I"m a basketball junkie. Let"s make that Indiana-high-school-basketball junkie. My interest these days in college and pro basketball is not nearly what it used to be - the main reason being that a few years ago I discovered how much fun it was to drive all over the state, to spend the winter sitting with cheering crowds in beat-up old gyms, watching Rossville, Westview, Jac-Cen-Del, Barr-Reeve do battle with Central Catholic, Northridge, Milan and Loogootee.
Some years I"ll have a favorite team, a team that captivates me for whatever reason, that I"ll develop a rooting interest in, keep track of, check in on when I can. The team I fell in love with this season was located just 4 miles down the road from my house - the closest I"ve lived to a favorite since graduating from high school myself and the first time ever that my favorite has been a girls squad. I have a definite soft spot for overachieving teams, groups that may be short on athleticism but are long on effort, strategy, teamwork and (dare I say it) heart. The 2003 Beech Grove Lady Hornets, even with this year"s Miss Basketball on their roster, may be the overachievers of all time. This team begins (and nearly ends) with Katie Gearlds, a 6-foot-1 guard who closes her career as the state"s fourth all-time leading scorer. Even as a freshman, it was obvious Gearlds was a special player. The trouble back then was that Beech Grove had no supporting cast around her. Her first two seasons, the team looked ordinary. Things began to look up a little her junior year, when coach Dawn McNew inserted a trio of freshmen into the starting lineup. They were not especially gifted players - indeed they had pretty glaring liabilities (the point guard was a wispy 5-foot-4, the center was slow). But they did possess a better grasp of team-play than their predecessors and they finished the year 17-5. This season, that same group set about exceeding even their most ardent fans" expectations. I"m sure there were many in the community who felt the team had a legit shot at the 3A title, but I can"t imagine there were too many who thought they"d go 28-1 to get there. Beech Grove High has an enrollment of 700 - a big school, but not by much. The makeup of this particular team, however, more closely resembles a type usually found at much smaller schools. In fact, the team they most reminded me of was the Brody Boyd-led Dugger Bulldogs, another group of overreachers I was enamored with three years ago. Both teams consisted of one All-World player, along with a very ragtag (but endearing) supporting crew. Any game with Boyd or Gearlds on the floor will be a game worth watching. But for me, in both cases, getting to know and appreciate the role-players became nearly as much fun as watching the stars perform. Role-players Of the sophomores, forward Nicole Helfrich had shown the most promise as a freshman. If this season she didn"t improve quite as much as one might have hoped, she was still, after Gearlds, the team"s most athletic player, the only one capable of occasionally pulling off a one-on-one move. A tenacious defender, but one with the tendency to let herself get carried away into foul trouble. Point guard Mandy Seward showed the most improvement over the course of the season. A (very) small 5-foot-4, as a freshman she was often overwhelmed by bigger defenders. But as this year went on, she figured out how to protect the ball - in fact, recorded several no-turnover games. She also had an eye for the slightest lane to the basket and never hesitated to take it. As if to offset her otherwise innocent appearance, she played with a constant scowl on her face. If Seward looked ever on the verge of starting an argument, center Jenni Moore somehow always seemed like she was about to brew a pot of tea: nonchalant, deliberate, operating always at the same speed. She was, however, a dependable rebounder and, at the Southport semistate, during the pivotal game of the state tournament, that nonchalance suddenly revealed itself as extraordinary cool under pressure. The other starter was a junior, Emily Ringham. Nominally a forward, at 5-foot-3, she was the shortest player on the roster. If her shot wasn"t falling, there were games when she could disappear. But, along with Gearlds, she was the team"s only real three-point threat, and you could hardly ask for a tougher cookie: Ringham backed down from no one. Best of all, she served as a sort of intensity barometer for the team, prone to acknowledging especially good plays by running downcourt with clenched fists, screaming at the top of her lungs. And then there"s Katie Gearlds. At first, she will remind you of another Katie from the Southside, Katie Douglas: similar build, similar game - except she may just be better than Douglas was at this point in her career. Impossibly