GARRETT — The difference in the records of the teams playing in Saturday’s Class 3A girls basketball regional may fool some fans at first glance.
The defending state runner-up, Benton Central, brings a 24-3 mark to Bellmont. Coming from just down the road, Norwell is 21-4. Winchester is 23-3.
Then you have Garrett, which is 16-8.
The Railroaders feel anyone just glancing at the numbers isn’t getting the full picture, however.
“Our 16-8 has gotten us to a point confidence-wise where we feel we’re 24-3 or whatever everybody else is,” said Garrett coach Bob Lapadot. “It’s a cliché, but we’re all undefeated now.
“We have to be as confident as we’ve been all season long. We’re deeper now after the last couple of weeks and having to play more kids. We’ve come a long way.”
Norwell and Winchester play the first game Saturday at 10 a.m., followed by Garrett and Benton Central at noon. The survivors come back for the title game at 8 p.m.
Garrett has a young group of girls that has grown together as a team. The Railroaders stumbled at the end of the regular season, dropping four of their last five. That’s part of what made them stronger, Lapadot feels.
“We were undefeated the first four games. That was just talent,” he said. “The growth part came with understanding the grind and understanding how hard it was going to be. That’s when their togetherness really pays off.
“We have two seniors (Kierra Richards and Sydney West) they can lean on a little bit, and the rest of them all learned together. That’s been a fun aspect.”
“We just took a while to get used to playing together and playing varsity basketball,” sophomore Nataley Armstrong added. “Once we did start meshing we just took off and it was really fun to see. Our chemistry is very good.”
The Railroaders believe in themselves, but weren’t expected to be in action Saturday. Angola was thought to be a foregone conclusion to win the sectional at Concordia, but was knocked out by the host Cadets.
Garrett survived a thriller with Woodlan, then won another barnburner over Concordia.
“We are the underdog. People didn’t expect us to come out and do so well,” freshman and top scorer Bailey Kelham said. “That maybe helped us a little. We didn’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations. We could just play our game, and we were able to do that.”
Garrett’s game, more than anything, is defense. The Big Train allows only 35.5 points per game on average.
“We really focus on helping in the lane and not letting people go to their strong hand,” Armstrong said. “It’s really helped us taking teams out of their driving game and containing them.”
“In these big games, points are hard to come by,” Lapadot said. “Being good on defense and focusing on that all year, and focusing on scouting reports and doing the little things to take people out of their game is what pays off at this time of year. You really saw that last weekend.
“If we’re going to advance now, it’s going to be of the utmost importance when you look at how much the other teams in this regional score (Winchester 71.6, Benton Central 64.9, Norwell 57.6).”
With Armstrong (8.2 points, 5.8 assists), 6-1 sophomore Morgan Ostrowski (7.8 points, 8.1 rebounds), Kelham (16.4 points, 5.6 rebounds) and sophomore Faith Owen (7.2 points) among others, the future looks good for Garrett. Opportunity will knock Saturday, however.
“Nothing’s promised. Angola was a possession away from the semi-state last year, and everybody thought they would be back,” Lapadot said. “It’s not a given. You’d like to think (more success is ahead), but when you’re put in these positions you’d like to capitalize.
“It’s going to be a tough day starting with a tough game. We have everything we need to win that game, it’s just a matter of execution.”
Lapadot likens Benton Central to Angola, with a preference to press and run.
“They like to press, they like to run a lot of cuts on offense, a lot of fast-paced offense,” he said. “As you watch them on film, their defense and getting turnovers, and getting layups out of those turnovers is what takes the game from a close game to a blowout.”
That’s what happened in last week’s sectional title game at Twin Lakes. The Bison led West Lafayette 10-8 before ending the first quarter on a 16-2 run to lead 26-10 at the first stop.
Kelsey Coffman and Kennedy Tolen combined for 22 points in that quarter, and both finished with 14. Leading scorer Audrey Strawsma had 16 points and Kelsey Coffman was a fourth double-figure scorer with 12.
The Bison took a third straight sectional crown despite the loss of senior four-year starter Keely Meadows to injury.
“We’ve got to take care of the ball, and give yourself a chance at the end. If we can get into the half-court, I would possibly favor our matchups,” Lapadot said.
Garrett’s young lineup has been through the highs and lows together, and is ready for the next challenge.
“It’s taken some time for us to get into the flow of it, but our chemistry has helped us a lot,” Kelham said. “We’re not only friends on the court, we’re friends outside of it. Having all that chemistry, we’re able to play with each other and work well off each other.”
“I have a lot of trust in these young kids,” Lapadot added. “Whatever we do, this is a huge step for our program. We’ll go out and give it our best, and I like our chances.”