The Principia Panthers girls basketball team returns to action after the longest break the team has ever taken.
The Panthers [8-1] host Bayless on Tuesday, Jan. 2. Principia last played Dec. 15 when the squad defeated De Soto 61-33 to win the championship of the Orchard Farm Tournament.
“You don’t see successful high school teams breaking that long,” Principia coach Shad Nichols said. “However, the positive is that it’s a very long season so the mental and physical break can be a blessing. It’s something we’ve figured out how to manage and make the best of.
“The most important thing is staying fit, which the team understands and we are able to turn into fun competitions that are motivating and bonding for the players.”
Nichols was pleased with how the Panthers were playing going into the Orchard Farm tournament.
“The team had taken a full week off after playing three games in three days to end the previous week,” Nichols said. “It was good preparation for us to take a small break, improve our weaknesses and get back to full strength. The week really helped propel us forward when we were able to go live again.”
Principia was the defending champion in the tournament. Nichols had five of the top six players, and seven of nine on the roster back from last year’s tournament champions.
The experienced Panthers showed how dominant they were in the first two games of the tournament; Principia dispatched Normandy 65-6 and then defeated St. Pius X 60-25.
Despite the lopsided scores, the Panthers used the games to their advantage.
“Normandy was a really nice opportunity practice playing versus a live opponent and a set defense, something we’re not able to replicate in practice because of our numbers,” Nichols said. “St. Pius was really the first time all year the team came to play from the opening tip and it showed in the score. It was 38-7 at halftime.
“The team executed with effort defensively which opened up things on the offensive end by making eight three-pointers in the first half. I felt it was the first time all year the team showed what it was capable of at both ends of the floor, and the scoreboard reflected that.”
That set up the championship game against De Soto.
As good as the Panthers played against St. Pius X, the girls were even better against De Soto.
“Similar to the St. Pius game, the team brought it’s best effort from the opening tip-off,” Nichols said. “De Soto is well organized and tough, and we missed a lot of lay-ups especially early that kept the game close for a bit.
“However, because the team was making its best effort, they were able to defend until our shots started to fall. That’s a huge positive because it shows the signs of a mature team.”
The Panthers were happy to successfully defend their tournament title.
“The championship game was a grind. Win or lose, it was going to be a grind, so you may as well win,” Nichols said. “The team was really excited about that. It’s our first tournament win in a full year, which just goes to show how hard it is to win any tournament.
“I think they were also pondering what was possible with how well the team played as was evidenced by the score discrepancies.”
Senior shooting guard Kate Hinds was named tournament MVP. She averaged 21 points and nine rebounds per game in the tournament. Senior point guard Cameron Bania was named to the all-tournament team.
The team showed Nichols just how good they can be in winning the tournament.
“Other than the fourth quarter versus Tolton, the team showed a lot of what it may be capable of,” Nichols said. “There are some incredibly talented and athletic players on this team. If we play together as team, trust that there’s enough shots for everyone and play defense with care, effort and execution – which could lead to the team becoming greater than the sum of its parts – it will be something special.”
Earlier this season, the Panthers’ only loss came to Herculaneum in the Principia Tournament. The Panthers lost 67-51.
“Herculaneum is very good. Right now we are 8-1, and losing that game taught us a lot about ourselves,” Nichols said. “[Things like] how to prepare, that we need to come and play from the opening tip, how to work with a motivated opponent… If we had beaten Herculaneum, I don’t think we would have won the Orchard Farm Tournament.
“As long as we continue to apply the lessons learned from that moving forward, we should be good.”
Principia played in the Norm Stewart Classic at Columbia College in Columbia. The Panthers scored a 55-51 victory over Tolton.
“The Norm Steward Classic was so much fun,” Nichols said. “Our game was at 10 p.m. and live-streamed on ESPN3. The girls will always remember the experience. It was a first-class event that felt like a state level competition. It was really a blessing to be included.
“At the time of the game we were ranked No. 4 in the state and Tolton was No. 10, so that added to the big game feel and they were a tremendous opponent.”
In the game, Principia “struggled for the first three quarters,” Nichols said. The Panthers were down by eight points late in the third quarter.
However, the girls were able to get back in the game.
“Once we started to play well, the team turned it around almost immediately and we found ourselves up nine half way through the fourth quarter,” Nichols said. “It was an impressive effort by the team to come back and turn themselves around when it wasn’t going well. I think that helped propel us forward to play well at the Orchard Farm Tournament.”
Sophomore forward Jordan Fredrickson was named MVP of the Norm Stewart Classic with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Other Panthers played well in the big win, too.
“Tessa Boyman stepped up and made some big shots that got us back in the game,” Nichols said. “Aria McMullin, who is a freshman off the bench, played her best game of the year with some key players in foul trouble.”
The 8-1 start is something to be proud of, Nichols said.
He has just nine girls on the varsity roster.
“With a short bench, it requires contributions from everyone involved,” Nichols said. “Junior guard Georgia Rather, our most dynamic player, has played several roles unselfishly this season. One possession she may be point guard, the next she may be slashing for a basket, and the next she may be scoring on the block.”
Now it’s about a six-week sprint before postseason play begins. That’s the most important time of the season.
“Each player on the team understands that there are many roles to play, and all are important,” Nichols said. “For example, senior guard Kiki Holmes has been an effective leader and given us great spot minutes. Junior guard Gracie Paul and sophomore guard Lauren Arens consistently find ways to help make the team better and are never less than positive.
“Those types of qualities are what will allow the team to fulfill it’s potential. The road ahead isn’t easy. It may be uphill all the way and narrow, but it’s clear. And the best part is this team has what it needs to overcome and make that deep run. It will be fun to see.”