fluid, whether making a move to the hoop or shooting the three; a gifted passer (5.5 assists per game); and a smart defender (five steals per contest). Her 30-point scoring average led the state and, though she almost never played the post, she still snagged nine-and-a-half rebounds a game. Everything she did, she managed to make look easy. But her most valuable contribution was downright invisible. That was her Larry Bird-like gift for making those around her better players. A clichÈ? Sure, but if you"re looking for proof that it"s a clichÈ grounded in reality, you couldn"t do much better than watch this Beech Grove team. Her teammates always had confidence in Gearlds, but, as the season progressed, you could clearly see them developing more and more confidence in themselves as well. All season long, Beech Grove took on teams which on paper looked like they should mop the floor with the Lady Hornets - and all season long the Lady Hornets found a way to win. Five times they played ranked opponents who were undefeated - and beat four of them. Their sole loss was to Pike in the Marion County Tourney: a rare goof by Gearlds who, with her team down two in the closing seconds, took the inbounds and dribbled it off her foot. A week later, in the regular-season rematch, they took their revenge (on Pike"s home floor), winning by eight. An outrageously great game The climax of their season came on March 1 at the 3A semistate. More than 6,500 fans packed Southport"s ancient field house to see Gearlds and crew take on North Harrison, a team that drove up from Southern Indiana with a 26-0 record and an All-Star of their own in Kim McMillin. It was an outrageously great basketball game, the sort of epiphany that fans of Indiana high school hoops live for. The lead went back and forth, close all the way. Gearlds tallied 15 points in the first quarter before being slowed a bit by foul trouble. With two minutes left in the game, North Harrison took their biggest lead of the day: eight points. With 16 seconds to play, Beech Grove still trailed by five and North Harrison had the ball. It was at this point that the Lady Hornets simply played out of their heads. Emily Ringham began the rally by intercepting North Harrison"s inbounds pass and getting the ball to Mandy Seward, who drove the lane and was fouled. She would hit only the first free throw but North Harrison couldn"t get a handle on the ball, knocking it out of bounds. The inbounds came to Gearlds, who drained a three, cutting the lead to one. Beech Grove fouled immediately, putting McMillin on the line, who sank both free shots to put her team back up by three with nine seconds left. Gearlds missed on a game-tying three-point try, but Jenni Moore grabbed the rebound and calmly made the biggest play she will ever make: With approximately two seconds on the game clock, Moore had the presence of mind to turn, find Gearlds beyond the arc and, before anyone had time to blink, hit her with a perfect pass. Gearlds went up for another three, but was fouled on the arm as the final buzzer sounded. (It was such a close play that, while the foul beat the horn, if left untouched, Gearlds" shot might not have.) With the clock showing all zeros, Gearlds, all alone at the line, sank three free throws, nothing but net, to force overtime. It was unbelievable. The game went two extra periods and Beech Grove hung tough to win by five. Over the last 10 minutes of play, Gearlds scored 23 of her team"s 25 points, finishing with a career high 46. I could think of little but this game for days after. The 3A title match the following week was, almost of necessity, anticlimactic. Beech Grove never trailed a very young South Bend St. Joe team. They were up 19 going into the fourth quarter, and captured their first state championship (any sport) in school history. Gearlds had an off shooting night and still set a new class finals record with 33 points. The team as a whole seemed unfocused on offense, but at the top of their game defensively. In fact, it"s at that end of the court that Dawn McNew"s coaching skills were most apparent this season. With all of the deserved attention on Gearlds" scoring, usually overlooked was what a very good defensive club Beech Grove was. The underclassmen were not about to scare anybody with their one-on-one moves, but they surprised quite a few teams with how well they could play man-to-man. Without that, without the guts to make those plays down the stretch in the semistate, without the confidence that they were good enough to complement the best player in Indiana, Beech Grove doesn"t win any 3A titles. This was a team that got everything out of themselves they possibly could - and isn"t that about the best thing you can do in sports? Dale Lawrence is author of The Hoosier Hysteria Roadbook.