ALBION — Central Noble Cougars, Class 2A girls basketball state champions. It sounds good. It even feels good.
And there was so much to it. It wasn’t as simple as bringing two girls back who are drawing NCAA Division I interest.
Trust me, having Sydney Freeman and Meleah Leatherman is significant. They consistently make big plays, and made it manageable to play in the Northeast Corner Conference and grow from it. Leatherman had a big edge in the center matchup throughout the entire postseason.
But those two talented girls alone did not guarantee anything. Defense and conditioning completed the formula. So many moments also made it possible.
There was the talk from CN athletic director Tyler Schuller prior to practice on Dec. 23 after the loss at Wawasee. There were major moves made by coach Josh Treesh and his assistants, from the need to play underclassmen Lydia Andrews, Jocelyn Winebrenner and Maddi Bremer more after the NECC Tournament to how the coaching staff navigated through the second quarter of the semistate game with Frankton on Feb. 17 to keep Leatherman in the game despite her picking up her second foul with a minute and a half left in the first quarter.
There were freshmen in Andrews and Bridgette Gray who grew up and even overcame some tough times.
There was a weak foul against the Cougars in the state championship game that ticked them off to the point where a run followed. There was a community that helped push the Cougars through and a father with a heart of gold who revved it up with his positive energy.
And there were breaks along the way, and CN capitalized while making some of its own breaks. Better matchups unfolded than what was expected. And remember when Butler-bound star Aly Reiff from Whitko fouled out late in the 2017 Class 2A Central Noble Sectional final? Things really took off from there.
There was a business-like approach and a confidence about the Cougars to handle the bigger stages and surprising developments. They did not get carried away when they saw Hammond Bishop Noll instead of North Judson in the Winamac Regional final and saw Frankton instead of Oak Hill in the Logansport Semistate, but they knew they had what it takes to beat those unexpected teams.
In that approach, the Cougars were the better conditioned team, even with the bench getting shorter on the way to the state championship game. They picked their spots to press and got out in transition when the situation presented itself.
Central Noble was the ultimate second-half shark during this postseason journey. It grabbed an advantage and swarmed and attacked even further when it saw blood in the water. The defense put pressure on the opposition and took a toll over four quarters. The “One” in burgundy and white was bouncing until the end and became too much for the opposition to overcome from the basketball court to the upper reaches of the crowd.
The NECC is pretty much a Class 2A conference. It’s typically not as talented as the other conferences nearby, but it can help the smaller school programs if you have enough talent and the right personnel. If you don’t, the league can devour you and take away your drive and confidence before you really need it.
One example I saw first-hand was Dan Callahan’s Fremont football teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They had about 45 kids, were strong up front, and had running backs run for around 2,000 yards in a season. They would compete with the top teams in the NECC at the time, including Angola and Eastside. Fremont might not have won all the time against the league’s top teams, but it would help the Eagles down the road. And they would have decent runs to sectional finals.
The NECC did the same thing this past season for the CN girls cagers, and I don’t recall the conference ever being this deep in quality for girls basketball. Angola wore the Cougars down twice. Fairfield blew them out at home. Central Noble won a lot of tough league games along the way, as well as a couple close contests outside of the NECC.
The NECC made the Cougars tougher and better. It had a lot to do with them winning all 15 of their games against Class 2A opponents this past season.
And lastly, I’d be wrong to not recognize Dennis Leatherman, Meleah’s father, for his incredible energy and support. I’m pretty sure he does not want this because he would rather fall in the background. Sometimes, a parent of a student-athlete with NCAA Division I capabilities can be a problem. Dennis is the opposite from what some people at Central Noble have told me. His cheerleading brings the Central Noble community together. It’s powerful and it’s special.
“The way he orchestrates cheers, that’s awesome,” Cougars coach Josh Treesh said last Thursday. “The ADs (athletic directors) from the other schools and the other communities love it.
“He is always supporting the coaches, and helps other people who do not always agree with everything we do.”
Many moments and many role players on and off the court made Central Noble’s girls basketball team a state champion.