Egos can upset the chemistry on any team at any level. Some athletes just can’t handle not being the focal point.
Luckily for Center Grove girls basketball coach Shawn Sanders, his seniors can.
Madelyn Bitterling, Emma LeMasters and Allison Utterback have been in the starting lineup the last two seasons. Val Clark, one of the first Trojans off the bench, will be playing Division I college ball next year at Eastern Kentucky. And yet those players, along with senior reserve Claire Contos, have seen little time in the spotlight.
A year ago, Center Grove was known as Lauren Rau’s team. This year, the marquee player is junior Cassidy Hardin, the team’s leading scorer and a 2018 Purdue commit. Yet without the contributions of the seniors in between those two standouts, the Trojans would be in a much less desirable place.
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“At some point, everyone does think of themselves,” Clark said, “but I think this year especially, we’ve done a great job of keeping our individual agendas off the court. We just want to win this year, and we’ve done a good job of that so far.”
Indeed. Despite playing against a brutally difficult schedule that includes games against five of the top six teams in the state’s Sagarin ratings and 11 of the top 34, Center Grove got off to a 13-3 start and currently sits at 13-7 heading into tomorrow night’s game at Greenwood.
Though Bitterling, Clark, LeMasters and Utterback all saw varsity action as sophomores, Sanders noted that “there weren’t a lot of minutes available for those guys” with a large senior class ahead of them.
Once those seniors graduated, that quartet was instantly thrust into a more prominent role — and at first, it was a little bit of a struggle. The Trojans worked through an uneven regular season last winter, finishing with a 10-12 record.
“Last year as juniors — and they would probably admit it — they struggled a little bit,” Sanders said. “It was the first time they actually got to sit at the table, because that last class graduated, and they wanted as big of a slice of that pizza as possible, and they did not want to share that with anybody. …
“Once they bought into what they were doing and were successful, it helped a lot.”
Things finally clicked late on the way to a sectional championship and a narrow overtime defeat against then-No. 1 Columbus North in the regional, and getting that taste of success made it even easier for the rising seniors to buy in prior to their final season.
“This year, we all came and everyone agreed — we want to win,” LeMasters said. “We don’t care what role we have to fill. Everyone is dedicated to what they have to do, because we all want the same thing.”
And on any given night, any of them could be the one to step forward with a big game. Bitterling poured in 15 points to lead the way past Warren Central in the conference opener. Utterback’s buzzer-beating layup provided the winning margin against Martinsville. Clark’s big fourth quarter helped fuel a comeback victory against Mooresville.
“There’s not a lot of one-person attention, but we all contribute in different ways,” Utterback said.
“We’re all really close,” Bitterling added, “so that helps, being best friends, because it helps the chemistry on the court and we all stick through it together.”
Next week, the Trojan seniors will be heading into postseason play for the last time, hoping to build upon last year’s sectional title run.
“We’re just trying to peak at the end of the season rather than in the middle,” Clark said. “We don’t want (beating then-No. 4) Pike to be our only good win. We don’t want to just beat a couple of good teams; we want to beat all of the good teams.”
The Trojans haven’t just proven themselves capable of beating the good teams. They’ve become one of them, ranked in the state’s top 20 for the better part of the season.
Center Grove hasn’t gotten to that point solely because of any one person. Hardin might be the most familiar name, but it has been Bitterling, Clark, LeMasters and Utterback — friends and teammates for the better part of a decade — that have served as the backbone of the program as the team has grown over the past two seasons.
The chemistry and unselfishness of those seniors has laid the foundation for success.
“They do realize that they are a piece of the puzzle, and they don’t have to be the biggest piece of the puzzle in the group to be successful,” Sanders said. “It’s not about them. That’s why we’re successful.
“You throw somebody in there that’s all about me and it ruins everything, and that’s not the way that these guys are.”
The seniors have been the backbone of the Center Grove girls basketball team this season. A look at how the four main contributors in the class have fared: