By JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — As a product of Kokomo High School, IUK women’s basketball coach Whitney Farris understands the wealth of talent her program has at its fingertips in Howard and the surrounding counties.
But, when Farris left the City of Firsts to play her college career at Valparaiso, she was ready to leave the friendly confines and broaden her horizons.
She’s finding that today’s prospective college players share a similar sentiment. Nevertheless, four of Farris’ first 11 commitments have come from Howard, Cass and Tipton counties.
“I think it’s important to have local kids, [but] I’m a local kid myself, and I wanted to get out of Kokomo and experience new things, so I can understand that,” she said. “Hopefully, if we have some success those kids will think it’s OK to stay in Kokomo and get that IU degree, play basketball and be around friends and family.”
One of those local recruits undeterred by the perceived monotony of staying close to home was Tipton’s Lela Crawford. After a highly successful four-year career with the Blue Devils, Crawford this week signed on to be part of the cornerstone Farris is laying as the IUK women take flight in their first season this winter.
“She’s one of the few kids I talked to who was OK with being close to home,” Farris said. “I think it was important to her to have her family close and able to come watch her play. She’s an older sister, so a big draw for her was that it was local, as well as having that IU degree. I think Lela will be a great draw for us with crowds. I know her family is excited that she can play somewhere close to home.”
At 5-foot-7 guard, Crawford averaged 13.8 points, 7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, helping Tipton, along with fellow senior Kacie Juday, finish the season 18-5.
“She’s a tough-as-nails kid and I’m really excited to have her,” Farris said of Crawford. “[Tipton] Coach [Nick] Comer and I were talking at her signing, and [agreed] she could’ve scored 20 or 30 points a night, but she did everything else the team needed. She’s a great wing player, but she puts the team first. And, she’ll rebound, she’ll defend, and if she needs to bring the ball up the floor, she will. She has that competitive mindset … and that competitive mindset is something you need to start a program with.”
Crawford was a four-year letterwinner for the Blue Devils, and in her time, helped the squad win three sectional titles. In her senior campaign, she helped lead Tipton to its first regional title since 2001, and finished with 18 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals in the Devils 79-65 loss to Fort Wayne Canterbury in the Class 2A semistate. She was a KT All-Area selection.
“With her competitiveness, I think she’s going to come in and work hard every day,” Farris said. “I don’t have to coach effort with her. I saw her play in the semistate game, and she never gave up. Talking to her, she has a lot of unfinished business. She didn’t get where she wanted, so I think she has that chip on her shoulder and her drive to keep going. She wants to make some success here and help us build a program.”
Crawford is one of five of Farris’ recruits who scored in double figures a season ago.
Winimac’s Stefanie Shorter, the first IUK women’s signee, averaged 20.4 points and 8.4 rebounds as a 5-9 forward last season. Deja Fielder, a 5-4 guard from Goshen, put up over 19 ppg, while South Decatur’s Ashley Johanningman (6-0 post) averaged a double-double and Fort Wayne Snider’s Kiersten Eley (5-10 forward) put up 11 points a game.
“I’m really pleased with the kids I have committed and signed,” Farris said. “I have a couple more that we’re hoping to wrap up and get. I can’t be more pleased with the character-type of players we’ve been able to get.”