As I wandered around the cafeteria at Northrop High School on Wednesday, talking to local girls basketball coaches and players on media day, one thing stood out: We've got some Programs.
This is a nice era in high school girls basketball around Fort Wayne, with some quality players over the last few years, but I'm most impressed by how our teams regroup, reload and keep winning.
Think of all the winners:
* Class 4A South Side has won 20 or more games in seven of the last eight seasons, reaching the state championship game last season.
* Class 3A Concordia has won two of the last four state championships and reached at least regional all four years.
* Class 3A Norwell has won 21 games (exactly) in each of the last five seasons, compiling a winning percentage over that period of 88.2 percent.
* Class 3A Bishop Luers has won six straight sectionals and four straight regionals.
* Class 2A Canterbury has won five of the last six Class A state titles, which is why it's been kicked up a class.
Add perennially strong programs such as Homestead, Snider, Leo and others to mix and we're guaranteed another winter of quality girls hoops. Oh, and don't look now, but Carroll's coming on strong with former Elmhurst coach Mark Redding in his second season.
Is there a bottom line to these programs? It's not simply the head coach, although that's part of it. South Side and Canterbury have continued success after changing coaches. It's not just talent, although that's undeniably a factor. All of the top programs have thrived with a number of different types of players.
It is a mindset. Winning is contagious and even more so when it's expected.
“The girls are anxious, hungry and committed and that's the kind of passion we need to keep doing that,” South Side coach Juanita Goodwell said.
South lost to Bedford North Lawrence – which, incidentally, has a new head coach this season by the name of Damon Bailey – in the championship game last season and lost three key players, including leading scorer Ariana Simmons.
The ones who remained, however, are intent on finding a way to make another postseason run.
“I wanted a rematch right away, to be honest,” South's Brittni Clopton said. “You get one opportunity, and you have to seize it when you can. But I know we'll definitely be there at the end of the season.”
Goodwell is entering her fifth season as head coach after serving six years as an assistant. She credits former coach Andy Rang with setting the expectations of winning, but she has more than picked up where he left off.
“Everybody wants to say our program was surrounded around Ariana,” Goodwell said. “That might be the perception from the outside, but ask my girls and it's definitely not that. We didn't run our program around one player. All our players are active, engaged and can contribute.”
Norwell coach Eric Thornton has built his program in a similar fashion. Players have come and gone over the last five years, but the program's standards haven't wavered. The Knights haven't been able to reach the semistate level, but three of their regional losses were to state-bound teams (Elmhurst, Concordia and Hamilton Heights).
“I know our kids will have the same expectations this year, that tradition and sense of pride,” Thornton said. “We want to be good.”
Local teams are strong, too, because of how much they're pushed every season by teams in and out of their conferences. Canterbury, which continued its success when coach Scott Kreiger turned the program over to his father, Wayne, always plays an incredible schedule.
Homestead, a team some feel could be the best in the area, will play against top teams in the Hall of Fame tournament and the Michigan Classic. That's the type of scheduling the best teams welcome.
There's no time for complacency as challengers rise and push the area's top programs.
This will be a year to watch Redding at Carroll. He has a number of players back from last season and a lineup loaded with inside size and outside shooters. Redding worked wonders at Elmhurst, including a state title, before the school closed.
“The thing that's going to be good is the kids know me, I know them and they know my system,” Redding said. “We have a feeder system now and it's nice to work with those kids, knowing who's coming in and where they're going to fit and what the future is going to look like. It is different. When I was at Elmhurst and Wayne, I didn't know who was coming through that door and who I was going to get.”
Redding is pushing to get Carroll to the level of so many schools in the Fort Wayne area.
The best Programs, and there are a number of them, know who's walking through their doors: Winners.