Barker said.
On a team with five seniors, offensive opportunities are limited for newcomers. The added offensive sparks are welcomed, but they aren’t the only measure of improvement.
What Ohio coach Bob Boldon looks for in his young players is the less glamorous work — the defense.
But that’s the hard part.
Boldon’s defensive schemes can be overwhelming for young players. There are several moving parts to keep track of, and in-play adjustments happen fast.
"The rotation is just crazy," Burke said. "I've never seen a rotation like it."
While keeping up with the physical complexities, Ohio players also have to process what offenses are doing in real time and decide what each move means for their individual responsibility.
"The speed of everything is so much faster," Doseck said. "You have to go off your gut and reaction."
Boldon said learning his defense is like anything else in life — mistakes are expected with brand new concepts. It’s the non-repetitive nature of errors he focuses on.
With six games remaining, Boldon is seeing his young reserves start to turn the corner in their respective heads. After the Toledo win, he praised Burke, Barker and Doseck for being in the correct defensive positions in recent games.
With their defensive improvement, he trusts them to play more in important games.
At each Ohio practice, Boldon separates his team into two groups. One group consists of the mainstays from the last few years: Agler, Yamonie Jenkins, Quiera Lampkins, Kelly Karlis, Jasmine Weatherspoon and Hannah Boesinger.
The other group represents the future of Ohio basketball: Doseck, Burke, Barker, Kendall Jessing, Olivia Bower and Meche’la Cobb.
Along with the Ohio scout team, those two groups engage in a five-on-five-on-five scrimmage. One team starts with the ball, and from there, the other teams either get a stop or they wait for the next team to come their way.
On most days, the former NCAA Tournament entrants get the better of the underclassmen. Somedays, they beat the younger team badly.
In those moments, however, the groundwork for future on-court chemistry is laid.
"There's a lot of times where the starters are just killing us," Burke said. "We have to really come together."
But there are moments where the underclassmen’s potential shines through. Sometimes, Burke drives to the basket and scores over the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Lampkins. Sometimes, Barker and Doseck rip off a few 3-pointers in a row.
Those are the proudest moments for the in-practice underdogs.
"When we make good plays, obviously we get all hyped and excited," Doesck said. "It doesn't happen too often."
The underclassmen relish in the small victories now, but eventually the limelight will belong to them. With four of the top five leading scorers leaving after this season, there will be added pressure to the young group.
"We're still gonna have expectations," Boldon said. "Those expectations can't start next fall, they gotta start building habits today."
The players aren’t blind to it, either. Barker said she knows every practice and game is an audition of sorts for minutes next year. She and the other bench players spend their time away from the team adding new dimensions to their game.
But as Burke said, becoming too caught up in the competition of next year can be dangerous.
For now, the former high school superstars are happy to contribute whatever they can as role players, and worry about the rest later.
"In the games, I try to fulfill my role for this year's team," Barker said. "Coming into practice, you try to do new things and learn new things."