After reaching the regional round last season, the Pioneer Lady Panthers set a goal of winning it this time around.
The No. 4-ranked Panthers (22-2) face No. 5 Oregon-Davis (19-4) in the noon semifinal of Saturday’s Class A Caston Regional. No. 2 Morgan Township (22-3) plays Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian (18-7) in the 10:30 a.m. semifinal. The final is set for 7:30 p.m. for what looks to be a highly competitive regional field.
“If you look at it, we all come in with several wins, we all play hard,” Pioneer coach Jeff Brooke said. “It should be a very fun morning and afternoon for anybody who’s a fan of basketball.”
The Panthers enter on a 16-game winning streak.
It was 11 games ago when they saw the return of freshman standout Ashlynn Brooke, who already holds offers from three Division-I programs. She missed the first 13 games of the season rehabbing a torn ACL injury. She suffered her injury during summer basketball and had her surgery about seven months ago on July 16.
Some D-I coaches advised her it might be a good idea to sit out her freshman season of high school ball but she decided to return. Her first game back was the Frontier game on Jan. 9.
“If I didn’t feel ready, I wasn’t going to play,” Ashlynn said, “but I felt ready and I have the support from everybody else and my therapist to help me get through that. It’s really good for me for them to say, ‘Hey, it’s OK to get out there and play,’ so that’s what I did.”
With it being a serious injury, Ashlynn likely won’t be back to full 100% until next season, but she’s helped give the Panthers an additional boost. She’s averaging 13.5 ppg, 2 apg and 3 spg despite playing about 16 minutes per game or about half the game due to a minutes restriction. She’s shooting 53% from 3 and 76% from the foul line.
“I’m still getting there, I’m still adjusting to people hitting me and everything. It’s scary sometimes falling but getting back up is when I know when I’m OK,” she said.
Hailey Cripe stepped in for Ashlynn at point guard when she was injured and the sophomore has taken her game to a new level this season. Cripe is averaging 16 ppg, 6 rpg, 2 apg and 3 spg and is shooting 39% from 3 and 83% from the foul line.
Cripe and Ashlynn Brooke give the Panthers strong guard play and they also have some size inside with 5-11 junior Madison Blickenstaff and 5-10 junior Olivia Brooke. Blickenstaff is averaging 9 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 2 spg and Olivia Brooke is averaging 12 ppg and 6 rpg.
Junior Mackenzie Walker and sophomore Macee Baker play their roles well on the wing, as does senior Macee Weisenburger in the post.
“When you go through and look at our stats, we have several assists which is great, which means the girls really don’t care who scores, they just want to win the ballgame,” coach Brooke said.
The Panthers were champions of the Cass County Tournament and Hoosier North Athletic Conference this season.
They blasted Tri-County 73-34 in their sectional opener. Caston then knocked off one of only two teams to beat Pioneer this season, North White (the other being a Class 3A sectional champion, Knox) in sectional play. Pioneer then defeated Caston 64-20 in the sectional final to repeat as sectional champs.
“You always want for every team that you coach is during sectional time you’re starting to peak,” coach Brooke said.
Oregon-Davis, located northeast of Knox in Starke County, has an enrollment of 158 and is one of the smallest public high schools in the state but also has one of the best girls basketball programs. The Bobcats are a two-time state champion, having won titles in 2007 and 2014. The Bobcats are competing at their 11th regional in the last 13 years, having missed only last season and in 2011 during that time. They’ve won four regional titles, the last coming in 2016, which was their third straight and was in Class 2A due to the success factor.
Oregon-Davis coach Terry Minix is the 19th winningest coach in state history with 416 career wins.
“When you watch film on his girls, they’re disciplined, they do a nice job working the ball and getting good shots,” coach Brooke said.
“They’re very similar to us. They like to push the tempo a little bit, make good decisions and they can knock down the 3.”
The Bobcats have had three players reach the 1,000-point career milestone this season, 6-foot senior Jaden Worthington, 4-11 senior Katie Sauer and 5-8 junior Mercedes Rhodes.
“They’ve got a really nice shooting guard [Rhodes]. She can knock down the 3, has great range on her jumper and can also get to the hole and finishes very well,” coach Brooke said. “They’ve got a really nice point guard [Sauer] who does a nice job controlling the tempo. They’ve got a 6-foot post player [Worthington] who has great post moves.
“That will definitely be a great matchup for us.”