It seems crazy to hear Norwell girl's basketball coach Eric Thornton say it at first. How can a team have Miss Basketball graduate but potentially be a better team? Losing Jessica Rupright, currently playing Div. I basketball at Miami (Ohio), should send a team hurtling backwards in record and ability.
Then, you listen to Thornton talk about this year's team. How it has started so many different lineups he has lost track and has started almost every player on the varsity roster. How each player has bought into the team being bigger than the individual and propelled the No. 5 Knights to a 21-3 record.
And after hearing him explain, it makes sense how Norwell could be better despite the loss of Rupright and why it is taking on No. 2 Hamilton Heights at 12 p.m. Saturday in the first round of IHSAA Class 3A Regional at Bellmont.
“It's certainly nice to have a D-1 player on your team, we'd take that every year, but without that this year, the good thing is we've been able to have that balance and it's harder to scout (us),” Thornton said.
“We don't rely as much on one individual player this year as we have in the past, and you know, if one player would happen to not have a good game or they would shut her down, we are able to overcome that this year maybe more than we could in the past.”
This team concept will be put to the test as Norwell attempts to win a regional for the third straight time. The previous two seasons, the Knights lost in the regional round to the two teams in the other first round game at Bellmont – defending state champ and No. 11 Concordia and No. 3 Northwood.
For those on the team who were part of the varsity roster for those games, they have plenty of experience to lean on.
“It doesn't make us any more nervous, but I think it makes us thrive even more to win,” said senior Paige Frisch, who was on the varsity team for the previous two regional losses. “It means a lot, you know, we want to get out of it this time.”
To do that it starts with playing a Hamilton Heights (20-2) team who has been dominant. The Huskies boast the seventh largest margin of victory in the state across all classes, and maybe even more impressive, the second best offense in the state with nearly 70 points a game.
“Our defense is going to be the main part for us to be able to get the win, and I think just getting the ball up and getting good movement in our offense will start it all up,” said senior point guard Taylor Wilson.
Hamilton Heights's high scoring and victory margin is dictated from its style of play with an aggressive turnover-focused defense. Thornton mentioned the Huskies play five different types of defense throughout a game.
Good thing Norwell played a few other teams in the area this season who also utilize a pressure defense and play at a fast pace offensively. The Knights lost close games to Snider and South Side this season, the No. 8 and 15 offenses in the state, and beat the No. 6 offense from Homestead.
“You look back at those games and you draw from those experiences and you've been in those situations before,” Thornton said. “Hamilton Heights pressure is very, very good, where South Side and Snider's pressure is more physical than Hamilton Heights is. It's still pressure, but it's a different type of pressure, but I'm glad we played those SAC teams even though we lost because we learned from them.”
If Norwell can get past Hamilton Heights, its depth could prove to be the difference maker as regionals requires two games in one day. Norwell won't have to worry about one player potentially being hounded all day and relied on to produce a peak physical, mental and emotional output twice in 12 hours. It's the entire team and bench this year that has the ability to take Norwell to the final four.
“Being able to have the depth, if you get in some foul trouble or you have an injury, you won't drop-off and are able to put those other kids in,” Thornton said. “But it's really about winning that Hamilton Heights game and if we are playing Concordia, great, if it's Northwood, great, but we are just going to try and take advantage of that opportunity.”