The Pioneer Lady Panthers didn’t have to travel very far for Saturday’s semistate game, and their fans showed up in droves.
The Panthers’ fan section was filled with the faithful of the Black and Gold at the Berry Bowl. It was practically a home game for the Panthers as Logansport is about 10 miles down the road and the Pioneer school district runs about right up to the Logansport city limits on the northwest side of town.
The fans got to witness their Panthers blast Blue River Valley 56-30 to advance to the Class A state championship game.
“I enjoyed it from the moment I walked out on the court and saw all these people supporting us,” Hailey Cripe said. “It’s just great this community we have and how many people show up and support us when it comes to big things like this.”
“It’s awesome,” Ashlynn Brooke added. “We were on our way here and people were lining 35, celebrating. It was good that people let us know that they were supporting us.”
The Panthers (25-2) barely left Cass County on their road to the state finals. They hosted the sectional this year. The regional was played at Caston, which is technically in Fulton County but is right near the county line. Caston is considered a Cass County school with almost half of its students being from Cass County. The semistate was then at Logansport. So the Panthers never had to travel more than 15 miles on their road to state.
“It was a big crowd. It was exciting. It didn’t faze us,” Blickenstaff said. “We were just really excited about it.”
The state finals shouldn’t faze the Panthers as well. In fact for Blickenstaff, Cripe and Mackenzie Walker, it’ll be their fourth state finals appearance and counting during their careers – twice in softball, once in volleyball and once in basketball. Cripe, being a sophomore, has competed in just one softball state finals but there’s a chance she could compete at more in the coming years.
“It’s more than a lot of people can say,” Blickenstaff said. “I’m very blessed to be with girls who are so dedicated to every sport they play.”
HOUSE THAT WHITNEY BUILT
Well, Whitney Jennings didn’t build the Berry Bowl, but she certainly drew big crowds during her four-year career at Logansport that culminated in winning the Miss Basketball award in 2014.
In front of Jennings’ picture prominently placed in the Berry Bowl, another undersized guard with a big game from Cass County was in a starring role, as freshman sensation Ashlynn Brooke scored 20 points in 17 minutes in the Panthers’ semistate win.
“I do wear 15 because of Whitney,” Ashlynn said. “The first time I ever shot in the Berry Bowl was with her. So the first time playing here as a high school player is pretty special for me.”
Ashlynn first shot with Whitney in the summer of 2014, when Ashlynn was entering the fourth grade.
It was also six years ago that Jennings’ Berries nearly had Penn beat in their semistate matchup at Crown Point. The Berries led by as many as seven in the fourth quarter before the Kingsmen came back for a 44-41 win in Jennings’ final high school game, but the Berries didn’t hit their free throws down the stretch that could have won it.
This year Northwestern, one of the greatest teams in state history, led by a pair of Miss Basketball candidates Madison Layden and Kendall Bostic, found out how tough Penn can be. But the Tigers survived the Kingsmen 56-46 on Saturday at the same time Pioneer was playing Blue River Valley. Northwestern (29-0), which has won back-to-back Class 3A state titles, will face Lawrence North (25-4) for the Class 4A state title at 8:15 p.m. next Saturday.
Jeff Brooke said his squad followed the game plan to a T is dispatching of Blue River Valley (16-10).
“I thought our girls did a nice job continuing to do what they’ve done all year long, push the ball up the floor, push the ball up the floor, keep attacking, keep being aggressive,” he said. “The girls did a great job doing our keys. We made sure we rebounded, we made sure we went 84 feet. I’m just excited to be on the winning end of this ballgame.”
The Panthers played a 2-3 zone against the Vikings. They also played a 2-3 zone in the regional final win against Morgan Township and most of the game against Oregon-Davis, until they went to man-to-man in the fourth quarter in what was a key adjustment in helping them survive, as well as hitting big shot after big shot in a 68-66 win.
On Saturday the focus was stopping Ally Madden, a 6-1 sophomore who was held to just two points. She did have seven rebounds and five blocked shots.
“We thought we needed to come out and really contain 42 and I thought we did a really nice job doing that tonight and still get out to those shooters,” coach Brooke said.
“I’m so proud of the girls. They’ve been working hard all year long. I’m excited to be in the state game. Our community is doing a wonderful job supporting us. We thank them for all their support.”
It was big for the Panthers that coach Brooke’s youngest daughter, Ashlynn, was able to return from her knee injury for the second half of the season.
“We’ve got a good ball team and it takes more than one player to do that. We’ve had player after player after player step up. Could we be here without her? I don’t know. But we’ve got her and we’re going to play with her,” coach Brooke said.
Ashlynn added she had faith in her team even when she was out with her injury through the first 13 games of the season.
“I really wasn’t scared about our team because I knew Hailey would take over and she did that, and when I came back it was great and everybody loved it,” she said.
The No. 4-ranked Panthers play No. 1 Loogootee (26-2) at 10:30 a.m. Saturday for the state title at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Lions’ only losses are to Class 4A Columbus East, 51-39 on Dec. 7, and to Class 2A state finalist Linton-Stockton, 34-27 on Jan. 25.
The Panthers played more than well enough to win their first semistate title in program history and know they will have to bring their game up another level next week to bring home the state title.
“Next week we definitely have to be on our A game,” Cripe said. “We’re going to have to take good shots.”
The Panthers weren’t as sharp offensively on Saturday as they were in their two regional wins.
But Ashlynn Brooke has a shooter’s mentality and is wise beyond her years
“When they don’t fall you’ve got to keep shooting and keep trying,” she said. “Eventually they started to fall.”