TERRE HAUTE —
The length of the 2012-2013 girls high school basketball season can still be measured in hours, yet one of the more significant games in the Wabash Valley has already been played.
When Sullivan, ranked fourth in Class 2A, traveled to Riverton Parke on Tuesday to face Class A’s sixth-ranked team, it was a meeting of the Wabash Valley’s only two top-10 Indiana teams in preseason polls and probably the two who think most about ending their seasons in early March in Hulman Center, the site — for the second year in a row — of the girls state finals.
Coach Julie Meeks’ Golden Arrows are led again by 6-foot-2 Indiana State recruit Rhagen Smith and 5-2 Caelan Jones, who have started since their freshman seasons. They are seniors now, and when their team was moved down from Class 3A to Class 2A last season there were many around the Valley who had them pegged for a couple of trips deep into the state tournament.
“They were saying, ‘OK, this is a cakewalk,’ “ said Meeks — who knew better — recently. “Actually, last year we might have gone farther if we’d stayed in 3A.”
The Arrows are a defending sectional champion, but ran into the eventual state championship team — Evansville Mater Dei, a very young Evansville Mater Dei — at the regional. This year might be even tougher, with Mater Dei the preseason No. 1 team and three of Class 2A’s top five teams — including Sullivan — potentially meeting at the same regional.
To get there, the Arrows will have to beat an Eastern Greene team that opens the season ranked seventh.
But they might be able to do that, and win a regional — or more — as well.
“I feel we have a different team this year,” Meeks said. “A better team … a more experienced team, a better offensive team.”
Another returning starter is 5-2 senior Jaleigh Gilham, while 5-9 senior Cobie Harrison and 5-6 senior Sydney Chapman — the team’s defensive specialist — split a fourth spot. Depth comes from 5-4 junior Emily Cottom, a transfer from Terre Haute South, and 5-9 junior Jenni Wilkes.
“I’m hoping we come out hungry to win every night, but we want to be playing our best to be ready for the tournament,” Meeks said. “We want to win the sectional, then see how far we can go.”
Riverton Parke won the first basketball regional in the school’s history last winter, but there are no cakewalks in Class A either. At the semistate the Panthers ran into Fort Wayne Canterbury and its Division I recruits; the Cavaliers were on their way to their fourth state championship in five seasons, and have four double-figure scorers back from that team.
Riverton Parke wasn’t quite that fortunate at graduation, but that doesn’t mean the Panthers might not be even better by the end of the season themselves.
“We lost four seniors who were great role players,” coach Josh Douglass said recently, “but we have almost all our scoring back. The four seniors this year have changed the face of the program.”
One of those four seniors was the second future Missouri Valley Conference player in Tuesday’s game, 5-11 Sara Dickey. The versatile Dickey is in any discussion about the best athlete in Riverton Parke history, male or female, and can play any position or fill any role for the Panthers.
Her classmates are 5-8 Paige Yando, who outcompetes her size inside and on the backboards; 5-7 Kenzie Pollard, the team’s point guard; and 5-5 Kori Wood, another strong backcourt player.
The other five players in what Douglass expects to be a nine-player rotation could make the team better — and certainly bigger — however. Those players are 6-2 sophomore Rachel Austin, 6-2 junior Shelby Virostko, 5-9 junior Shelby Benell, 5-7 junior Emily Virostko and 5-6 junior Kelly Combs. Combs, out with an injury last year, was the leading junior varsity scorer as a freshman, and most of the others got some varsity time last season.
“We’ll be a work in progress at the beginning,” Douglass predicted, “but we’ve got height we haven’t had in a lot of years. We’ll be able to play teams in a lot of different ways and get a lot of different matchups.”
As far as other Indiana teams are concerned:
Western Indiana Conference — Northview won just one game a year ago, but played a lot of freshmen in doing so. One of this year’s sophomores, 5-11 Mikayla Rowan, had a triple-double (points, rebounds, blocks) in her last healthy game, Whitney Halfhill showed promise at point guard and Abbey Timberman is a good shooter. Add seniors Sierra Girton, Ashley Hughes and Cassie Weddle and the Knights might be ready for a turnaround … South Vermillion has just one regular back in Bailey Mack and another experienced player in Katelyn Freed and otherwise will rely on some sophomores as well. They are athletic sophomores, however, so the Wildcats have hopes too.
