NEW PALESTINE — Lined up for sprints along the baseline inside the New Palestine High School gymnasium, the ante has been raised this week at practice for the girls varsity basketball team.
On most days, a missed free throw during the Dragons’ simulated pressure drill results in one dash down and back, covering the length of the court. But, with the Decatur Central Regional on tap today for the Class 4A Dragons, the penalty has doubled.
While on paper, New Palestine isn’t supposed to win, let alone challenge, during its regional opener at 10 a.m. against top-ranked Pike (24-1), it appears the Dragons didn’t get that memo.
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Competing in their first regional tournament since 2004, little has changed for first-year head coach Sarah Gizzi’s team, except for an added emphasis on composure, belief and the controllable.
“It’s a huge challenge, but we’re not going there just to compete. We’re trying to go to win. Every game we play, we want to win, so we are preparing for them like we would for any other team,” Gizzi said.
This includes game planning where Gizzi and her father, Bruce Haynes, an assistant coach with the Dragons, hold the players utmost trust and provide them with a steadfast constant.
While the first basketball regional appearance for every player on the Dragons’ girls roster, it’s hardly cellophane fresh for the first family of New Palestine hoops.
An Indiana All-Star in 1994 and the program’s leading career scorer with 1,172 points, Gizzi twice led the Dragons to sectional championships and regional berths in 1993 and 1994 during the single-class state tournament era.
On both occasions, however, New Palestine fell short, losing in the regional semifinals to Center Grove twice, once in overtime and the other via the four-quarter variety. Gizzi has often recalled back on those experiences, she admits, while preparing the modern day Dragons for the biggest hurdle of their season.
And so has Haynes, who watched from the stands while the New Palestine boys head coach at the time. Haynes is quick to pinpoint what went wrong when reminiscing. “Box-and-1,” he said. “It was the box-and-1.”
The Dragons’ boys head coach from 1990-95, Haynes has spent time around the state and region mentoring, instructing and analyzing the game with stops at Frontier and North White, among others.
Though, he proudly takes a backseat as his daughter’s assistant, the gears are still turning and no more so than when he and Gizzi huddle to breakdown their opponents.
Basketball is life for the family with Gizzi’s brother, Noah Haynes, a former player turned coach, her oldest son, Maximus, in the middle of his prep career at New Palestine, and her husband, Mike, a former college and professional player now coaching the next wave of Dragons at the youth level.
Those reasons, and others, are why the Dragons aren’t panicking as they enter uncharted territory against a Pike team stocked with talent. The Gizzi and Haynes family bring stability, passion and a collective cool that can’t but course its way through the players’ psyche.
“You can definitely count on them, and not only in a basketball aspect, but they’re kind of like another set of parents,” New Palestine senior Emma Grabe remarked on her coaches. “They’re so comical with us, too. They’re two people you can always go to whether it’s on the court or off the court.”
As a whole, the Dragons are leaning on each other and pushing one another to possibly rewrite history. Already breaking through with the program’s fifth sectional title overall, 500th program win in history and first 4A sectional championship last weekend at Connersville, the players and coaches know what people expect once the ball is tipped Saturday morning.
But they’re not buying it.
“Going into the season, we believed in ourselves,” Grable said. “(Winning sectional) boosted our confidence a lot.”
Tailored preparation could crank up their capability even more. Running fastbreak drills against six defenders this week is one of a few tweaks put in place to mirror the athleticism they will face against the Red Devils, who were state runner-ups to Homestead in 2016-17.
Pike thrives behind the senior trio of 5-foot-10 guard Angel Baker, 6-0 wing Michaela White and 5-6 point guard Mikia Keith.
Baker, a Wright State recruit, leads the Red Devils with 21.7 points per game, 5.1 assists, 3.6 steals and 6.6 rebounds. White averages 15.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. Keith provides 9.0 points and 2.3 steals per contest.
For added measure, Pike can play inside as well with 5-11 center Kinnidy Garrard, a junior, who contributes 11.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game.
The key, Gizzi believes, is sticking to the formula.
“I’m hoping the girls are calm and not overwhelmed by the moment,” Gizzi said. “We’re talking a lot about what you do when someone over plays or pressures and really focusing on the opportunities that it creates. What are you going to do to capitalize on that?
“In my opinion, it’s mostly about mindset and confidence.”
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Dragons are eager for the chance to prove everyone wrong in an attempt to reach the program’s first regional final.
So far, they’ve shown exactly what they can do when they work together, posting the second most wins in a single season at 18-6, the first time since 1993-94 when Gizzi and the Dragons went 18-2 as sectional champs.
New Palestine achieved the feat this season despite losing their top scorer from a year ago in Raegan McMurray. But they’ve made up for it by sharing the load. Junior Leah Seib is averaging 14.0 points, while junior Haley Harrison is scoring 7.8 points along with junior Megan Jolly at 9.3.
“It’s really been incredible. It’s amazing to be part of this incredible team and go as far as we have,” Grable said. “It’s like a teeter totter to me. When one of us is down, the other is up. We balance out in the end.”
Decatur Central Girls Basketball Regional
Where: Decatur Central High School
When: Pike vs. New Palestine, 10 a.m.; Brownsburg vs. Warren Central, noon; Championship, 8 p.m.
Admission: $7 per session or $10 both sessions
Head Coach: Sarah Gizzi (18-6, 1st year)
• The Dragons won their first sectional championship since 2004 and first at Class 4A last week by defeating host Connersville 53-32 in the quarterfinals, Greenfield-Central 43-32 in the semifinals and Mt. Vernon 45-39 in the finals.
• The team is led in scoring by junior Leah Seib with 14.0 points per game, followed by junior Megan Jolly at 9.8 and junior Haley Harrison at 7.8. Seib paces the team in rebounds with 6.3 with junior Katie Herron close behind at 6.1.
Coach: Robert Angela (175-65, 10th year overall)
• The top-ranked Red Devils captured their eighth sectional in program history and second straight after finishing state runner-up in 2016-17. They went through Roncalli, Perry Meridian and Ben Davis at sectional to win by an average margin of 14 points.
• The Red Devils have three players averaging double figures in senior Angel Baker (21.7 ppg), Michaela White (15.0 ppg) and Kinnidy Garrard (11.5 ppg). Garrard leads the team with 10.4 rebounds per game and 2.1 blocks.