By Mike Deak
NAPPANEE – It was the season that kept on giving. Or, from an opponent’s standpoint, a season that kept taking away.
The NorthWood Panthers girls basketball team etched itself into history with what is widely considered as one of the more impressive shows of defense in girls basketball tournament history. The Black Swish held its seven tournament opponents to a 32.6 points per game average. And while the IHSAA State Championship saw NorthWood’s 37-29 break a record for combined scoring futility, its defensive effort was also the best the tournament had ever seen. And it wasn’t a fluke.
NorthWood’s trademark under head coach Adam Yoder has always been its defense, and nothing changed for the Black Swish as it took a very bitter and motivated set of volleyball players and combined them with a lot of experienced returners. The determined amalgamation would become the calling card, as NorthWood held 18 of its opponents to 35 points or less. All of those outcomes were NorthWood wins.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, when NorthWood’s defense didn’t show up, it forced the team to scramble. In the four games that NorthWood allowed 50 or more points, it lost three of the four which accounted for all three of the team’s losses during the season. Only a 64-57 win over Merrillville in the semi-finals of the Banker’s Classic tournament had NorthWood come out on the other side. The Panthers would rally off that win over Merrillville to trip up Northridge to win that tournament, one of its major checkmarks for the sheet.
NorthWood wrapped up its first Northern Lakes Conference championship in style, going 7-0 and winning the outright title unblemished since Yoder’s first season as head coach in 2014-15.
That would punctuate a record-setting regular season for the Black Swish, which would set a program record for wins in the regular season (21) four days later at home against Michigan City.
“From the time we lost to Norwell in November, we all made a conscious effort to commit to playing one-on-one defense,” Yoder said. “While we improved tremendously in our help defense and our man-to-man schemes, it was really at that point where everyone buckled down and committed themselves to just getting better every day. We continued that through the state championship which was very satisfying.”
That philosophy became evident on a grand scale in the state tournament. Its opening win at the Lakeland Sectional over a very solid Tippecanoe Valley squad opened the door for what many saw as the ‘trap game’ against a West Noble team playing for its departing head coach, Dale Marano. NorthWood had to hit its free throws late to get past the Chargers, 40-36, but that seemed to be the catalyst.
NorthWood would stomp Lakeland in the final by 22, and then really put on a defensive display in the regional in avenging one of its losses to Marian, then shutting down a then one-loss Knox team in the regional final.
A week later, NorthWood held No. 2 Benton Central to a whopping 40 points below its average in a clinic at the LaPorte Semi-state. And on the grandest stage of them all, NorthWood returned to the IHSAA State Finals for the first time in 21 years and kept the same vice grip on No. 1 Salem, holding the Lions to a paltry 28 percent shooting night and 24 points below its tournament scoring average in one of the finer defensive runs in IHSAA tournament history.
Capping the championship run was senior Maddy Payne’s earning of the Patricia L. Roy Mental Attitude Award.
NorthWood’s record-setting season culminated at 28-3 overall.
Payne’s monster championship performance of 19 points, 10 rebounds and four steals was buoyed by a 9-10 performance from the free throw line. That attention happened a lot during the season, as the other ‘Twin Tower’, Kate Rulli, would take the reigns when Payne was doubled up. Rulli registered 12.5 points and eight rebounds per night, her 31 points and 14 rebounds against South Bend Riley in the season opener was a tone setter.
Reagan Hartman and Karlie Fielstra capped their senior years with a championship, Fielstra leading the team in minutes played and Hartman becoming a defensive lynchpin for the squad along with being the checklist captain. Juniors Alea Minnich, Kendal Miller and Bre Wise all ended their junior seasons without a Northern Lakes Conference loss in either basketball or volleyball, joining both Payne and Rulli as well as freshman Riley Kitson from golf with the distinct honor.
“My goal for all of the varsity teams that I have been a head coach of, regardless of gender/sport, has always been to promote trust and love in each other, first and foremost,” stated Yoder, who also led the NorthWood girls golf team to a sixth-place finish at the IHSAA State Finals in the fall. Yoder announced in March he is stepping down from the program, but will continue as the girls golf head coach. “It’s always been my philosophy that a team can’t achieve its true potential without those two characteristics being in the forefront. This team committed to that and ultimately earned what they deserved, a state championship. The reward was awesome, but how we did it and how we acted along the way is what gives me the most pride.”