When Karl Grau led the Bluffton Tigers to 17 wins and a sectional title last season, he officially put the Allen County Athletic Conference and northern Class 2A teams on notice.
“To be able to advance in the tournament last year and play in a regional, that kind of sticks with our girls and gives them something to look forward to, to get better and ask how can we get better?” Grau said.
After nine years at .500 or below, Bluffton posted their best record since 1998. They had senior leadership and they had underclass leading offense. This year, they return three of their top four scorers led by sophomore Emme Boots.
As a freshman last season, Boots averaged more than 20 percent of the Bluffton scoring with 10.7 points per game. She will provide a consistent mid and interior presence for Bluffton, but will look to up a 59 percent finish from the free throw line as teams will look to double down on her more.
“I’ve been proud of our girls that they have been really focused on taking over and they’ve made it the player’s program. It is great as coaches to see that intensity and that buy in,” Grau said.
She will be joined in the back court by Grace Miller (9.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 3.5 steals). The do everything senior did a lot of leading of her own last season, often by example. With Megan Prater and Gabrielle Streveler gone to graduation, she will have to pick up the pace verbally to match her on court motor.
Three other seniors: Allison Powers, Alyssa Burchett and Jamie Myers will be expected to fill the void of the two players lost to graduation. They also will help Bluffton be as deep as they’ve been in a few years as more interest peaks in the program.
“They are going to be do great things for us in terms of being good leaders, rebounding, scoring and playing great defense,” Grau said.
Powers averaged 6.1 points and a team high 5.4 rebounds per game last season.
Olivia King, a junior, will also be a role player while several players from the up junior varsity squad give the Tigers a chance to be eight to ten players deep according the Grau.
As the 2A state champion last year, we throw a lot of respect at Central Noble. Bluffton hung right with that team for a decent part of the regional morning game last year. The two top scorers from that team are back in Miller and Boots, so why not believe that this is going to be a similar, yet more seasoned team?
Why not higher?
The Tigers will have some proving of themselves to do before the program can officially be considered at its strongest. Those around the program don’t see last season as an isolated incident and internal mentality goes a long way towards external perception. Until they’ve passed early tests, including a solid North Miami team and the defending Class 2A runner up Winchester, it is hard to anoint them better than top notch SAC or NE8 teams.
Outside of that interesting season opener hosting Winchester, January 4 hosting perennial ACAC giant Jay County is the big game. Considering that the two teams could face each other twice in a week — with the ACAC Tournament following this game — with titles on the line both times, a Tiger and Patriot rivalry is a fun thought.
“I think we can compete for a conference championship. I think our girls believe that, so it is just a matter of going out there and seeing what we can do,” Grau said.