As Northridge approaches uncharted waters in the girls basketball tournament, coach Doug Springer deferred to a coach with a well-traveled map.
While the Raiders are making their first-ever regional appearance, NorthWood is making its 24th.
Springer picked the brain of NorthWood assistant coach Adam Yoder to see how the Panthers typically prepare for regional play.
"When Steve Neff is doing it a way and you're doing something similar to that, you know you're doing something correct," Springer said.
Northridge, which draws its strength from lanky athleticism, has faced bigger, stronger opponents all year. A smaller Gary West Side (17-3) will give the Raiders its first true height advantage of the season at the Penn 4A regional Saturday, Feb. 22. But what the Cougars lack in size, they make up in speed, especially from freshman guard Dana Evans.
"Every coach I talk to says the same thing: 'She's the real deal,'" Springer said of Evans. "She can shoot it out to the volleyball line, she's got a killer first step."
Despite the higher stakes and the increased level of competition, Springer says his Raiders are relaxed heading into Saturday. While Northridge still has a chance to make history with its first regional win, the Raiders' role has shifted from the hunted to the hunters.
"We're a bit looser this week," he said. "Trying to get that first sectional is the toughest thing and having that pressure. We were the No. 1 team in the sectional, and the girls knew that. We come in this weekend the fourth best team in the regional, but our girls are hungry."
If Northridge can get past the Cougars, it'll face the winner of No. 4 Penn and No. 13 Merrillville for the championship. The Kingsmen beat the Raiders 41-26 in the regular season.
"We've already played them once and one of the goals we have is not let a team beat us twice, so that's our goal (against Penn)," Raiders guard Brianne O'Dell said.
Penn, meanwhile, shoots for its fifth regional championship, the last of which came in 2012.
At Bellmont, Neff will face long-time friend Eric Thornton, Norwell coach and former Plymouth assistant, in the first round of the 3A regional.
Though NorthWood and Norwell rarely share the court (this will be their third meeting in 10 years), Neff and Thornton often exchange game tape on mutual opponents.
"We were happy with that," Neff said of facing Norwell in the first round Saturday. "We know his style. He was happy, too, because he knows our style. There's probably a revenge factor for them because we beat them two years ago when they were ranked No. 1."
Neff likens the athletic Knights to Northridge and sectional foes Whitko and Tippecanoe Valley. The four-guard lineup will likely draw staunch center Morgan Olson out of the defensive post and into the perimeter.
"We aren't going to reinvent the wheel here in four days," Neff said. "Obviously, (Olson) will have to step it up a little bit and guard someone quicker than her, but our advatange is that they have to guard her too."
If the Panthers win, they'll face the winner of undefeated Garrett vs. Muncie Central.
In the Class 2A regional at Rensselaer Central, Westview will get a chance at revenge when it faces Winamac in the morning game. The Warriors eliminated Westview from the regional last year.
All games Saturday, Feb. 22
Penn (22-1) vs. Merrillville (16-6), 10:30 a.m.
Northridge (18-4) vs. Gary West Side (17-3), 12:30 p.m.
Championship, 8:30 p.m.
Garrett (23-0) vs. Muncie Central (17-5), 10 a.m.
Norwell (19-4) vs. NorthWood (19-5), 12 p.m.
Championship, 8 p.m.
At Rensselaer Central
Winamac (14-6) vs. Westview (19-3), 11 a.m. EST
Fort Wayne Canterbury (15-3) vs. Hammond Bishop Null (20-3), 1 p.m. EST
Championship, 8:30 p.m. ET