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Panthers depth, experience headline 2021

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After a 7-17 record last season for the Western Panthers, head coach Lisa Pflueger is looking for more consistency from her team after COVID-19 ravaged the season, but the Panthers have a lot of depth and promise going forward.

Pflueger said the pandemic had the biggest impact on last seasons’ woes. After being hired in July 2019, she said she didn’t have a full year with the program. Then COVID-19 stole the offseason, which is much tougher in a new program than an established program, she said. It took some scrambling to have the team ready last season, and even then, nothing was guaranteed.

“I’m not making any excuses at all. We all faced it. You know, you’d lose kids the morning of the game,” Pflueger said. “We had one kid that had four different quarantines and never really got to play, so it was just hard all around I think for everybody. But I think when you’re a new coach, this was my first real full year with them and the offseason and everything, so going into year three I think we’re definitely more confident.”

Having an offseason back, something Pflueger and the entire basketball community took for granted, is insanely valuable, she said. Players get a chance over the summer now to play a lot of basketball and get their legs under them before reporting for their teams. In a competitive area like Howard County, basketball is a year-round sport, and most of the year was taken away last season.

Now, the team is clicking much better early on, she said. The Panthers attended and played at a lot of Division I college camps in the summer, traveling to Ball State, Miami (Ohio), etc., and took the players to a higher level of play they maybe hadn’t been exposed to before.

“We played down at Finch Creek Fieldhouse. We’re playing against all Central Indiana and much bigger schools and had a really good record down there. We played 27-28 games in June, so there’s been a lot of growth,” she said.

That experience is night and day compared to 2020, and now the focus is on 2021. Pflueger has called the year a “growth year” full of setting high goals and expectations for themselves. She said she beefed the schedule up last season before the pandemic hit, wanting to push the team and expedite the growth process, but COVID-19 had other plans.

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But what resulted was the players being more ready to make that leap this year than they could have been otherwise. Pair that with a full summer of hoops and legit offseason, it’s possible the Panthers flip 2020 on its head in 2021, but it doesn’t get any easier.

The Hoosier Conference is absolutely loaded, and after going 7-17 last season, there aren’t many specific games circled for the Panthers, but the entire conference is circled. After losing to most of the conference opponents, Pflueger said it gets personal pretty quickly. But she wouldn’t want it any other way.

Whether it’s Lafayette Central Catholic, Northwestern, Twin Lakes, Hamilton Heights, Tipton, or everyone else, the Panthers are out for them all.

“I think it’s now time where we’re putting a little more, ‘Hey, let’s have some more confidence and higher expectations for ourselves,’” she said. “We have four seniors that are just going to flat out lead us, so I’m excited about that.”

Those seniors are Karson Lechner, Ella Biggs, Audrey Rassell, and Michaela Stewart, the Panthers’ fearless leaders. Beyond the seniors is a strong junior class, sophomore class, and some young freshmen coming in that add promise to the future as well, Pflueger said.

A pandemic never helps any sports team, and 2021 is the year Howard County will likely see what the Panthers are truly made of. Having depth, experience and talent is a tough combination to beat, and the 2021 team has every bit of all three.

The Panthers kick off the season on Oct. 28 at home against Delphi at 6 p.m.