NAPPANEE – It’s been some kind of ride for the NorthWood girls basketball program. A ride the team hopes drives them all the way to Indianapolis.
A postseason tournament that has morphed into a mini redemption tour for the Panthers has seen all sorts of team check marks drawn on the white board, but also personal goals from within and elsewhere.
Senior guard Reagan Hartman got to put the marker to the board last Saturday night, checking off the latest team goal for NorthWood after a 43-30 win over Knox in the Class 3-A Jimtown Regional championship. The win gave NorthWood 26 wins on the season to just three losses, the win total a program record and the first regional championship for the starved club, a wait 15 years in the making.
For Hartman, who found herself stifling both Mishawaka Marian guards in the regional semis and Knox’s perimeter in the final, it’s been a great feeling to take the next step.
“I know that I’m a solid defender and I can put pressure on anyone,” Hartman said. “They usually get frustrated with me, and that’s one of my strengths as a defender. I don’t necessarily do much on the offensive end, maybe drive and open things up for Kate (Rulli) and Maddy (Payne), but my strength is defense and I know that’s where I can make my mark.”
Each step in the process for NorthWood is a first for coach Adam Yoder. Only the second coach in NorthWood girls basketball history after Steve Neff completed his Hall of Fame tenure for 37 years at The Pit, et. al., Yoder cried tears of joy after the school’s 11th regional title, his first. Next check mark on the board, a win over Benton Central at this weekend’s Class 3-A semi-state at LaPorte. It would be the third semi-state title for NorthWood and first since the team won the whole thing in 1999.
“This is the most experience we’ve had coming back in a long time,” Yoder said. “Maybe not the most statistical group outside of Maddy and Kate, but those two have a lot of basketball experience and know what we want to get done. Alea Minnich, Kendal Miller, both have really come on. Karlie Fielstra is playing great defense for us, and she hit some huge free throws in that regional. We’re really seeing a lot of different roles coming together at the right time.”
NorthWood’s players have used the rallying cry of its volleyball regional loss in the fall to perfection, avenging a regional final loss to Bellmont as a means to start crushing basketball teams. And after West Noble knocked out the Panthers in the 2019 basketball sectional, a win two weeks ago over the Chargers at the Lakeland Sectional was satisfying. Then beating Marian at Jimtown after the Knights ran over NorthWood in the regular season set up the Knox game, where players were viewing Knox as a virtual Bellmont volleyball rematch.
“We all feel like we are too close to let it slip away,” Hartman said. “We are playing with a lot of confidence and believe we can get this done.”
Benton, however, isn’t just a phantom obstacle. The Bison match NorthWood with a 26-3 mark with an impressive win over a 17-win West Lafayette team in the sectional and beating Norwell, 49-43, in the regional final. Norwell is the only tie between the two teams in common opponents, the Knights beating NorthWood 59-39 in late November.
Benton has had six different players lead the team in game scoring this season. Audrey Strawsma leads the Bison with a 14.9 points per game average. Kelsey Coffman is next at 13.4 and Tressa Senesac gives them a third double-digit scorer at 10.4 per game. Against Garrett in the regional semi-final, Kennedy Tolen led the team with 22 points and Senesac had 18 against Norwell. Benton, coached by David Baxter who is 223-40 in 10 years at the school, is averaging 64 points per game, but play a schedule that only half of their regular season games were against Class 3-A or 4-A, a strength of schedule per Sagarin of 173. NorthWood faced 18 schools in their class or higher, and per the ratings have a strength of schedule of 69.
But while stats are fun to make cases for who should win and lose, it comes down to want-to and making big plays in big moments.
“Honestly, if we play the way we know how, we can beat anyone,” said a confident Karlie Fielstra. “Our defense has been really good in this tournament, we’re playing good help defense. When we are doing that, we’ve kept some really good scorers pretty frustrated. Hoping that continues.”