BY DEAN HOCKNEY
WARSAW – Some things just aren’t meant to be. Last Saturday in the Tiger Den at Warsaw Community High School was one of those days for the Western Lady Panthers basketball team. Playing in its first Final Four and the Class 3A North Semi-State, Western dug a first half hole it could not overcome en route to a 46-35 loss to No. 7-ranked Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran High School.
“We knew coming in that we had a very good opponent,” said first-year Western coach Chris Keisling. “They have a very nice club and hit shots early against our zone, so we got ourselves down.”
Western started strong as they took a 2-0 lead on an Amber Fernung basket on an assist from Nicole Rogers. Unfortunately, it would be the Panthers only lead of the game. While the Panthers held the Cadets to seven points below its scoring average, a nine minute scoring outage in the first half was too much to overcome. Western’s only other first quarter basket came from Rogers five minutes into the game as the Panthers trailed 12-5 after one. By the time Western scored at the 2:34 mark of the second, Concordia was on a 15-0 run and seemed to have the game in hand. The intermission scoreboard read Concordia 25, Western 10.
“A lot of it was Fort Wayne’s (man-to-man defense), but some of it was our first semi-state appearance,” said Keisling of Western’s nervous-looking start. “We had some unforced errors that caused us some problems. It was a new experience for our kids and it showed. I told them at half time to get their heads up, we are not out of this game, and we have a few things up our sleeve.”
What was up the sleeve was Rogers, who should have sealed her spot on the Indiana All-Star team with a 17 point third quarter that put the Panthers back in the hunt. In the middle of a Rogers 17-4 run on Concordia, she became the second leading scorer in girls Howard County hoops history. In what will go down as one of the best single-quarter individual efforts in Western basketball history, the IUPUI recruit hit four 3-pointers, a driving basket and a three-point play. She single-handedly cut the large Concordia lead to 29-27 before the Cadets called a pair of timeouts to adjust with three minutes left in the third stanza.
“We switched to a man defense and dialed up Nicole’s numbers,” said Keisling. “We ran her off a lot of screens to get her open; and she answered the bell. Wow, did she answer the bell. I told her after the game, ‘Kiddo, if there is an Indiana All-Star, I have to be looking at her.’ She put us on her back with 23 of our 35 points.”
Keisling was quick to point out that Rogers does not have that type of effort if not for her teammates picking up their game as well.
“And our guards came out in the second half and did a tremendous job,” he said. “They handled the ball, moved the ball and found Nicole coming off the screens. (The team had) great timing on the passes, and in so doing, penetrated the defense to get her open. Finally at the end, the legs started going and we couldn’t finish it out. What a phenomenal effort by our kids.”
Unfortunately, the rally drained an already low tank for Western, and they could not get past the seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter as the Cadets hit 9 of 11 free throws in the second half to seal the victory.
Western only hit 12 of 38 shots in the game. But there were silver-linings as they won the turnover battle (16-12) and had more steals (11 to 5) as they held the Cadets to 46 points – the squads fourth-lowest in a win.
Rogers finished her Western career with a 23 point, six rebound performance for a total of 1,593 career points – second only to Kokomo legend Tiffany Longworth in county history. Caitlyn O’Neal scored seven off the bench and twin sister Carley led the team in assists (4) and steals (3).
Despite the loss, Keisling was thrilled with the way his first season went, and he said he was very proud of the team.
“I am proud of my kids, all the way around,” he said. “These kids really bought in to what we were doing. I couldn’t have asked any more of these kids – they gave me everything. To see the effort they gave, knowing the adversity they had (five coaches in five years), it really moved me as a coach. I am just so proud and we achieved some really neat things. And we have a houseful of juniors and sophomores who had a chance to see this experience – what an advantage they have that they can take with them this summer and set some high goals.”
Western finishes its season with a school record tying 19 wins (19-6) and memories that will last a lifetime. Concordia (20-5) was led by the 14 points of Lauren Marinko and now advances to the state finals in Terre Haute next Saturday. They will play the south semi-state winner and second-ranked Mount Vernon of Fortville (23-5).