By Josh Sigler
After enjoying what was the most successful girls basketball season in school history a season ago, Western is confident in a strong encore performance with several key pieces returning.
The Panthers went 19-7 a season ago, claiming the program’s first sectional title since 1989 before grabbing its first regional title. Western fell in semistate play to eventual Class 3A state champion Fort Wayne Concordia.
It was a pretty impressive run for a squad which wasn’t sure who its coach would be until just a few weeks before the start of practice.
“We’re definitely farther along at this point than we were last year just from the standpoint of me being in the program for a consecutive year,” second year head coach Chris Keisling said. “We have a lot of things in that we had last year, and there’s going to be a lot of similarities of what we do compared to last year, but there will be some differences and things we will tweak.”
Gone from last year’s squad is IUPUI recruit Nicole Rogers, who left Western as the program’s all-time leading scorer. She led the Panthers last season with 21.5 points and 8 rebounds per game while adding 58 steals and 73 assists.
“You don’t replace her per se, but in terms of our approach, it will be one more by committee this year in terms of replacing the gap that she leaves,” Keisling said. “We’re going to rely on our balance. That’s what’s going to get it done. Nicole was a tremendous player and left a phenomenal mark on the program, setting what seemed like all of the girls basketball records. We’re going to miss her. But, we feel confident this group is ready to step forward and accept the challenge and continue to keep going what we started last year.”
Leading the charge is a nucleus of five players who played significant roles on last season’s run, led by point guard Allison Lindley, the team’s lone senior. The University of Iowa golf recruit averaged 3.42 points and 2.88 rebounds per game last season while dishing out a team-high 86 assists.
Keisling has six juniors on his roster, led by a quartet of players who were vital in last season’s run. Carley O’Neal started in 24 games last season for the Panthers and is the squad’s leading returning scorer at 8.0 ppg. Fellow junior Jessica Givens played in 25 of 26 games last season and averaged 7.6 ppg, while O’Neal’s twin sister Caitlyn returns with a 4.8-ppg clip.
Kiersten Durbin played in 23 games a season ago and came on strong during the tournament, while Kaysie Mulkey had a strong summer according to Keisling, and will be another junior in the mix for playing time.
Raven Black was Taylor’s third leading scorer a season ago at 5.8 ppg, but has made the move to Western and will suit up for the Panthers.
Western also lost post players Amber Fernung and Lauren Taylor to graduation, and Keising will look to 6-foot sophomore Olivia Hedrick to fill the void in the paint.
A nucleus of freshmen, including Clair Lechner (5-9), Haylee Mills (5-11), Kaylee Penning (5-7), Sarah Connolly (guard) and Torie Wyrick (move in from Clinton Central) may all be called upon at any time during the season.
“It’s going to be about what we do in terms of how we play night in and night out,” Keisling said of a season outlook. “I told the girls we are going to get everyone’s best shot. Every team that sees us is going to say ‘Hey, there’s the regional champions and a final four team.’ They are going to point that date and they’re going to give us their best shot. We’ll have to be ready for that and it will be a neat challenge.”