Kelsey Pilant is smiling this week.
This probably doesn’t qualify as big news anywhere but the Jasonville area, where the 6-foot-1 center of the Shakamak High School girls basketball team had been known for her absence of grins until her Lakers won the Class A Clay City Sectional championship game on Saturday.
“[Pilant] never smiles,” assistant coach Kirk Buckley explained earlier this week, “but ever since we won Saturday night [an overtime decision over White River Valley], you can’t wipe it off her face.”
All true, Pilant herself admitted to the Tribune-Star — while smiling, of course. She and her teammates see no reason to change their expressions this week either.
Although the Lakers will be going to a girls basketball regional for the first time, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been close to winning a sectional in the past. Three of the Shakamak seniors were on the team the previous three years, when the Lakers lost in the championship game to Clay City each time.
“This is a week we’re going to appreciate … after four years in the finals, it was really nice to get one,” head coach Troy Fougerousse said this week. “But we can’t be satisified. We’d like to advance another week.”
Shakamak plays Tindley, an inner-city prep school from Indianapolis, at 10 a.m. Saturday at Southwestern (Shelby), with Jac-Cen-Del and the host team meeting in the second game. Southwestern is the defending regional champion, knocking off Clay City in the championship game a year ago.
The Lakers’ 11-11 record isn’t the best in the field, but they’ve won five in a row — and their 6-11 start may have been a product of their schedule.
“We started out against [teams including] Vincennes Rivet, Martinsville, Terre Haute North, Barr-Reeve, Sullivan … and we do that for a reason,” Fougerousse said. “That should help you this time of year.
“I guess we have been a little more focused lately,” he continued, after being asked about the winning streak, “and when we got on a little roll, the girls got confident.”
“We’re working as a team better, communicating,” explained forward Megan Phipps, another of the four-year seniors. “Our defense was awesome [during the sectional], better than it’s ever been … it’s all communication and effort.”
“We’re starting to work more as a team, communicating a lot more,” Pilant agreed. “You can tell everybody is out there wanting to win.”
“It’s our teamwork and our chemistry,” added the third senior, guard/forward Kelsey Fulford. “This year our chemistry is the best [of the past four seasons].”
Shakamak’s success starts with the three seniors — Pilant, averaging about 20 points and eight rebounds per game, as the “go-to” player, Fougerousse said, with the 5-9 Phipps the best perimeter shooter and the 5-9 Fulford “the glue to our team,” the coach added.
Jerri Beck, a 6-0 junior, gets the toughest defensive assignment and the “junk points,” Fougerousse said, with 5-8 sophomore slasher Sierra Hudson a primary ball handler and the team’s third-leading scorer behind Pilant and Phipps.
First-year player Casey Reynolds is a fourth senior on the team, but much of the depth comes from a pair of freshmen — 5-8 scrapper Kayla Gallagher and rugged 6-1 Kierra Samm.
And if the Lakers get to play yet another week, that would be something they could get used to.
“It’s crazy,” Phipps said. “[Being a sectional winner] feels better that I thought it would. The excitement, the crowd … it’s hard to take it all in.”
“It feels amazing,” added Pilant. “Having everybody there cheering you on, believing in you … that makes you want to accomplish it even more, both for yourself and the people supporting you.”
“I’m glad I got to share [the excitement of winning a sectional] with these girls,” Fulford said. “We’ve been playing together since fifth grade, and since the summer we’ve been in the gym as much as we could. That was our main goal, coming home with a [sectional] title … now we’ll try to bring home a regional title.”