Young Raiders will face tough schedule

Elkhart Central's Julee Smith, here scoring against Plymouth at the Class 4A sectional last season, will be one of the players being counted on to score more for the Blue Blazers this season.

It's not true that Northridge girls basketball coach Doug Springer gave out name tags on the first day of practice.

Coming off their fourth consecutive Northern Lakes Conference championship, the Raiders will be inexperienced and facing one of the best schedules in the state after graduating seven seniors, including the program's career scoring and rebounding leader in Morgan Litwiller.

"We are small and our strength this season will be our quickness,'' Springer said. "We will be young in experience and age, as we add several players from a 21-0 JV team. The seniors we lost averaged 45 points-a-game and we return four players that averaged 10-a-game between them.''

Leading the returnees is 5-foot-9 junior Jaci Walker, who averaged 3.7 points and 2.4 rebounds last season. Junior point guard Madison Wienert started for much of last year, while Jules Weaver and Makenna Knepp each averaged around 2.4 points off the bench.

The Raiders schedule includes games with Homestead, Fort Wayne South, Penn, Elkhart Central, Carroll, Hamilton Southeastern and a tournament in Merrillville, as well as their own Bankers Classic right after Christmas.

"We don’t shy away from competition, as we are more concerned with competing against the best rather than trying to worry about the wins or losses,'' Springer said. "We are very excited to continue to build our program and compete for conference and sectional championships.''

Elkhart Central coach Will Coatie received a tough blow on the first day of school, when he learned junior Katelyn Costner had transfered to Penn. However, the IHSAA has ruled Costner ineligible until Feb. 1, one year after she played her last game for Central. Penn is appealing.

But the Blue Blazers do have seven players returning from an 18-7 team that lost at the buzzer to Plymouth in the Class 4A sectional finals last season, led by senior Yiesha Williams, who averaged 9.7 points and 4.6 rebounds-a-game last season. She's joined by Abbey Miller and Julee Miller, who each started at times last season for Central.

Juniors Michaela Whitaker, Daneen Swanson, Morgan Hurt and Brina Baer are also returning letterwinners, while Makaya Porter and Alexa Hunt will be on the varsity for the first time.

This year’s team will have strength in its numbers with seven returning players from last year’s team,'' Coatie said. "When you think of Elkhart Central, you think of playing harder, smarter and together, that is our culture. We will continue to follow the process of success by taking pride in what we do.''

Concord coach Cassie Cepeda will try to continue her rebuilding of a Minutemen program that had a great season in 2018-19, posting a 14-9 mark, which included a win over NorthWood and a one-point loss to eventual champion Plymouth in the sectional semifinals.

Although the Minutemen lost leading scorers Alyssa Porter and Chandyn Redmond to graduation, Cepeda does return starters Jadelyn Williams, Sydney Simon and Kendal Swartout, along with top reserves Alyssa Pfeil and Bailei Mayo. Devine Johnson – a transfer from Elkhart Memorial – and freshman Savannah Boerema will also be in the mix.

"Our strength will be our backcourt and pushing the tempo,'' Cepeda said. "We have a good, strong, and experienced backcourt and we're excited about our young players in the program who throughout the season will continue to develop to give us depth to our veteran class."

Goshen returns perhaps the area's best play in junior Brynn Shoup-Hill, who has received a number of Division I offers throughout the fall after a strong summer.

The 6-foot-2 Hill, daughter of head coach Shaun Hill, averaged 14.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and nearly five blocks-per-game last season. Lizzy Kirkton, Regan Mast, Hailey Mast and Megan Gallagher also return from a 14-9 RedHawk team that held 11 opponents to 30 points or less.

"I am looking forward to growing throughout the season with this team,'' Shaun Hill said. "I have a group of great kids who love to compete.''

Bethany Christian coach Krysten Parson returns for her 14th year at the helm and for the first time, she won't have the previous season's leading scorers returning, as Anya Kauffman and Kassy Miller have each graduated after leading the Bruins to a 14-10 mark and a sectional runner-up finish.

"We are learning how to build a new culture where we can trust each to score collectively instead of defaulting to one player,'' Parson said. "We have a core group of juniors and seniors returning with a lot of experience and who are ready to play on both ends of the court. This will be a fun group to coach.''

Seniors Mariah Miller, Karina Kern, Jadyn Kaufmann and Emma Thomas are back for Bethany, as is junior Sadie Brennamen. Parson is hoping for three juniors – Mia Reinhardt, Maddie Chupp and Rilynn Kaufmann to also contribute this season.

Two traditional local powers were slowed by the success of their respective volleyball programs, as Fairfield and NorthWood each had delayed starts to practice. Fairfield reached the semistate before losing on Saturday, while NorthWood reached the regional title game.

After reaching the 3A semistate two years ago, Fairfield coach Brodie Garber had to rebuild. Back in 2A this season, Garber begins his eighth season with a strong group of returnees and three promising freshman.

Seniors Chloe Dell, Kara Kitson and Riley Miller will be the backbone of the Falcons this season, along with juniors Laney Faldoe and Mackayla Stutsman. Sophomore Brooke Sanchez got valuable experience last season, while freshman Brea Garber, Morgan Gawthrop and Bailey Willard will be in the mix for starting spots this season.

"Our upperclassmen gained a lot of experience from last year that should pay dividends this year, Brodie Garber said. "The seniors have really stepped-up their game when it comes to leadership so far and we have a couple of freshman who should step in and help us right away. The two biggest things we need to improve upon from last year is taking care of the basketball and putting points on the scoreboard.''

NorthWood coach Adam Yoder had each of his varsity players in a fall sport, led by volleyball players Maddy Payne and Kate Rulli.

Despite the loss of the backcourt duo of Neely Trenshaw and Mackenzie Bergman, the Panthers should be one of the favorites in the NLC this season.

The 6-1 Rulli and 6-foot Payne return to handle the middle after averaging a combined 25 points and 12 boards-a-game last season. Seniors Karlie Fielstra and Reagan Hartman, juniors Alea Minnich, Bre Wise and Kendal Miller and sophomore Emma Martz are all back after lettering for last season's 16-8 squad.

"We are very fortunate to return a lot of experience from a successful season last year,'' Yoder said. "Returning two All-NLC performers in Payne and Rulli should serve us well, especially inside. We've been impressed with the improvement of our returning perimeter players.''

"Our girls had a lot of success in the fall and we're optimistic that the winning attitude and confidence the girls are bringing in will serve us well on and off the basketball floor. We're excited about the potential for growth over the course of the season.''

Elkhart Memorial coach Brent Curry begins the Chargers final season before next year's merge with Elkhart Central with seven returning letterwinners from last season's 6-17 squad which won the South Bend Washington Invitational in December.

Senior Mya Reeves and sophomores De'Mour Watson and Mady Axsom are the team's top returning scorers. Axsom had four games in double figures last season, including 20 in her debut against Mishawaka, while Watson averaged nine points and eight rebounds for the Chargers, including a season-high 20 boards against South Bend Adams.

"We are a team with a whole lot of talent, we just need to work hard to develop it and believe in ourselves, Curry said. "Also, we need to remember the fundamentals and work together as a team. There are a lot of transitions occurring within Elkhart Schools, so we need to not let them sway our focus and remember to represent Charger Nation well.''

Alicia Harkins will continue to try and rebuild a Jimtown program that has won just four combined games the past three years.

Senior Jamie Lawson averaged just under 10 points-a-game last season and is one of five returning seniors for the Jimmies. Seniors Cierra Thomas, Alivia Farkas, Jenna Burkhart and Abigail Snider, along with junior Jocelyn Sandoval, will all be counted on to help Jimtown improve against a tough schedule.

"The team is more experienced this year,'' Harkins said. "We had some time this summer to play together and beat some teams that we haven’t in the past. I am looking forward to challenging teams this year.''

Penn won its first 25 games last season, before falling to unbeaten Crown Point in the regional title game.

Since then, things haven't been easy for head coach Kristi Ulrich, who not only has likely lost Costner for the season, but will also be without starting guard Jordyn Smith, who suffered a knee injury in August and is expected to miss at least part of the season. In addition, 5-foot-10 Grace Adams is no longer with the team.

But there is still plenty of talent, led by junior Trinity Clinton (14.7 points) and 3-point ace Regan Pate (12.4) and 6-2 senior Antreese Shelton (5.7). Pate hit 100 3-pointers last season and shot 52 percent from beyond the arc.

The Kingsmen will also move to the 4A sectional at Warsaw this season, which includes Central, Memorial, Northridge, Goshen, Concord and the host Tigers.

Elkhart Christian is coming off a 10-10 season and head coach Brent Miller returns six letterwinners to the lineup.

Seniors Abbey McKibbin, Shealey Skaggs and Lea Burden, juniors Darryn Caudill and Maria Youngen and sophomore Camille Annan all so action for the Eagles last season, while freshman Jordyn Backer is also being counted on to contribute this year.

"We have a nice returning group with plenty of experience,'' Miller said. "We've had to make some changes to how we do things both offensively and defensively because of our low numbers and losing two very good rebounders. Health will be a key for us this season.''


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