Norwell was right on the cusp in 2019-20. Never out of championship form, but the Knights had actual titles to boast. Still, on the closing Saturday of their season, they sat two possessions away from a Regional title and a semi state meeting with a NorthWood team they had previously beaten by 20.
Look at that path. Agree or not, Norwell was so, so close to a state title game.
“I certainly could see that breaking through last year back to where we wanted to be, that was huge for our [current] senior group going into this year,” Norwell coach Eric Thornton said. “We were so close and this group will have another opportunity to try and build off of that.”
Thornton said he doesn’t want to put a ton of pressure on Norwell’s current group, but they are certainly embracing what kind of year this could be. He says the girls aren’t bashful at all about knowing what they want.
The leadership is going to start with what Outside the Huddle has constantly referred to as a three headed monster. Varsity contributors and/or starters since their freshman season, the senior trio of Maiah Shelton, Kaylee Fuelling and Lauren Bales are arguably the best trio in Northeast Indiana. They all have great facets to their games that sometimes overlap, but more often than not, compliment each other. Their drive and fulfilling those roles the best they can is critical to Norwell sustaining a championship level.
“When they were growing up, being around them all of the time when they were younger and them understanding what Norwell girls basketball meant to them and how much they meant to me, you could see how much they wanted to be a lady Knight,” Thornton said.
“When you get them as freshmen, knowing they had prepared themselves to be in that moment, they were green but yet they were ready. What great examples they have all been…when you look at character versus talent, you always pick character…they’ve got it all. They’ve learned how to mesh together, they’ve learned how to value those relationships and they’ve been great examples for our younger kids.”
Thornton said you can look at last year’s three Sectional games to describe each of those three players have moments that play massively to their strengths.
Against Luers in the Sectional round, they Knights were down 19 points after the first quarter. Shelton then just took over and exerted her will. She brings the physicality and toughness to the front line for the Knights. Norwell won that game after trailing so big early. Shelton averaged 14.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in 2019-20.
Against Mississinewa, they Knights had to deal with a. 6-foot-5 opponent that wasn’t there in a previous winning effort. To adjust, Fuelling had to adjust when she couldn’t get to the rim and made her midrange pull up game difficult to stop. Again, Norwell got the win. Fuelling averaged 13.9 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
Against Bellmont in the title game, Bales’ calm and collected presence, “ice in her veins” as Thornton would say, was big. Bales had turned the ball over badly late against the Squaws and she bounced back quickly by hitting a dagger three pointer. Norwell, of course, won that game too and a Sectional title. Bales averaged 6.5 points and 2.6 assists per contest in 2019-20.
“When you look at those three, just being able to bring their different games and how well in our system that fits and how much that is needed, it really makes it difficult to guard,” Thornton said. “They all have those moments where it is kind of ‘my time.'”
Outside of those three, Norwell returns senior post Grace Bradtmueller and junior Mackinzie Tolliver from last season’s team. Bradtmueller is the only returning true post and Thornton said she is in great physical shape after participating with the cross country team. A solid role player, Bradtmueller (3.1 ppg/3.5 rpg) had big moments last year and was never afraid to take contact or step up to try and take a charge at the rim. Tolliver (4.6 ppg) is very crafty and Thornton raves about her vision, saying she may be as good in that area of seeing things as anyone he has ever coached. She also has a strong shot to stretch defenses.
“Our depth is something that is more of a strength this year for us. We are really in good shape as far as that goes,” Thornton said.
That depth will start with junior Emily Todd, who was the leading scorer off a 20-2 junior varsity team a year ago. Todd is a solid shooter, as good as any shooter that the Knights have in their program. They also add sophomore Skyla Tomasek, who is 6-foot-1 and will use her skill and athleticism to compete for major minutes in the post. Thornton says Tomasek brings a different dimension that the Knights haven’t had in a while in their ‘five’ spot.
Norwell again brings in a freshman class that is adjusting well to the high school level. Full of what Thornton calls “a bunch of typical Norwell kids,” he says the ninth graders “just get it” and will get on the floor some this year to get their feet wet before being the focus in future seasons. Leading that class is Kennedy Fuelling, the younger sister of Kaylee.
“There is just a smoothness to her play. There is no panic, its a different pace [than Kaylee] but yet she does have that second gear as well,” Thornton said. “You define Kaylee more as a driver, you would define Kennedy as more of a shooter. I think they will really enjoy how they compliment each other.”
The Norwell schedule is touch again. Their Sectional is consistently one of the toughest in the state when you look at final records and Sagarin rankings. The Knights will play four SAC schools, the defending NECC and ACAC champions and fast rising Garrett. They will also start their season with games against Oak Hill and Warsaw; Shelton could miss both of those and Bales will miss the Oak Hill opener after an extended cross country season.
Not to mention, Norwell will head back to the Hall of Fame Classic. No matter what game two on December 29 is like, the opening contest with Mount Vernon is a major test.
“I’m so happy that our seniors get to do this. This is a one time deal for our kids,” Thornton said. “It is really a second state championship and that is the way they will describe it when we tour the Hall of Fame. It really prepares this group, to be able to hopefully springboard off of that. And win or lose, using it to what we want to accomplish come state tournament.”
When it comes down to teams in the area that do things fundamentally right, Norwell is at the top of the list. The Knights have formed this program in the 23 years that Thornton has been at the helm that just builds on greatness.
Sustained success like Norwell has had does not come easy, but they do it. Now that they are back in the championship column again, they are a very dangerous foe with a confident group.
“I think it was great for them to have that experience of winning championships last year,” Thornton said.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Wish we could see this team match up with that team above them, as we did a couple of years ago. Norwell doesn’t really get the chance to prove themselves against the SAC elite. So, for now, they stay here. But do not be surprised though if they jump up, especially come the time for a very tough Hall of Fame Classic day.
December 11 vs. Columbia City
There may be tough games on the way for the Knights, but they have to want this one back. It will be just their second NE8 game, but sealing a win against the team they spilt the conference crown with last season is important. Norwell wants to make a statement here and that statement is a lot about the aforementioned sustained success. Norwell wants to remind everyone they are in the driver’s seat and seasons where they aren’t are more of a fluke than anything else.
Lauren Bales, senior
Bales has become extremely crafty over the years. Her intelligence bringing the ball up the court and the trust her coaches and teammates have in her is exhilarating. Bales is a winner and she is going to be coming out of a winning fall, running in the cross country State Finals. You want someone like that to run your team as a general and Bales has all the qualities that Norwell needs from a lead guard in order to succeed beyond the regular season.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE COUNTDOWN