MIDDLEBURY — With three starters returning from a 21-5 club, Northridge girls basketball coach Doug Springer made it his mission in the offseason to make sure his team was as prepared mentally as it would be physically.
The Raiders are off to a 9-0 start and ranked No. 17 in the IBCA coaches' poll.
"The key so far is the girls are just having fun and they're truly enjoying being with each other,'' Springer said. "We have four experienced seniors and we've made it our mission to include everyone within the program in our success. In the past, we've had locker rooms that ... weren't the best at times. So we formed a leadership council to try and rectify that.''
The council included Springer, two juniors, three sophomores and Raider seniors Brooke McKinley, Marci Miller, Kelsey Brickner and Julaine Miller. The group met every Wednesday during the spring and then planned team outings for the summer.
Springer added that he's also using some tips from a book called "The Energy Bus," which he read last summer.
"We talked a lot in the offseason and did a lot of reflecting about the expectations of our program and the core values everyone wanted,'' Springer said. "In the book, the author talks about Energy Vampires, the kind of person that has a tough day and then brings it with them wherever they go. That's one of the things we wanted to eliminate and I can see the growth in the mindset of the girls already. They have really bought into it.''
Although the Raiders lost leading scorer Baleigh Carithers and leading rebounder Kelly Miller to graduation from last season's Northern Lakes Conference championship team, Northridge remains deep and talented with four players averaging in double figures.
Sophomore Morgan Litwiller is at 10 points a game and leads in rebounding this year, after playing a key role for the Raiders as a freshman. The 6-foot Litwiller may be the most talented player on the roster, but she has accepted a sixth-man role, as Springer starts five seniors.
"Morgan has an extremely bright future,'' Springer said. "Obviously, she could be starting, but she's unselfish enough to not worry about that and let the seniors have that opportunity. But she's still growing and getting stronger, too, and that's showing up on the court both as a two guard and at the three spot.''
Marci Miller, a 5-11 forward, leads the Raiders at 13.2 points a game and is shooting 55 percent from the field.
McKinley, a 5-10 guard – who leads the team in assists and 3-pointers (14) this season – and the 5-11 Brickner are also in double figures. Julaine Miller has moved into the starting lineup at the point, while Melinda Bontrager is the fifth starter.
"One of the great things about this team is all the girls have a different kind of game,'' Springer said. "Julaine Miller has been a pleasant surprise for us with both her shooting and passing ability, while Bontrager has done a lot of the little things for us, rebounding, steals and defensively. Plus, Fairfield left her open a couple times in our game and she buried a couple 3s, and hit 7-of-8 from the free throw line against Fort Wayne South.''
Seven of the nine teams Northridge has beaten this season have winning records, including a 3-1 Oregon-Davis team that beat the Raiders 84-36 last season. The Bobcats are ranked No. 6 in Class 2A.
"Our strength of schedule is getting better and the girls have responded to it,'' Springer said. "We added Crown Point and Merrillville in a doubleheader, while also playing two of the best teams in the NECC on the same day in Angola and Fairfield. We may not be able to win every game every year, but as long as it gets us ready for the NLC schedule and the state tournament, that's what we're concerned about.
"I think the biggest win for us so far was against Fort Wayne South. We were down 11-2 quickly and by 14 in the first quarter before clawing back and taking the lead. They went ahead again by six or seven in the fourth quarter, but when our kids fought back and won that game on the road (65-59), it really gave them a big boost of confidence.''
The Raiders still have plenty of challenges in front of them, starting with unbeaten Fort Wayne Snider on Saturday, along with games against defending Class 4A champion Penn and NLC rivals Warsaw, Plymouth and NorthWood.
"I think girls basketball in northern Indiana is very strong and has some of the best talent I've seen,'' Springer said. "There is great parity and when you consider just the girls we'll face this year, it's very impressive. We know how tough things will be the rest of the season, but our girls are ready.
"I don't think we've played the perfect game yet, but more importantly, our girls don't think so either, which shows they're hungry to improve. This team's basketball IQ is the highest of any team I've had. The girls will come to the coaching staff at halftime and tell us what they've seen and what adjustments we can make. Then if we make those changes, the girls go right out and do it.''