Few had Garrett penciled in as a Sectional champion in 2020. They lost a senior starter midseason and the second half of their season consisted of a starting lineup of four sophomores and a freshman. It was certainly, many thought, a year too early for them to find success; but they did it anyway.
Now, heading into 2020-21, there is no smooth transition to “on the radar” for the Railroaders. Instead, they have a big target on them. Garrett has arrived and everyone knows it. That is why Outside the Huddle picked them as the number five team in the area headed into a new season.
“It was almost starting over when we lost that senior leadership [last season], now we are going four sophomores and a freshman and we took some lumps,” Garrett coach Bob Lapadot said. “I feel like with that original bunch, we were getting where we needed to be. It was just a matter of those guys getting it back together and they found it.”
Their loaded class of 2022 has taken some hits but remains one of the best junior classes in the entire area because of their continued growth. They went from finding themselves to being some of the top area players in quick fashion.
Nataley Armstrong and Morgan Ostrowski lead that class as players who have seen the starting lineup for two seasons. Ostrowski’s rise has been critical for Garrett; she did not play basketball in 8th grade at DeKalb but is now one of the best posts in the area after averaging 8.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game last season. Armstrong is continuing to develop as a multi-tool threat despite her high level passing being a focus. She averaged 8 points and 5.8 assists in 2019-20.
“They have just been leaders. They were both captains last year as sophomores and they just set the tone for us,” Lapadot said.
Abby Weaver will also return with the junior class after finding a spot in the starting lineup at times late last season. Weaver has worked on building muscle and being in the best shape of her career. Kaitlin Bergman is a junior up from the junior varsity. Seniors Sadie Best and Madi Malcolm are expected to spot contribute for Garrett as well.
“They know they are our depth. We don’t go past 8 or 9 right now and they both know that they are going to be counted on,” Lapadot says of his pair of seniors. “Every night, I am at practice 20 minutes after practice is over and those two seniors are the only two still there when I finally leave. They understand their role, they are embracing it and they know a lot of times they are going to be left open because someone is going to leave them to help. You have to be ready.”
There is a good chance that Garrett can work deeper on their bench than many of their NECC counterparts. While returning six varsity players and even in the absence of two year starts Faith Owen, who decided to not play this season, they can go that nine players deep. They will now rely on Lakewood Park transfer Taylor Gerke as yet another piece for the junior class. Lapadot says Gerke’s desire and hard style of play fits into their mentality immediately; she averaged 13 points and 1.6 blocks per game last season and contributed a little bit of everywhere for Lakewood Park.
The program was fast forwarded to a new level last year with the area’s clearest freshman standout in Bailey Kelham. She came in and made the most immediate impact of any class of 2023 player in the area, regardless of gender. Kelham averaged a team high 16.6 points and 2.2 steals while also breaking the school’s single game scoring record. The Kelham we saw as a freshman is expected to be even better as a sophomore.
“She is twice the player. It is amazing to me, but she is so much stronger. She is passing the ball like she never has. Her strength, the way she is seeing the floor, her basketball IQ is twice what it was last year,” Lapadot said. “She has worked a lot on ball handling, she is really focused on the mid range game…she is pretty unguardable to be honest, at least one on one.”
Freshman Kelsey Bergman will also be looked at to provide off the bench. Bergman, at 6-foot, is athletic and has the ability get out and run and could get chances in the press or in trapping scenarios.
Garrett’s schedule this season is a tough one, in part because of the continued depth of the Northeast Corner Conference. Though the Railroaders lost nine games a season ago, November 24’s six point loss to conference champion Angola was the worst loss all season until the regional morning game loss to Benton Central by 18. Their other seven losses outside of those two came by a total of 22 points.
“Benton Central showed us where we needed to be. It showed them what we had been trying to tell them,” Lapadot said. “This is the level and hopefully you are going to see that this year. We need to play with multiple weapons, we need to play at a faster place and that’s what Benton Central had. They saw it and I really feel like they internalized it because the way we practice right now and the way we play right now is 100 percent different even from last year.”
To Garrett’s credit, Lapadot has not been afraid of change in order to raise the Railroaders’ level of play in searching out further advancement in the postseason and to be able to compete for NECC and NECC Tournament titles. The team has changed around all of their out of bounds stuff to avoid ruts and singular focus. Now, he says, they have stepped up their approach to be harder to defend in many scenarios with multiple options offensively.
Not wanting to be too one dimensional, Lapadot has also changed things about Garrett’s tempo on offense and by adding more full court pressure to the defensive schemes. Lapadot says that they talk a lot about what former Angola girls coach Brandon Appleton did with the Hornets’ pressure in the past. Lapadot feels like he has at least four kids who can take a rebound and take off in transition and he is comfortable his team can control the boards and then push the pace.
“You watch the NBA, you watch what they did in the finals. A rebound, one dribble and they are throwing it 90 feet. Now obviously we can’t do that but that is the mindset we tried to put in them: look how many easy shots you can get if you get out and run,” Lapadot said.
“First, you have to have the ability to do it; you have to have the players. I feel like we have that ability.”
By peaking at the end of their season in 2019-20, Garrett is a team that has the interest of many heading into this season. Garrett has everything going for them the way things were and they are able to be willing to make changes to be better. The Railroaders may have gotten to the championship level a year earlier than expected, but now the expectations are high and it is hard to rank the Railroaders outside of the top five.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
The Railroaders have to prove that they can close out the big games or even close games. Garrett lost nine games last year and eight of those were by 6 points or less. Yes, they became Sectional champions but their untimely losses in the NECC kept them out of competing in the conference how they want to going forward. They were right there in many important games but they need to be closers to move up the power poll.
“We’ve worked a lot on free throws; we’ve changed our whole approach on the way we practice that to hopefully put ourselves ahead of the curve in those types of positions,” Lapadot said. “Just focus. We are trying to take different situations in practice and put the kids in different spots to respond. One play here or there in those games makes all the difference.”
December 12 at Norwell
This could easily be the November 24 game hosting Angola because that game is crucial in the landscape of the NECC. But for the longevity of Garrett being an elite team in the area, visiting The Castle goes a long way. Norwell’s pacing and championship pedigree is something that every team should want to have and this is the chance for Garrett to show they are being pushed in the same mold.
Beating Norwell is hard. Beating Norwell with their three headed monster senior group is more hard. Doing all of this at Norwell is near impossible. A really good showing, or more importantly a win, would mean the world to the Railroaders moving forward. Not to mention, Norwell could very well be a Regional opponent.
Taylor Gerke, Junior
As mentioned, Gerke comes in and will immediately be expected to contribute. As with any player that makes a transfer, how that player fits in at the new school is crucial. Gerke played really good basketball at Lakewood Park, averaging 13 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 2019-20. But this is a different team with a different approach and Gerke’s opportunities could come in less rigid situations. No matter what her numbers say this season, Gerke gelling with this championship squad is critical.
“She is a willing ball handler for one. She is a kid who just thrives off playing as a team. She loves to pass it, she loves to move, she is always looking for the open spot,” Lapadot said.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE COUNTDOWN