Defending Champions or Sectional Underdogs?

Defending Champions or Sectional Underdogs?

Each year, the IHSAA Champions Network unveils the draw for the IHSAA Girls Basketball State Tournament on a statewide television show, with in-house “experts” offering previews of the teams in each sectional.  When the Sectional 58 draw was revealed, the defending champions failed to garner even a mention as one of the contenders for the championship.  Are the Lady Trailblazers, winners of four of the last five sectional championships, the defending champions or an underdog in this year’s field?

Following Thursday’s victory over Fall Creek Academy, the Lady Trailblazers are 4-16.  Needless to say, it’s been a long year, and to be fair, most pundits wouldn’t expect a four-win team to come away with a sectional triumph under any circumstances.  It should be noted the Blazers have thrice lost by a single bucket, but still to most, it’s all about wins and losses.  But Sectional 58 might be the exception to the rule.  In fact, it already has been.  Last year’s Blazers team won four regular season games before rattling off three in a row to take home the hardware.

The story of Sectional 58 is one where records don’t matter—the differences in the Trailblazers’ schedule and that of “favorites” Tindley, Indiana Deaf, and Bethesda Christian make them hardly comparable.  According to Jeff Sagarin’s ratings system (Sagarin’s college football ratings help make up the BCS computer rankings), the Trailblazers have by far and away played the toughest schedule in the sectional.  In order for a team to go exactly 10-10 with University’s schedule, they’d have to have a Sagarin rating of 47.03.  By contrast, to go .500 under Tindley’s schedule, they’d have to be rated 30.06, under Bethesda’s it’s only 22.11 and under Deaf’s it’d be just 20.95.  Each point difference in the Sagarin rating amounts to a conceptual point in a game—a team with a rating of 50 should beat a team with a rating of 43 by seven points on a neutral site more often than any other result.

This means that the Trailblazers’ schedule is 17 points better than that of their nearest sectional opponent.  University is rated 30.33, meaning that under any other Sectional 58 team’s schedule, the Trailblazers would be expected to have a winning record.  Numbers back this up, too—the Blazers have lost seven times by 17 points or less (not to mention two 18-point losses), which would put the Blazers right above .500.  By contrast, every team in the sectional would be expected to have a losing record playing University’s schedule, likely struggling as much as the Blazers have this year.  Last year, the Lady Blazers beat 16-4 International in the sectional semi-final.  ISI played the weakest schedule in the state.  In Sectional 58, it’s not all about wins and losses.

Okay, I’ll stop boring you with numbers and statistics.  So what will the Lady Trailblazers have to do to repeat as the Sectional 58 champion?

In an interview, third-year head coach Stacey Summitt-Mann discussed the post game ad nauseum as a key to the Trailblazers’ chances.  “Our post game is going to be a big factor in determining our level of success, especially [junior] Ellie Klemsz.  We’re a team of big and physical rebounders, and we feel that suits us well in the build-up to the sectional.”  In fact, it should be said that the Lady Trailblazers used the post game last year to take home the crown, with the post play of Hannah Meinen (’12) leading the team to the title.  Meinen averaged 14.0 ppg and 13.3 rpg in last year’s sectional, going for 16 and 16 in the championship game on her way to All-Sectional First Team honors.  Klemsz (who leads the team in rebounds, averaging 7.9 per game), coupled with seniors Emily Johns (who went for a double-double against International in the semi-final triumph last year) and Morgan Wood, will be asked to shoulder much of the post effort.

Coach Summitt-Mann did acknowledge the lack of attention from the press, agreeing that the Blazers were “easy to overlook because of our difficult season—our record was not pretty.”  However, Summitt-Mann sees positives in the way the season went.  “It really works to our advantage because we’ve been preparing for this all season with our difficult schedule.  We’ve seen many defenses and our team is hungry after a tough year.”  Not only does Summitt-Mann think the Blazers can feed off experiences from this year, but she also points towards the past.  “History certainly plays a part—we are after all looking to make it five out of six—and our veterans know what it takes to win.”

The Lady Blazers open Sectional 58 play on Tuesday when they face the host school, the Bethesda Christian Patriots, at 6:00 p.m.  Tickets are $6 for the game and $10 for a sectional pass, allowing entry to all three sessions.  Bethesda Christian School is at 7950 N CR 650 E in Brownsburg and directions can be found playing around here.  A first round win would send them on to Friday’s semi-final to face Fall Creek Academy at 6:00 p.m., and a win there would propel the Trailblazers to the championship game, to be hosted Saturday night at BCS.

Nonetheless, the Lady Trailblazers would seem a good bet to advance to their fifth championship game in six years.  They’ve already defeated Bethesda Christian (by 22 in November) and with a 1-18 Fall Creek Academy team awaiting the winner, it would be easy to simply assume the Blazers will be alive come Saturday.  But Coach Summitt-Mann has warned her team and the University community.  “They [Bethesda] already have an edge by playing at home.  It’s easy to look ahead but we have to stay focused and avoid the trap.”  If the Blazers reach the sectional final, they’ll be expected to see Tindley, last year’s sectional championship opponents.  Tindley beat Indiana Deaf earlier in the year by 15 points in what should be the other semi-final game.

Regardless of the potential sectional championship opponent (if the Blazers can get there), anything can happen in the magic of the tournament—look no farther than the 2006 boys basketball team, who in their first year of IHSAA eligibility defeated defending 1A State Champion Lapel on their home court for the sectional crown.  Any and every game during the tournament has the potential to be the last – that’s what makes the tournament so special.  No team cam be overlooked at any stage of the tournament, be it the first round or the championship game, and each and every team in the sectional must be aware of this.  The chalk matchup would once again be University taking on Tindley, but it’s far from a sure thing.

But I’ll say the same thing about this year’s team that I did about last year’s.  If these girls play to the best of their abilities and put it all on the line, they’ll come away with the hardware and maybe a regional matchup with White River Valley, coached by former Butler standout and WRV alum AJ Graves.  Coach Summitt-Mann attended Butler alongside Graves and would certainly welcome a potential matchup.  But it’s always important to remember that with the magic of the tournament, as Ellie Goulding sings, anything can happen.

NOTE: This article was edited to reflect the Trailblazers’ now 4-16 record following their 62-22 victory over Fall Creek Academy on Thursday night.

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