Archive for March 11, 2014

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: WESTERN WINS FIRST GIRLS BASKETBALL STATE CHAMPIONSHIP

Front Cover

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – The dream that was born with five young girls in 2006 became a reality on Saturday night when the Western Lady Panthers hoisted its first IHSAA girls basketball championship trophy – and to do it, they had to shock the state. When the final horn sounded at the Hulman Center in Terre Haute, the sixth-ranked Lady Panthers found themselves on the victorious side of a 38-35 stunning victory over the heavily favored and No. 2-ranked Lady Wildcats of Evansville Mater Dei in the Class 3A championship game.

“Outstanding effort by these ladies,” said Western coach Chris Keisling. “I am the coach of this team, but it is nothing if these girls don’t go out and flat out execute the things we ask of them. And boy, did they do an outstanding job. We beat such a great, quality opponent. We knew we had a big job in front of us. I can’t say enough about their execution tonight.”

A senior dominated team, it was the five-some of Carley and Caitlyn O’Neal, Jessica Givens, Kiersten Durbin and Kaysie Mulkey who have long talked about wanting to win a state championship since they first played together in elementary school. They flirted with destiny as sophomores with a Final Four appearance. But with the emergence of fellow seniors Siera Daniel and Raven Black, this year’s team saw its dream come true. The title is the first for the Lady Panthers basketball team and third for the school, joining the 2001 girls golf team and the 2012 Class 3A baseball squad.

“This is going to be a memorable moment for all of us,” said Durbin. “This is what we have been working for since the fifth grade in our very first game together.”

Mater Dei entered the title bout as the two-time defending Class 2A state champion (they were bumped to 3A due to the IHSAA Success Factor). But from the opening jump, the Panthers proved that they were in the Hulman Center to compete, leading 17-12 after one period thanks to a trio of 3-pointers from Givens – baskets that got the large Western crowd into the game while quieting Mater Dei’s – and a buzzer-beating jumper from Black.

“When I came out, I was really pumped up and ready to go,” said Givens. “I think when I hit those three’s, I got the whole crowd fired-up and our team pumped up. With getting those shots, it helped give us the confidence we needed.”

After an up-and-down first quarter, Keisling slowed his squad down – nearly to a halt – and controlled the tempo. While a lid was put on the Western basket, a relentless 2-3 zone disrupted the Wildcats and Miss Basketball candidate Maura Muensterman, an Indiana recruit. And that is exactly what Keisling wanted.

“We knew we had to control the tempo,” said Keisling, whose son Austin won a sectional title at Lewis Cass the same night his dad was winning a state championship. “We tried to find video where they faced a 2-3, but just couldn’t find where they had. So with what appeared like a lack of 2-3 they had faced, we thought we might be effective at it since they hadn’t seen it. I told our girls that in my opinion we run the best 2-3 in the state, and it would be hard for them to make that adjustment.”

Tied at 21 at the break, Mater Dei scored the first two baskets of the second half to grab a four-point lead due in part to five Western turnovers. But 19 seconds after the second Wildcats basket fell, Caitlyn O’Neal answered with a 3-pointer and late in the quarter twin sister Carley did the same to retake the lead 27-25. It would also mark the last time they trailed.

“Our team can all handle, pass and shoot the ball,” said Keisling. “When I took this team three years ago, I heard how they were undefeated in junior high – but the one key thing is the kind of kids they are. They work hard and have great work ethic. They all had the skill level to win and the grittiness it takes to be a winner.”

In the fourth stanza, the slow-down, controlled pace continued to serve the Russiaville squad well. Muensterman hit a pair of free throws at the 6:16 mark to tie the game, but Kiersten Durbin hit her only basket of the game 47 seconds later to put the Panthers back up by two. Daniel hit a basket in the paint and Carley O’Neal sliced the defense for a score at the three minute mark to increase the lead to five. At the 1:05 mark, Black hit a free throw, only to see Muensterman close the lead to 36-33 with a 3-pointer – the only fourth quarter field goal Mater Dei would hit. Clinging to a two-point lead, Daniel hit two free throws with 22 seconds remaining to slam the door shut on the Wildcats and secure the Western state title.

“Kiersten had a huge dagger bucket and a huge steal late in the game – that was a game-changer at that point,” said Keisling. “And Raven’s defense was outstanding. And huge free throws from Siera Daniels.”

Carley O’Neal led Western with 12 points, while Givens dropped in nine and Black added six points and grabbed seven rebounds. Daniel had five blocks for the Panthers in a total team performance. Muensterman led Mater Dei with 12 points while Tori Schickel dropped in 11 points while grabbing 15 rebounds.

“The support we received from the community has been tremendous,” said Keisling of the Panthers sixth-man in the stands – the fan support. “It was two great crowds tonight, but ours travels very well. We just had great backing tonight.”

Backing that helped Western win the state title.

END OF LADY KATS ERA: JASON SNYDER STEPS DOWN, WILL REMAIN AS KHS ATHLETIC DIRECTOR

Jason Snyder

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

KOKOMO, Ind. – Kokomo High School girls basketball coach and Athletic Director Jason Snyder announced on March 3 that he was ending his eight-year run as the coach of the Lady Wildkats. The 2010 North Central Conference Coach of the Year said it was time to concentrate on administering the athletic department on a full-time basis – as well as spending more time with his family.

