Principia coach Shad Nichols knows how to make do and improvise, crediting the tenacity and spirit of his Panthers, too.
The short-handed squad won its second tournament of the season with a 58-49 decision over Brentwood to win the eighth annual Affton Winter Classic.
Principia [16-5] won under adverse conditions.
“I laugh a little at this because in some ways we were just trying to survive. Due to school trips, players not feeling their best or physically able to play, we played this entire tournament with six varsity players the first game, and five the last two games,” Nichols said. “For the last game, we only had six players total, including one up from the JV.
“It concluded a stretch of four games in five days with only five players. It was tough but the team showed up each day excited to play with what they had, and persevered through four quarters with minimal to zero substitutions.”
Winning the Affton tourney is a big accomplishment. The Panthers came in second in the Principia Tournament and won the Orchard Farm Tournament.
“I tell the team all the time, any high school varsity win is a good win because it’s not easy to do. In that sense, any tournament is a tough tournament, and winning one is a special and unique experience,” Nichols said. “Especially one involving larger schools like Clayton and Liberty. We were the No. 1 seed, so I felt like we were the best team.
“Fortunately the team played to their full capability, sharing the ball on offense, working to find the best possible shot for the team and that put each game out of reach before the short bench caught up to us.”
Nichols noted it was good to win the Affton title.
“This was a tournament championship game we had lost two consecutive years to Clayton, so it was really joyous to overcome that this season,” Nichols said. “The team does know what it takes to get to title game. Make their best effort every moment and focus on playing their game.
“They understand the process it takes to be successful as individuals and as a team. One step at time, moving forward from what’s behind you, doing your best in the moment and not looking ahead, worrying about things you can’t control.”
The Panthers will be back at full when they return to action with a Friday [Feb. 2] game at Visitation.
“The numbers are better now,” Nichols said. “The players have returned from trips and the others are 100 percent again so it’s nice to have a full team. We are now in the back end stretch of six games in eight days. In some ways it was very tough to overcome but mostly from the stress of worrying. But when you put your focus on coaching the players who are there, and being grateful for what you do have as opposed to fretting about what you don’t have it certainly makes things easier.
“From an on-the-court perspective, it was really only tough to overcome once we got to the fourth quarter. For the first three quarters of each game the team played nearly flawless basketball. I don’t think the team thought about it too much, especially once they stepped on the court and you could tell by the outcome of their performance. There was such a true joy and appreciation for each other, and honestly they pretty much didn’t miss a shot because of it.”
Principia began with a 75-18 win over Bayless in the Saturday morning opener.
“Saturday morning at 9 a.m. after a tough game and late night the night before on the road at Burroughs [a 52-46 loss] could potentially have been a slow start,” Nichols said. “But the team was excited to play and fortunately made their best effort, which resulted in the scoring being as it should despite the adversity of the night before and being down to six players.
“Due to the departures, sophomore guard Lauren Arens got her first varsity start so that was exciting. In any situation it’s important to find the good, so that was definitely a happy silver lining for the team.”
The Panthers meet their nemesis from the past two years in Clayton in the semifinal. This time Principia prevailed and scored a 73-50 win.
“It was a great victory over a larger and very well-coached school and one that we had not beaten in three years and had beaten us for the last two Affton championships,” Nichols said. “I was very worried but I am always worried before every game, which is OK because it helps me make sure I am thoroughly prepared for each opponent and never caught off guard.
“It’s important to help set the team up to have as much success as possible so it’s really only fair to them. The team did almost everything well here in this game. It was really fun to be a part of.”
Principia jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter.
“That was basically the game,” Nichols said. “It never got closer than 19.”
Tessa Boyman had a career-high 21 points with five 3-pointers made. Jordan Fredrickson had a double-double with 27 points and 12 rebounds on 15 of 16 free throw shooting. Georgia Rather returned from missing a couple games with 14 points, five deflections and six steals.
Principia met Brentwood for the tourney title. It was the second time that has happened this season. The Panthers have some history with Brentwood but not too much, Nichols said.
