The Northeast Corner Conference has been one of the deepest, and most successful, girls basketball leagues in the state of Indiana in recent years. Last year, Central Noble put together an undefeated regular season before falling in its semistate contest. The year prior, the Cougars went all the way and won the Class 2A state title.

Angola came within an overtime loss of reaching the state semifinals a season ago, and West Noble lost in the regional semis.

All this to say, the league’s got game.

It also has depth. Over the last four years, four different teams have won the regular season championship — Central Noble (2018-19), Fairfield (17-18), Angola (16-17) and Westview (15-16) — and it may be better top to bottom this season than in any of those recent years.

With basketball season officially underway, let’s take a look at the league, and where the Steuben County teams figure into the equation.

The favorite

Angola (21-7 overall, 9-1 NECC last year)

The win total wasn’t the highest in the Appleton era, but the team experienced its first run to regional under the sixth-year coach and came within a missed three in overtime of advancing even deeper in the state tournament.

The Hornets bring back four major contributors from that team, including point guard Hanna Knoll and forwards Lauren Leach, Kayla Fenstermaker and Janna Fee. Leach proved quickly to be one of the better post players in the league as a freshman last year — even in a part-time role — while Fenstermaker is one of the more tenacious defenders you’ll see on the hardwood.

Angola’s lone conference loss last year came in an early-season matchup with Central Noble. But with the Cougars’ tandem of Sydney Freeman and Meleah Leatherman both playing college ball now, the Hornets are primed to end their two-year hiatus from the top of the standings.

“We realize we are the ones that have a target on our backs now, so it’s up to us to prove we can handle that,” Appleton said.

Contenders

Central Noble (27-1, 10-0 last year)

These Cougars will look a lot different than they have in recent years, but also should not be expected to go anywhere with talented players such as Bridgette Gray and Lydia Andrews returning. And the amount of postseason experience held by this roster only helps.

West Noble (18-6, 7-3 last year)

Lilly Mast returns for her junior season after a sophomore season in which she scored nearly 11 points per game. She blew up last year and developed into a focal point of the Chargers’ game plan on both ends of the floor. West Noble lost a lot from that regional team, but if it ends up as a top-3 team when all is said and done, it’ll be because Mast got them there.

Keep an eye on

Lakeland (15-8, 7-3)

Bailey Hartsough will be in contention for the league’s most valuable player with Knoll. She returns as a junior after scoring 19 points per game last year. Around her, the Lakers return nearly an entire roster save for one senior contributor. This is a team that has been three years in the making, and it could very well culminate in a title coming to LaGrange if a few games break in this team’s favor.

Fremont (17-9, 5-4)

The Eagles enjoyed their most wins in a decade during Scott Sprague’s first year at the helm, the coach’s renewed emphasis on toughness and defense playing a large role. That’s exactly what you’ll get from this team every time it takes the court.

Fremont generated much of its offense in transition off of turnovers last year, playing an aggressive style of defense that often went too far and got the team in foul trouble. But when it worked, it was a thing of beauty.

Sophomore Jada Rhonehouse will be a focal point of this team, as will forward Sam Kuhn and guard Macayla Guthrie. Losing Bella Dangerfield to graduation hurts, but the gap in production should nurture further growth among the team’s younger players and allow the group as a whole to play a little more freely. At least, that’s the hope.

Including the postseason, Fremont ended last season on a 14-4 run, losing to the eventual state champion in Class 1A. Playing well above its class against the NECC’s upper tier, the Eagles will have a tough climb up the standings. But if it continues last year’s late-season level of play, Fremont could make some noise.

“We have good talent and a lot of depth,” Sprague said, “so drilling home those fundamentals is key. We expect big things this year, and we believe we have the team to get there.”

Prairie Heights (8-16, 2-9)

Senior guard Alexis German will get much of the preseason hype, and it’s deserved as she has cemented herself as one of the NECC’s most combustible scoring machines. But, in my opinion, the key to the Panthers contending this season resides in the paint.

After a slow start to her freshman season, forward/center Kennedy Kugler ended last year tallying more than nine points and eight rebounds per game. Even with German as the leading scorer, Kugler was a staple of the Panthers’ offense by the end of the year.

Kugler and fellow freshman Alayna Boots developed well in their first years as high school players.

Defense will be more important, though, for these Panthers. Prairie Heights was second worst in the NECC in defensive average last season, allowing 47.83 points per game. The Panthers want to get after the opposition full court, but they will need to handle pressure to make what they want to do more effective. Second-year coach Taylor Terry has made that an emphasis.

“Everyone wants to score, but it’s not always about that. That will be step number one for the girls,” Terry said.

The pieces of a team that can win double-digit games are there. The bigger question is, will Heights finally put together the puzzle?

Garrett (13-9, 5-4)

The Railroaders return a quartet of talented players in Faith Owen, Natalie Armstrong, Morgan Ostrowski and Abby Weaver, all of whom are young and still growing as players. Garrett is the quintessential talented young team that needs to grow until its potential. Is this the year it does that? Under coach Bob Lapadot, it will have the tutelage to do so.

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