“It was just the right time,” said Snyder. “It is just best for the program and best for my family. This is a great group of young ladies and the next coach is going to have a lot of fun with some very good classes coming up. I am very excited about the future of the program and where it is headed.”

In eight seasons, Snyder compiled a record of 101-68 – the third-largest win total in Lady Wildkat history. His squad won a sectional in 2008. They shared the NCC title in 2008 with Anderson and Logansport and won it outright in 2010. For the last three seasons, Kokomo has lost the sectional and conference title to Logansport – thanks in part to Miss Basketball candidate Whitney Jennings.

Snyder, who is in his third year as athletic director, is a 1995 graduate of Kokomo, where he played basketball for the Wildkats. The Indiana University graduate previously was the boys varsity golf coach and an assistant boys basketball coach at Kokomo.

“It has been a pleasure to have been a coach of this program for the last eight years,” said Snyder. “But I am excited about what the future brings. I need to work on my work-life balance a little bit, and being the AD and coaching takes up all of my minutes. But like I said, it is just the right time to step aside.”

Kokomo boys basketball coach Brian McCauley had nothing but praise for his counterpart – and former Wildkat teammate.

“In my opinion, you cannot find a better person than Jason Snyder,” said McCauley via a Kokomo School Corporation statement. “Jason is in coaching and teaching for all of the right reasons. I never witnessed a situation when Jason did not put the student-athlete first. Jason did an unbelievable job as the coach of the Lady Kats basketball program. I am proud to call Jason my friend.”

Snyder was just the fifth coach in the 39-year history of Kokomo girls basketball. He joins the short list of Sue Huggler (88-74), Mike McCroskey (227-82), Charlie Hall (172-22) and Chris Huppenthal (19-6) as former Lady Wildkat coaches. Snyder had the privilege of coaching the Lady Kats to the programs 600th win on Dec. 2, 2013. A search for the squads sixth coach will begin shortly.

TERRE HAUTE BOUND: WESTERN LADY PANTHERS EARN FIRST TRIP TO STATE FINALS

Western Lady Panthers

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

WARSAW, Ind. – Western High School has a long history of very good female basketball players. Names like Wendy Aldridge (Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame 2014 Silver Anniversary Team member), Tiffany Reida (1,000 Point Club) and Nicole Rogers (second all-time leading scorer in Howard County history) have brought recognition to the Russiaville school. But none have reached the level of success like this year’s sixth-ranked Lady Panthers. On March 8, Western will play in its first-ever basketball state championship game after they knocked off No. 12 Norwell 41-31 in the IHSAA Warsaw Class 3A North Semi-State last Saturday evening.

“It is a lot of fun and it is neat to be a part of this,” said Western head coach Chris Keisling, who has led the Panthers to a pair of Final Four appearances in his three years at the helm. “My hats are off to these kids – they had a job to do and they got it done. I can only do so much; they have to go and do it on the floor and they did an outstanding job of executing what we planned.”

The Panthers are a senior-laden squad and four of its five starters played in the Final Four as sophomores. For Givens, Carley and Caitlyn O’Neal and Kiersten Durbin, this win has been in the makings for at least six years.

“It feels so great,” said senior Jessica Givens. “We have wanted this since middle school. Our seniors came out during sectionals while we were in middle school and we were so excited; we knew we were going to make it to state one day. No one has a set role, we all play together.”

The Lady Panthers and Lady Knights are both known as defensive powers, so it should not have been a surprise that the scoreboard showed a low-scoring halftime score: Western led 15-12. Neither team had many open shots – Western shot just 24 percent while Norwell came in at 17 percent at the break. But as Norwell found itself with a four-point lead (19-15) three minutes into the second half, the Lady Panthers ensured that they kept their heads – and hearts – in the game.

“We try and keep each other upbeat so no one is down at all,” said Givens. “We want to have fun out there.”

“Good teams like that at this level of play will have an answer,” said Keisling. “But our kids are very resilient and experienced. I felt if we got to the second half a bucket ahead or behind, we would be in good shape because I knew defensively we would be strong.”

Just as Norwell looked to take command, Givens hit a 3-pointer that sparked a 19-5 Panthers run that was simply too much for the Lady Knights. Add in that Western dropped in 12 of 15 free throw attempts in the final stanza, and the Panthers are headed to the state championship game.

“We have strong kids and we sealed the deal at the end,” said Keisling, who celebrated his wedding anniversary the night before the semi-state game. “I knew they would foul us and we would finish it at the line.”

Givens and Carley O’Neal led the Panthers with 10 points, while Durbin sparked the squad with seven of her nine points coming in the first quarter. Caitlyn O’Neal added all eight of her points in the final quarter on 8 of 9 free throw shooting down the stretch. Raven Black added the other four points for Western.

Western (22-3) advances to the IHSAA Class 3A girls basketball state championship game at the Hulman Center in Terre Haute on March 8 at 6 p.m. The Panthers will battle No. 2-ranked Evansville Mater Dei (26-1), the same club that defeated Eastern in the Class 2A title game a year ago. Mater Dei, led by Miss Basketball candidate and Indiana recruit Maura Muensterman, is the two-time defending 2A champion but moved up to 3A due to the IHSAA Success Factor.

Douglas Hockney and Chris Lowry/WIOU contributed to this story.