By Josh Sigler
LAPEL — Eastern High School’s girls track and field squad is inching closer to the start of a much-anticipated season in the spring.
Preseason workouts will have to wait at least another week.
Eastern’s girls basketball program claimed its second Class 2A regional crown Saturday night, strangling the life out of Wabash’s offense in a 48-32 victory in Lapel High School’s Dog Pound. The Comets’ other regional title came in 1999.
“This means a lot to coach [Jeremy] Dexter and the basketball program,” Eastern senior Bethany Neeley said. “They’re newbies to this championship thing. We forgot to bring the [sectional] trophy. We told coach, ‘With the cross country team, that wouldn’t have happened.’ This is a ton of fun right now. The fanbase is incredible.
“We’re glad to be playing another week. With the speed of the game right now, I think it’s actually helping the basketball players who run track. The farther we go, the more the speed of the game will pick up, so it’s a win-win situation.”
The Comets (21-3) will move on to the semistate round for the first time since 1999. Eastern is one of four teams left standing in Class 2A and will face six-time state champion Fort Wayne Bishop Luers in the north semistate at either Crown Point or Warsaw. The game’s location and time will be announced today.
The Comets’ 21 wins are one shy of the school record. The 1999 team won 22 games.
“These kids are simply winners,” Eastern coach Jeremy Dexter said. “You go through every game and put so much effort into it. As a coach, I don’t want to see this season end. I don’t want these seniors’ careers to end. They are such winners that I’ve told them they could sustain this as long as they want. The sky is the limit for them. I can’t measure what they mean to me as individuals.”
After exerting a high level of energy in pulling out a 72-70 overtime win over Winchester in the afternoon semifinal, Eastern was content to play at Wabash’s slow, deliberate pace early in the contest.
The Comets’ enterior defense was outstanding throughout, limiting the Apaches’ opportunities in the paint.
Eastern held Wabash to a 3-for-14 performance from the field in the first eight minutes as it grabbed a 12-6 lead at the first stop.
The Apaches hit more field goals that the Comets in the first half, 8-7, but Eastern held Wabash with out an attempt from the free throw line while conneting on 6 of 10 charity tosses, taking a 23-18 lead at the half.
“They were able to hold the ball and prolong possessions, but we were able to stay the course,” Dexter said. “We kept gapping and didn’t let them get to the basket. They were going to have to prove to us that they could hit some outside shots.”
The Comets began the second half on a 7-2 run to stretch the lead to 30-20 on Bethany Neeley’s long rebound and transition bucket with 4:12 remaining in the third quarter. Wabash got no closer than eight the rest of the way.
Wabash junior Kyleigh Hampton scored a team-best seven points in the first half but was held to two in the second half on 1-of-4 shooting. She did not attempt a field goal in the fourth quarter.
“Hampton was lighting us up a little bit in the first half, so Bethany and I switched on her, and she only scores two points in the second half,” Brittany Neeley said. “Coach told me she didn’t attempt a shot in the fourth quarter, and that’s huge because that’s who they run their offense through. I think that made the difference.”
For the night, Wabash attempted just one free throw and didn’t have much better luck outside the paint, either, connecting on just 2 of 15 attempts from beyond the arc.
“We attacked the basket in the first half and didn’t finish, and just kind of went away from it,” Wabash coach Scott Bumgardner said. “There were lanes open. We did a very poor job of attacking, and settled for jumpshots all night long. Winning two games in one day is going to be tough when you’re settling for jumpshots.”
Brittany Neeley led the Comets with 15 points and eight rebounds, connecting on 7 of 11 attempts from the stripe. Bethany Neeley added 14 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, while sophomore Taylor Holliday chipped in 14 points and nine rebounds. Eastern went 15 of 22 from the foul line, and outrebounded Wabash 34-21.
Sophomore Sarah Puckett led the Apaches with 10 points while Hampton finished with nine points and eight rebounds.
Fort Wayne Bishop Luers (14-11) defeated Boone Grove 67-40 Saturday night to win the Rochester Regional.
“We’ve built a mentality that we believe that we can win when we step on the floor, and these kids will walk in Saturday believing they can win the semistate, Dexter said.
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