“Before each game, the team chooses a quality, usually a single word, that they would like to focus on. The word before this game was ‘complete,’ meaning, that the team had all it needed every single moment to accomplish its goal,” Nichols said. “Ultimately winning the game, yes but not until the process of focusing on only what they could control had played itself out.
“Could we keep Brentwood out of the paint defensively? Could we keep proper spacing on offense and stay ready to shoot each possession? Could we go through each moment expressing enthusiasm for what we were doing? Despite only having five players, we could still do all of those things, express ‘completeness’ and we felt like if we did the scoreboard would still be favorable on our end.”
The Panthers got up 29-12 at halftime. Principia extended that lead to 20 at the end of the third.
“Then we had to persist and overcome to finish the game with just five players who were now on their third game in four days, but they did it,” Nichols said.
Senior Kate Hinds had career-high 26 points. She overcame a gimmick defensive scheme to thwart Brentwood, too.
“She was 8 for 11 on 3-pointers in this game. Huge,” Nichols said. “The best part was she found other ways to score and get the ball once Brentwood went box and 1. Offensive rebounds, reading the timing of the defense as opposed to the past when the box and 1 would have been difficult for her.”
Other Panthers played well in the win.
“Georgia Rather and Jordan Fredrickson were there usual exceptional selves again with near double-doubles. Tessa Boyman has another career night with 12 points,” Nichols said. “But freshmen post Aria McMullin really stepped up, playing every minute and learning so much and staying positive through the whole process. She is becoming a factor down low for us which is really making us better.”
The girls’ conditioning played a big role in their getting through the tough stretch.
“It was good enough to overcome the adversity and be successful on the scoreboard so that is something to be grateful for,” Nichols said. “But the team is always improving, and with some breaks in games coming up it’s something we are going to focus on improving so we can stay strong through the fourth quarter.
“The conditioning is one of the few elements under a team and coach’s control, so we will not get caught off guard again I can promise that.”
Hinds and Fredrickson were named all-tournament team.
The girls’ reaction to winning their second tourney of the season was heartwarming for Nichols.
“It was great to see the team express joy and enthusiasm of what could have been or was a grind to accomplish their goals,” Nichols said. “Winning is obviously always better than losing, since forever. But they felt a true sense of accomplishment with what they had to overcome, and like I said just enjoyed doing it together.”
Nichols said this core group of players has won four tournaments in the past two years.
But these girls want more.
“They are striving to be their best at the right time, to be able to get the biggest one of all — the district championship trophy,” Nichols said. “It will be a tall order. Whitfield is one of the best teams in the state regardless of class, and Herculaneum beat us earlier in the season. But from a basketball perspective, they still have that high goal before they are through.”
It’s been a good month for the Panthers.
Earlier this month, the girls went to Wisconsin over MLK weekend to play at Concordia University.
Principia split the two games up there.
“We lost to a very good Lutheran South team by 7, but then turned around and beat a good Living Word Lutheran team from Wisconsin,” Nichols said. “We received the invite from my friend Ben Ealick at Lutheran South. By moving our game up there with them, we go to play two games and see someone different, which was a lot of fun.
“Georgia Rather is a boarding student from just a couple hours outside of Chicago in Wisconsin, so I wanted to try and find a couple games close to home for her. On the Monday game versus Living Word, the team put together one of its most complete performances of the season, which I think we saw more evidence of this past week in the Affton Tournament.”
The trip was good for his team, Nichols said.
“It was so fun. It snowed. We ate deep dish pizza, went to a beautiful church in the heart of downtown and then went to the top of the Hancock Tower,” Nichols said. “Those shared experiences that the players can look back on with fondness, talk about and laugh about really are special.”
The squad has little time now before its next game.
“The team really is staring to play well, and we are finally close to having the whole team back together with everyone at 100 percent,” Nichols said. “It’s a tough road from here on out with Visitation, Lutheran North, Villa, MICDS, and then a very tough district. So, hopefully, it’s all coming together at the right time, because it’s now or never.”