Garrett has had a stranglehold on the NECC for the last two seasons.
Angola, Central Noble and West Noble have all challenged the Railroaders for the conference title.
But it’s time for a familiar favorite to take back the reins.
The Falcons make the move to Class 3A after nearly making the Class 2A state title game last season. In the NECC, Fairfield is the favorite in large part with Brea Garber returning for her senior season. She led the Falcons in scoring (15.8), rebounds (5.6), assists (3) and steals (3) last year and will likely do so once again. She’s joined by a cast that has experience and is talented.
Bailey Willard is a sharpshooter who averaged just under 10 ppg last season, and she can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket when needed. Her rebounding ability and toughness will be called upon a lot this year.
Fellow senior Morgan Gawthrop will also take on a bigger role after she scored seven points a game and was second in the team in rebounds with 5.4 per contest. Kaylee Dillon’s role is also expected to increase offensively but her defense is something the Falcons won’t have to worry about after 2.1 steals per game last season.
The Lakers have a similar roster to last year’s team that went 11-12 but should take a step up with the returning talent. Peyton Hartsough has been an impact player for the last two seasons and will continue to be a scoring threat for Lakeland. She averaged 14.1 points per game last season. Faith Reihl also returns for her senior year, and hopefully she can have a healthy final season after missing time the last two year because she’s one of the better players in the area when she’s on the floor. Alivia Rasler is another senior that has logged a lot of minutes in the last two seasons. She can affect the game on both ends of the floor.
Grace Iddings, Takaya Wallace and Cara Schackow all played significant varsity minutes last season and expect to do so once again. Two freshmen Kaitlyn Ryan and Dulce Canedo will be relied on to build up the depth of the Lakers.
The Hornets will also look very similar to last year’s team but lost a big piece in Lauren Leach to graduation. Expect Angola to still be an excellent defensive team led by Kylie Caswell, who led the team with 2.5 steals per game to go along with her 8.2 points per contest. Jaelyn Fee, Tyrah Stillman, Lexi Stillman, Leah Snyder and Macy Oberlin all averaged between four and seven points per game. All will be asked to score just a little more with the loss of Leach. Tyrah Stillman and Oberlin will do most of their damage inside, as well as handling most of the rebounding duties.
The Cougars finished near the top of the conference last season even though it was an up-and-down sort of year. New coach Sam Malcolm takes over for Josh Treesh, who did a lot of winning in Albion. The cupboard is full of options for Malcolm, including senior returners Madi Vice and Meghan Kiebel, who have been starting since their freshman year. Vice is one of the best returning guards in the conference and the area after averaging 14.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.2 apg and three steals per game. Kiebel can score at all three levels and totaled up 12 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 2.7 spg a year ago.
Senior Abby Hile, juniors Kyleigh Egolf and Courtney Gray and sophomores Kierra Bolen and Kennedy Vice all return with varsity experience. Makenna Malcolm comes over from Garrett and was a solid contributor for the Railroaders, especially after Taylor Gerke went down with an injury. She can give the Cougars another scoring option and is a willing rebounder.
The Blazers are one of the grittiest teams in the area and thrive playing that style. They used that game plan to win a sectional title last season and return several players who contributed to that championship. It starts with senior Grace Kreischer, who will probably have several double-doubles this season. She scored 9.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game last season. Also patrolling the inside will be classmate Kaylie Hertig. Coach Mike Lortie is confident his team will be able to balance out that inside attack with improved outside shooting. Sophomore guards Paige Traxler and Sydnee Kessler will be the ones who will be looked at to hit those shots from deep. Lilli Cline, Lily Kreischer, Jayci Kitchen and Haley Wies are all newcomers who will see a lot of minutes after the graduation of five seniors.
The Railroaders only two losses last season were to a pair of state champions, Noblesville and South Bend Washington. Garrett won’t be at that same level to start this year with the graduation of all but one of its starters, but still expect to compete for championships by the end of the season.
