BY PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — Russiaville – Three seasons ago, on Nov. 10, 2010 to be exact, Western girls basketball player Caitlyn O’Neal got some unsettling news as she was preparing for her first high school game.
“My sister [Carley], she was injured due to a soccer injury, so she was injured and I remember back then Kathie Layden was our coach, and her telling me ‘you’re going to have to start the first varsity game and be point guard,’” Caitlyn O’Neal recalled. The O’Neal sisters are twins, and Carley had been the point guard of the two throughout their unbeaten run in middle school.
“I remember wanting to pee my pants when she told me that.”
Three seasons ago, Raven Black was a freshman at Taylor and her coach with the Titans Dennis Bentzler stoked her imagination about playing in big games with big crowds.
Black says she’s wanted to take the floor in those games “ever since my freshman year, [Bentzler] talking about how crazy it was to be in a gym in front of so many people getting ready for a semistate game, and I remember really wanting to experience that.”
Today, Caitlyn O’Neal and Black are preparing to take on Norwell at approximately 6 p.m. in the Class 3A Warsaw Semistate. They’re part of a group of seven seniors at Western, guided by third-year coach Chris Keisling. Today’s winner gets a date in the state final on March 8 in Terre Haute.
Black transferred to Western before her junior season, and former Taylor teammate Siera Daniel enrolled in Western this school year. They join fellow seniors the O’Neal twins, Kiersten Durbin, Jessica Givens and Kaysie Mulkey to give the Panthers a wealth of experience, versatility and skill that has propelled Western to a 21-3 record.
“This year it’s kind of surreal,” Black said. “I’m so glad to have this team and share it with such an amazing group of girls on and off the floor.”
Chemistry is a key component.
“We all have a certain trust,” Caitlyn O’Neal said. “We’ve all played with each other for a long time. I know Raven and Siera have moved in, but we have this certain chemistry. I have a lot of confidence in our team because together we’re going to be one. It’s not all about one person.”
Another key is balance. Durbin, Givens, Black and the O’Neals each average seven or more points, and any can break out for a big scoring night when she is the open option. Daniel, Black and Givens each averages four rebounds or more.
“On any given night, anyone can go off,” Black said. “Kiersten can hit five 3s or whatever. It works for us because everyone wants to win. It doesn’t matter if you score 20 or four or don’t score at all, you always know one of us is going to step up and get the job done.”
Then there’s intangibles.
“If you look at these kids play ... one thing that sticks out in your mind is their will to win,” Keisling said. “They refuse to lose. The reason we’re balanced is because they share the ball so well. They have a never-say-die attitude. They have a winners mentality, and the other thing you might add to the mix is they’re all very good students. Smart kids take you a long way when you combine that with ability.”
Keisling’s influence has to be factored in. He was the fifth coach in five seasons when he took over three seasons ago. Giving the program stability has helped the Panthers to a 59-15 record in his span.
“It’s a blessing having Coach K as a coach,” Caitlyn O’Neal said. “It helps a lot having the same coach for three years because we’ve already gone through our defense, all we have to do is improve. Each year we improve on what we’ve established. He’s a really great coach.”
In Keisling’s first season, the Panthers made it to the semistate with four of the current seniors playing major roles. Now they’re back in their last go-around.
“I remember winning regionals for the first time in Western’s school history and what that felt like,” Caitlyn O’Neal said. “When it’s your first time you’re scared, you don’t know what to expect. Now that I’m a senior, I know what to expect. I know what the crowd’s going to be. That’s how I was when I was a sophomore, I was scared. I’m not scared anymore. I’m ready to take care of business.”
There’s a sense of urgency as seniors.
“This is our senior year,” Black said. “This is all we have left so it’s either keep playing or go home. I think now we’re all to the point where we have nothing left to lose. We get nervous, we get jitters, but we know to go out there and trust your teammates and you can get it done.”
Norwell enters with a 21-4 record.
“Norwell’s going to be a very quality opponent,” Keisling said. “They’re quick, they’ve got good shooters, they’ve been successful in a very rugged Fort Wayne-area schedule.
“They’re on the younger side, they have some freshmen and sophomores in the mix. They, like us, have balance. From that standpoint they’re a challenge defensively. They’re a man-to-man team. You’re going to have to execute offensively.”
Containing Norwell’s strengths are high priorities for Keisling.
“We need to limit them to one shot,” he said. “We need to make sure we find them in the defense and get to their shooters and get to their driving situations. Offensively we have to make sure we execute effectively to make sure we have good shot selection and value the possessions.”