It was there for the taking.
The gymnasium at Columbus North High School was filled with a stunned silence, fans watching in disbelief as the No. 1 girls basketball team in the state faced a late 14-point deficit against a 12-12 Center Grove team in the Class 4A regional semifinals.
The Trojans weren’t able to hang on, losing to the powerful Bull Dogs in overtime — and that setback has haunted the team all offseason long.
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“When we think about the Columbus North game, we get sick to our stomach,” senior guard Allison Utterback said. “The first day of tryouts, we were all pumped. We were just ready to get back into it and get back what we lost.”
Utterback isn’t the only one with a clear memory of the upset that didn’t quite happen. Center Grove lost just one senior from that team, All-County guard Lauren Rau, and brings back a veteran roster full of girls who probably won’t be satisfied with just a third consecutive sectional championship.
Junior Cassidy Hardin, the team’s No. 2 scorer behind Rau a year ago (13.4 points per game), returns to anchor what should be a balanced offense. Seniors Madelyn Bitterling (8.6) and Utterback (7.2) were also steady contributors a year ago.
Sophomores Ella Thompson and Emma Utterback, both of whom saw spot duty as freshmen, will be counted on to help fill the void left by Rau in the backcourt.
“They’re going to be ready to step in and fill her shoes, I think,” Trojans coach Shawn Sanders said. “They’re ready for the opportunity.”
As was the case last season, Center Grove will be smaller than most of the teams it faces, especially in the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference. Sanders expects to take some lumps in the league as a result — but he also knows his team will be battle-tested when it matters most.
“We could have a team that is loaded with experience and talent and still finish in the bottom half of the MIC,” Sanders stated. “What my job is is to keep these guys confident through that kind of season.”
After last year’s postseason run, which included an overtime win over Indiana All-Star Holly Hoopingarner and Greenwood in the sectional final before the regional thriller at Columbus North, confidence shouldn’t be an issue.
The road probably won’t be much different this year. Many of the same sectional roadblocks will be in place, and all four teams that made last year’s regional are probably favored to return.
That includes the Trojans, who not only expect to get back to that stage but plan on taking another step forward.
“(Last year) we were the team that almost did this, almost did that,” Allison Utterback said. “This year, we want to be the team that wins.”
“We’ve played together since second grade, a lot of us,” Bitterling added, “so I think this year’s going to be special.”
Coach: Shawn Sanders
Last year: 12-13 (1-5 Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference); won Center Grove Sectional, lost to Columbus North in regional semifinal
Who’s back: Madelyn Bitterling, Val Clark, Amy Davis, Cassidy Hardin, Emma LeMasters, Ella Thompson, Allison Utterback, Emma Utterback
Who’s gone: Taylor Neff, Lauren Rau
New kids on the block: Claire Contos
Outlook: After finishing a 10-12 regular season with a 37-point loss to Lawrence North, the Trojans caught lightning in a bottle at the right time, beating Greenwood for the sectional title and pushing Class 4A power Columbus North into overtime. With all of the major pieces back from that team besides Rau, confidence is very high. The regular-season slate is again daunting, especially in the MIC, but the Trojans again expect to be in the mix for county and sectional titles, if not more.
Nov. 1;Plainfield;7:30 p.m.
Nov. 3;Fishers;7:30 p.m.
Nov. 8;at Brownsburg;7:30 p.m.
Nov. 11;at Warren Central;7:30 p.m.
Nov. 15-19;Johnson County tournament at Edinburgh;TBA
Nov. 22;Franklin;6 p.m.
Dec. 2;at Lawrence Central;7 p.m.
Dec. 8;Bloomington South;7:30 p.m.
Dec. 13;Martinsville;7:30 p.m.
Dec. 17;Pike;1:30 p.m.
Dec. 22-23;Columbus North tournament;TBA
Jan. 3;at Whiteland;7:30 p.m.
Jan. 6;at Carmel;7:30 p.m.
Jan. 12;North Central;7:30 p.m.
Jan. 14;at Roncalli;7:30 p.m.
Jan. 17;Perry Meridian;7:30 p.m.
Jan. 21;Ben Davis;1:30 p.m.
Jan. 24;at Greenwood;7:30 p.m.
Jan. 27;at Lawrence North;7:30 p.m.