To get there, senior Bailey Kelham, who’s a top player in the area, will have to do big things. She’s now more than just the team’s leading scorer. More focus and effort will be put on her by opposing teams, which means others in the lineup have to step up. Aida Haynes, Brooklyn Jacobs and Kelsey Bergman have some varsity experience and will all take on new roles this season.
Maddy Schenkel is a top newcomer for Garrett after transferring in from Bishop Dwenger. Schenkel will help the Railroaders offense from getting bogged down.
The Warriors doubled their win total from three to six last season and are starting to return experience year over year. Westview will rely on senior Sara Lapp and junior Hope Bortner to lead the way in scoring. Bortner averaged a team-high 8.1 points per game while Lapp dropped in 7.7 and led the team in rebounds with 4.5 per contest.
Andrea Miller is another returner that can score, and Kamryn Miller and Morgan Riegsecker are also back giving the rotation experience but will have to take on new roles. Freshman Mykayla Mast and sophomore Shanna Miller are also expected to get time on the court.
The Eagles were much improved in David Goodwell’s second season as head coach. Churubusco played a lot of underclassmen in 2021-22 and expect to take another step this season. Cara DeBolt and Brelle Shearer both graduated and were the top two scorers last season. Junior Jorja DeBolt and sophomores Bridget Timbrook and Brooklyn Sinclair all had productive seasons a year ago, but the expectation is for all of them to take on larger roles both offensively and on the defensive end. Maddison Hosted was the team’s most efficient shooter last season at nearly 50 percent and the team’s leading rebounder at 6.1 per game.
The Chargers surprisingly won a sectional championship last season despite finishing last in the conference. It was largely on the back of Jazmyn Smith, who graduated, and point guard Mackensy Mabie, who returns for her senior year and is the team’s leading returning scorer at 10.3 points per game. She shouldered the load last season while Smith missed time with an injury. The rest of the minutes for the Chargers are up for grabs with the graduation of several seniors. Expect a lot of new faces in Ligonier this season.
The Eagles were competitive against the better teams in the conference last season but still finished with just two NECC wins. New coach Shae Thomas is a Fremont graduate and played collegiately at Purdue Northwest. She’ll have four returners to work with in her first season at the helm. Back is Addy Parr, who averaged 5.8 points per game, and Natalie Gochenour, who led the team in rebounds and scored just over five points per contest. Sammy Meyers and MaKenzie Parnin also return to the starting lineup for Fremont. Chloe Hivers and Brayleigh Moss are two newcomers of note.
It will be a rebuilding season for a Panther squad that was very competitive last season. Their leading returning scorer from last season is Kylee Leland, who scored 2.1 points per game. The other returner for Heights is Lilli Howe. Ava Boots, Emily McCrea, Olivia Boots and McKinlee Kain are all newcomers who are expected to fill out a young rotation for the Panthers.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
4. Central Noble
9. West Noble
11. Prairie Heights
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Makenna Malcolm, Central Noble
Malcolm came off the bench at the start of last season for Garrett. She was inserted into the starting lineup after an injury to Taylor Gerke. Malcolm held her own nicely and became a reliable role player. Now with the Cougars, her role will be bigger. How will she handle the added responsibilities? How will she gel with the rest of the lineup that is experienced and played a lot of minutes together? If she can find her role and excel, Central Noble will benefit.
Hope Bortner, Westview
Bortner put up solid numbers as a sophomore with 8.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Bortner should benefit from not only another offseason but with the rest of returning experience the Warriors have. Westview haven’t had a lot of varsity experience at the start of the last two seasons, so it’s in a much better starting place for this campaign.
Sydnee Kessler, Eastside
Kessler made a big impact for the Blazers as a freshman. In a rotation filled with several seniors, Kessler was able to be a key player during Eastside’s sectional championship run. The Blazers have high hopes of being a top team in the NECC and repeating at sectional champs. For that to happen, Kessler will have to continue to grow as a player with the added responsibilities of being the primary ball handler.