Wabash River Conference — North Vermillion has been a bridesmaid in this league the past three years, twice to Turkey Run and last year to Riverton Parke, but the Falcons are still very dangerous. Taylor Turchi in backcourt and Darby Martin inside give them two outstanding building blocks, while Kylee Karr and Taylen Balding are other talented veterans … Rockville has a legitimate star of its own in Jenifer Lee, while Brittany Gordon is another returning double-figure scorer. There are enough players vying for the other spots to make the Rox a threat … Turkey Run had to replace an entire team last year, after the four-year run that ended at the 2010-2011 state finals was finally completed. This year the Warriors have some veterans, led by double-figure scorers Kendall Davies and Jordan Goddard, and also quite a bit of depth.
SouthWestern Indiana Athletic Conference — Clay City lost its own four-year nucleus of stars after last season, so none of the returning Eels have stats to speak of. There’s talent available in senior Callie Dayhuff and junior Alex Wolfe, and sophomore Logan Ellinger might be ready to be the team’s scoring threat … Shakamak could be the team challenging for sectional honors if the Lakers can find someone to run the team. There’s frontline talent available in 6-1 Kelsey Pilant and returning forwards Megan Phipps and Kelsey Fulford; athletic sophomore Sierra Hudson might be the answer at point guard … North Central didn’t win a game last season, but first-year coach Jacob Cummings expects improvement from returning regulars like 5-11 Aubrey Evans and Taylor Netherlain, but especially from a freshman group led by 5-10 Katelynn Kennedy and point guard Gabby Kreischer … Linton won just once last year — against North Central — but is deeper this season and returns its top three scorers — senior Joie Gadberry and juniors Carlie Booe and Courtney Johnson … Union has its usual problems in terms of participation, but has a double-figure scorer back in junior Hallie Smith and a promising if undersized post player in 5-7 sophomore Kolbi Reynolds.
Marshall is coming off perhaps the best season of girls basketball in school history, a 25-2 squad that lost the regional championship game to perennial powerhouse Teutopolis.
Coach Kathy Miller’s team lost three starters to graduation — and balance was Marshall’s main strength a year ago — but has its statistical leaders back in 5-11 1/2 senior Ariana Kuhn and 5-11 junior Kaydie Grooms. Both were all-Little Illini Conference first-teamers, Kuhn leading the team in rebounds (5.9 per game), field goal percentage and free throw percentage and Grooms in scoring (15.9 points per game), steals and blocked shots.
Marshall’s junior varsity lost just once last year, and sends a trio of juniors who could complete the starting lineup — 5-3 point guard Breah Keim, 5-7 guard Tonya Bishop and 5-8 forward Abbie Switzer. Cheyenne Thompson, a 5-7 sophomore, will get plenty of playing time too.
Elsewhere in the LIC, there are new coaches at Casey and Robinson, both of whom face challenges. Robinson had a solid 15-win season last year, but very few of those girls were back in uniform when practice started last week. Junior Emily Calip and senior Brittany Quick were the only experienced players available for early practices, although the Maroons have time to figure things out: they don’t open until Thanksgiving weekend, thanks to a few rescheduled contests … Casey wasn’t as good a year ago, but has an inside presence in 6-2 senior Taylor Birchfield and backcourt possibilities in seniors Taelor Tiffin and Jetta Green and sophomore Tiarra Black … both Oblong and Palestine-Hutsonville are in rebuilding mode.
Paris also has a new coach for its Apollo Conference season, and has three returning senior starters in 6-1 Cayla Hoffman and guards Megan Temples and Frankie Rios. Two more seniors, Brooke Keller and Jessica Hopper, could add backcourt depth and 6-1 sophomore Kennedy Gladding is another inside possibility … Martinsville is a preseason mystery in the Little Okaw Valley after an unsuccessful season a year ago.