News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Sports

November 7, 2012

Girls prep basketball preview: Panthers, Arrows ready for banner seasons

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.”

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