For the first time since 2006, Norwell ended last season without a single title. No Sectional, no Northeast 8 Conference, no (now defunct) Northeast Hoosier Conference. Zero titles. And the Knights are hungry. They don’t want to see a two year drought despite being 19-4 a year ago.
“This group is pretty hungry. We know we are in the mix but we know there is a lot of strong competition,” Norwell coach Eric Thornton said. “I think as much as any season, we are really looking forward to this one.”
The Knights have just one senior for this campaign, meaning they could be in the driver’s seat for some time to come if they can establish themselves right off the bat for 2019-2020. Breann Barger (Top 50 Girls Hoops #44) is the only senior with this group after not playing a full season last year, deciding late to go out for the team. Barger averaged 7.8 points and five rebounds per game last season.
“A year ago, she was sitting in the stands our first four games,” Thornton said. “She’s all in, she’s a great leader and is going to do a lot for us. We are lucky to have her.”
But the wow factor at Norwell has been with their junior class for some time now. Three of them have been in major or starting roles since the beginning of their freshman seasons with Maiah Shelton (Top 50 Girls Hoops #9) earning Outside the Huddle All-Area honors last season and Kaylee Fuelling and Lauren Bales (Top 50 Girls Hoops #30) each also being extremely important to maintaining Norwell’s winning traditions. A unique group, these three lead off the many pieces that Norwell has to work with that can play at a high level on both ends of the court.
Shelton lead the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game and Fuelling was just behind her with 11.4. Meanwhile, it was Bales leading them in assists (3 per game) and steals (3.6 per game). Overall, trio was good for 7.2 steals, 9.9 rebounds and 32.7 points per contest.
“The mentality is just different. A year difference in mentality, the maturity of their understanding of the game, knowing what our team needs I think becomes more prevalent as a junior,” Thornton said of the trio. “There is a lot more on their plate this year with leadership. We notice a difference physically in them; stronger, quicker just more explosiveness there so that is going to be another dimension to their game.”
Both Grace Bradtmueller and Hailey Henschen will return to the varsity roster and see time in the post. Henschen appeared in eight games last year but will fill in much more as a rebounder and Henschen’s improved footwork will help her provide post depth.
Mackinzie Tolliver is also back after minimal playing time last season. She will provide some depth as a quality shooter. Thornton expects her to make some nice plays for the Knights because of how much she understands the game on both ends of the floor. 5-foot-9 junior Kiley Crow was Thornton’s biggest surprise this summer and although she got a late start with the team because of cross country, he expects her to contribute nicely to this group.
“She is a girl, with her length, can play the top of the 1-3-1. She is a really good corner three point shooter, can drive it well and a kid that just stepped up this summer,” Thornton said. “To be honest, it caught me off guard. She was in the mix and she took it and earned a spot and is going to be huge for our depth.”
As for what kind of team Norwell will be offensively, not much is likely to change, Thornton says. Since they lost Miss Basketball Jessica Rupright to graduation in 2012, the Knights have not relied heavily on running the ball through the post. Instead, they began to focus on a dribble drive, sometimes weaving offense that has been highly successful.
Thornton believes their style and offensive set has worked because the hardest thing about basketball to stop is the drive and the mindset that when everything else is taken away, you are going to drive to the basket anyway.
Over the years, it has fit our strengths well. We would change if we need to change,” Thornton said. “For us, it is all about having the mentality of ‘I am getting to the rim.’ And these kids are so good at getting to the rim that when its not there, it forces help from either the wing or the post and now it is just a matter of making reads.”
Norwell is a very good basketball program. They are again the class of the NE8 and their fundamental and intense style will make them hard to pick against all season long. As long as Thornton is patrolling the sidelines, making things work how he wants them to, Norwell is going to be one of the area’s best.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
It is the age old conversation: where does the best of the NE8 fall into a Summit Athletic Conference race? Norwell doesn’t look to have the athleticism to run with the big dogs, so for now they will sit behind them. But that isn’t downgrading the Knights. They are still very good and proved last year against Homestead that they are close to playing even with the SAC elite.
JAN. 18 VERSUS BELLMONT
While the likes of Angola and Oak Hill will provide major challenges in the early going, Norwell’s biggest foe is going to remain Bellmont. The Knights and Squaws are like a heavyweight prize fight every time they square off. It is possible the NE8 is on the line when this game happens, but even if it is not, these two teams and two coaches bring the absolute best out of each other and at a time where each will need playoff momentum.
“To look past Bellmont just because Grace [Hunter] is gone, that is a mistake,” Thornton said. “They return a lot. If you look at them athletically, that is a very strong and physically well put together team; they present a lot of problems.”
PLAYER TO WATCH
BREANN BARGER, SENIOR
The Knights were missing Barger at the start of last season when she decided to not play basketball and it certainly helped when she came out for the team late. Her role is even more important now with the graduation of Aubrey Dunnuck and Ashley VandenBoom because size and rebounding is not a deep luxury this year. Barger can provide a significant threat on the interior and is one of the bigger, stronger post players in the NE8.
On the nights when things are falling her way, Barger could be a game changer, especially on the offensive glass.