By Mike Deak
NAPPANEE – It quietly became a redemption tour of sorts for Maddy Payne and the NorthWood girls basketball program. And Payne was as motivated as anyone to finish what she started.
With that bitter taste of having the carpet snatched from under their feet in volleyball, Payne, Kate Rulli, Alea Minnich, Kendal Miller and Bre Wise took out their frustrations on the basketball court. Much like their 29-match win streak in volleyball, the girls basketball team started a little slow, but won 24 of its last 25 games.
And in much the same way as volleyball, Payne was in the middle of it all. Along with her sidekick, Rulli, the ‘Twin Towers’ were a wrecking crew for the Black Swish. Payne’s 13.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals and Rulli’s 12.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals were nearly enough to defeat most opponents on their own given the team allowed just under 35 points per game in its 28-3 campaign. The two were decoys for each other, when Payne wasn’t filling the stat sheets, like the four-point sectional win against West Noble, it was Rulli who did the lifting.
Payne noted, “Kate was our other main go-to player. She’s my Twin Tower, what can I say? I love our friendship so much, it means the world to me. Throughout the season it came up a lot, how our good/bad games would go back and forth a lot. One game I would be heavily guarded, and the next she would be. That was the beauty of it, though, no team could compete against two (good) six-foot players. Take one of us away, and the other would come out with 20 points and 10 rebounds.”
With the Twin Towers guarding the middle, NorthWood made its historic run to a state title. And when it mattered most in the semi-state against Benton Central and the state championship at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in front of 10,000 onlookers, Payne had the biggest games of her life. Payne’s 13 points and nine rebounds were more than enough in a 36-22 clinic over Benton. Then with the money on the line against Salem in the championship game, Payne was figuratively and literally huge with 19 points, 10 rebounds and four steals along with making 9-10 free throws.
And it wasn’t surprising, not from NorthWood athletic director Norm Sellers, not from head coach Adam Yoder or the throng of NorthWood fans in the stands all nodding in approval, Payne was chosen as the Patricia L. Roy Mental Attitude Award winner following the biggest performance of her career.
Payne, who was already named our IFN Girls Basketball Player of the Year earned All-NLC honors for basketball, which later had her land Second Team All-State by the ICGSA and Honorable Mention All-State by the AP. Carrying a 3.9 GPA through the second trimester, Payne was named an Academic All-State choice.
And tying that into what happened in volleyball, Payne and company got their redemption and checked off the biggest box for everyone who rooted for her and the Red Slam in the fall.
“Maddy’s determination to excel was evident from the time she stepped on the floor as a freshman,” said Yoder. “Many forget the fact that she was thrust into a starting varsity role in 2016-17 after Riley Hershberger tore her ACL in the Bankers’ Classic that year. Her first three games were versus Aubrey Schmeltz (Wawasee), Anne Secrest (Valley) and Marci Miller (Northridge) that year and she helped give us a chance to win right from the start.
“This year’s result was a perfect, fitting culmination of that determination she’s always had to continue to grow as a player and give her team a chance to win, regardless of the sport,” added Yoder. “Her role this year was to lead us. No matter what that meant each game, she accepted it and excelled at it. We were so fortunate to have a group of players and coaches that all led with such servant hearts, and Maddy was the epitome of that.”
Payne certainly would have had a chance to boost her résumé as well in the spring as a high jumper for Mark Mikel’s track program. While track was a distant third on her list of ‘good at’ items, given what transpired in the fall and winter, it was anyone’s guess just what Payne could have strung together with one more shot at the spotlight.
“As nice as all of this is, I really hope that this isn’t what people remember me for,” said Payne of her latest award status. “I am very thankful for this award, but I want people to hear my name, and their first response to be that I was kind, that I always treated others with respect and empathy. I try hard to work at that because it is very important to me that everyone knows they have a place and they have worth. And I hope that through all of these athletic awards, that my character can be reflected and that I can continue to reach out to people and help in whatever way possible.”