By Mark Saluke
Greentown — On a Wednesday in the summer of 2008, Jeremy Dexter rolled into Greentown for the first time.
The Lafayette native interviewed for the Eastern girls basketball head coaching position that day and received an offer the next. He met with the superintendent on Friday and got married on Saturday.
That Monday, a trio of girls – Mercedes Rubow and Brittany and Bethany Neeley – caught the Purdue grad’s attention while he was scouting his future players during Carver Summer league action.
“I remember the Neeleys and Mercedes were going into eighth grade and they were up playing with the high school kids at Carver,” Dexter said. “You could see that we had athletes who were going to be coming up that were going to be willing to work extremely hard for us to reach the goals that we wanted to achieve from day one.”
Four and a half years later, the landscape of Lady Comets basketball is vastly changed and hopes are at an all-time high, with good reason.
After a 7-13 rookie campaign led to Eastern’s fourth straight losing season, Dexter has compiled a 65-21 record in the four years since the Neeley sisters and Rubow stepped on the scene.
“We’ve gotten better every single year,” said Brittany Neeley. “You look at it record-wise and it’s gone up each year. It’s always been a goal to get better each year.”
Eastern went 14-8 in the 2009-10 season, 15-5 in 2010-11 and 17-5 in 2011-12. The Neeleys were critical components in the Comets rise.
Starters since their freshmen year, both Neeley sisters passed 1,000 career points this season. Brittany has 1,233 career points and leads the Comets in scoring at 17.7 points per game. Bethany has 1,022 career points and averages a double-double of 15.3 ppg and 11.5 rebounds per contest.
“I would say that, specifically, this senior class has been thorough a lot and helped Eastern girls’ sports in general and shed such an amazing light on Eastern in a positive way from a coach’s perspective,” Dexter said. “These seniors have a lot to do with this success. We owe them a lot for the time they’ve put in and the effort they’ve put forth.”
Rubow and the Neeley sisters have enjoyed a memorable 19-3 senior campaign, spending this week prepping for Saturday’s Class 2A Lapel regional, when the No. 6-ranked Comets will meet Winchester (20-4) in the noon semi-final.
“The energy is up, everyone is excited,” Bethany Neeley said as practice got underway Wednesday. “How can you come to practice and be dreading it when you’re one of only 16 2A teams left in the state? You can’t complain about that. Everyone is positive, looking forward to practice every day.”
Rubow said that while spirit is high, the team is taking it all in stride.
“The opportunity just to be here is awesome,” Rubow said. “I wouldn’t say we’re preparing any differently, we’re looking at it as just another game as far as preparing. It’s really exciting because we haven’t done this for so long, a team like this at Eastern. It’s a great opportunity to be able to do this.”
Rubow, who split time between JV and varsity her sophomore year before becoming a varsity mainstay her junior season and a starter in her senior campaign, has provided intangibles rather than stuffing stat sheets for most of the year, but did score five points during a critical fourth-quarter stretch of last Friday’s 53-44 sectional championship victory over Tipton, which was the Comets’ first sectional crown in 14 years. For much of the season, Eastern has been hearing the comparisons to that 1999 squad that went to the 2A final four.
“Everyone talks about the ’99 team,” Bethany Neeley said. “Me and coach always look up there at the banners on the wall and you see the ’99 team. That’s what everyone kind of compares us to and we want to make a run like them.”
That run will begin when a stingy Eastern defense surrendering under 39 points per contest locks horns with a Winchester squad led by Ball State recruit Jill Morrison, who averages nearly 28 points per game.
“I think I’m going to guard her,” Brittany Neeley said. “Defense is pretty much what we live by, and I know the team will help out and we’ll do a really good job. I feel like we’re going to be prepared. Dexter works as hard as anyone scouting. I think we’re going to be good to go.”
Dexter knows Saturday will take the Comets’ best effort.
“Winchester’s program over the years has been very successful,” Dexter said. “They’ve won seven straight sectionals. Morrison is a great shooter, she can really shoot from anywhere and we’ve got to contain her. They go as Morrison goes, so we’re going to focus on her and go from there.”
Asked if this was the biggest game of his career or for his squad, Dexter didn’t deny that it was certainly big.
“It’s a big game for our program. It’s a big game for our community. We’re really happy to see the community rally around us. We’ve seen a lot of support. The best way to answer that question is that, as a team, we feel really centered. We feel like we’re playing a way that can combat almost anything that can be thrown at us.
“Is it the biggest game of anyone’s career? It really does feel like another game to us,” Dexter continued. “We feel like we have created a winning atmosphere. These kids feel like they can step on the floor Saturday and win. And they’re going to give it everything they have to do that.”
If the Comets carry that mentality over to the court on Saturday, chances are good that talk of the 1999 team will need to make a lot more room to share with the growing stories and banners of the 2013 squad.
Eastern and Winchester shared one common opponent during the regular season in Northwestern.
The Comets defeated Northwestern 41-25 on Jan. 26 in Greentown in Mid-Indiana Conference play. The Golden Falcons fell to Northwestern 66-65 on Dec. 22 in the opening round of the Frankfort Tournament.
Wabash (17-6) will face Seeger (19-7) in the morning’s first semifinal at 10 a.m. The Apaches have won five straight sectional titles, while the Patriots have won four straight sectional crowns.