By JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — RUSSIAVILLE — The current seniors in Western’s girls basketball program knew they had something special, even at a young age.
The success started early. As fifth graders, the squad won its first organized, school-affiliated game by 60 points, and the precedent had been set. By the time their middle school days were over, they had amassed a 63-0 record, meeting little resistance on their way to perfection.
Although the competition has been stiffer during their high school days, they’d already grabbed the label of being part of the most successful team in school history as four of the seniors — Kiersten Durbin, Jessica Givens, Caitlyn O’Neal and Carley O’Neal — played major roles on the 2012 squad that won the program’s first regional title.
They fell short of their dreams of playing for a state championship that year. They wouldn’t be denied this time around.
A 41-31 win over Norwell in last weekend’s Class 3A semistate was the final piece of the puzzle for the Panthers’ senior class, which is seven players strong. And, as they prepare for their state finals matchup with Evansville Mater Dei, their final week as high school basketball players have been a mix of celebration, game planning, and most importantly, reflecting with pride about what’s been an incredibly successful journey.
“I’m still kind of soaking it,” Carley O’Neal said. “This is something we dreamed about our whole high school careers, and even in middle school really. I’m speechless. This is exactly what we wanted and what we’ve dreamed of, ending with a bang. We’ve accomplished all of our goals, and this is icing on the cake.
“We’ve all realized this is the last game of our careers,” Carley continued. “It’s bittersweet. We’ve extended our season as far as we could. This is the state championship. We all talk about reminiscing about, ‘Hey remember when, [etc.],’ and we’ll laugh. But it’s sad because we realize that’s not going to happen anymore after this game.”
This week has been a farewell tour on a grand stage for the Panther seniors. The school has a community pep session slated for 6 p.m. today, and has treated the rest of the week like it’s homecoming, with dress-up days and room decorating at the schools.
It’s a chance for the community to show their appreciation for a senior class that has been unparalleled at Western, a class which enters Saturday with a 71-25 career record, two sectional titles, two regional titles and a semistate championship.
At the same time, the seniors find the week as a great opportunity to reciprocate that appreciation for a school and community that helped shape them into the players, and more importantly, people they are today.
“I know no matter what we do, it’ll never be enough to ever repay the school, our families, friends and the community for supporting us,” Caitlyn O’Neal said. “They’ve helped make us who we are, and it feels good to at least try to give back to the people who were there for us.”
A major highlight for the team in all the hoopla is their school parade, where they will walk through the hallways and receive well wishes from fellow students and faculty from the high, middle and primary schools. It’ll be a symbolic passing of the torch to the younger girls who look up to the current players, an aspect the seniors feel an immense amount of pride and responsibility towards.
“It’s special because I remember when I was that age and remembering how much I wanted to be like them when I got older,” Caitlyn added. “I remember a select few girls who made an effort to make my sister and I feel special. I want to do for them what [past players] did for me when I was little. Their support has helped us so much, because they dress up so cute for our games with crazy hair and outfits. It’s special for us as a team.”
This Western team has reached its goals and experienced a great level of success without what many would perceive as a marquee star.
Carley O’Neal leads the Panthers in scoring at 14.3 ppg, but five Panthers, all seniors, average 7.0 ppg or more, a telling statistic of their unselfish nature of play.
Givens scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the semistate win over Norwell, earning her Indiana Basketball Coaches Association player of the week honors for District 2. Those numbers wouldn’t typically garner such an accolade, but on this team, any number of players could win such an award based on its balanced style of play.
To Givens, that’s a symptom of their longevity together. The core of the senior class has shared the court and classroom since the girls were fifth graders, and as a result can finish each others sentences like siblings. They also know the nature of each other’s skillsets about as well as possible.
“I can remember even in middle school … we all shared the ball really well,” Givens said. “All-around, everyone is unselfish. If one of us isn’t on, we can always look for other people and depend on them. It has a lot to do with my teammates. We’re great at picking each other up.”
Win or lose Saturday, their going to leave the court with a sense of fulfillment. Win or lose, the tears will flow freely as the sense of closure becomes a reality, a right of passage in many ways.
Their legacy is important to them, but more importantly, they hope they’ve left a lasting mark on future generations of aspiring Panthers to continue the winning tradition when they look up at the banners on the wall inside Richard R. Rea Gymnasium.
“It means a lot to know we were the first ones [to win a regional] as sophomores, and to do even better than that now as seniors,” Durbin concluded. “Coming back here, that’s all we’re going to talk about in the future. We’ve made a name for ourselves. Hopefully it carries over with this year’s sophomores, to have that drive that we developed.”