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Greg Jones

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Norwell
vs. Western
What: 3A semistate
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Warsaw
Records: Norwell (21-4); Western (21-3)

Unknown Norwell relies on its heart

– Norwell has had its share of standout girls basketball players recently, including 2012 Miss Basketball Jessica Rupright. It’s never really added up to team success, though, with a regional title drought that dated back 37 years.

But a relatively unknown Knights team put an end to that futility with a regional championship last Saturday and a date in the Class 3A Warsaw Semistate this Saturday. And it has been done with a team devoid of any star players.

“We never get players of the week,” Norwell coach Eric Thornton said. “We truly have a team that is built with the strengths of the individual. We don’t have any superstars, no D-I players, just really good team work and kids that just keep fighting.”

While NHC champion Homestead might have stolen a lot of the spotlight, Norwell (21-4) simply has gone about its business this year. That has meant another solid regular season, the school’s first regional title since 1977 and a chance to go to the state finals if the Knights can get past No. 6 Western (21-3).

“Everybody has underestimated us,” said Kelsey Beer, one of only two seniors on the team with Laken Chaney. “I was just hoping for the best (this year). As a senior, I was just going to give my heart every game, and I knew these girls would too.”

It’s an accomplishment that has even surprised Thornton, who is 250-135 in 17 years at the school and whose teams have won five sectional titles but no regionals until this year.

“I wasn’t even sure we would make it out of sectional,” Thornton said.

At the Bellmont Regional, Chaney scored 21 points and hit the game-winning free throw with no time on the clock in a 55-54 semifinal win over NorthWood but had only one point in the 61-52 win over Muncie Central in the championship game. Chaney’s best sport isn’t even basketball, as she has signed to play volleyball at Grace.

The hero changes frequently for Norwell.

Chaney had the role in the regional semifinals, but sophomores Kaycee Strunk (20 points) and Mackenzie Sawyer (17 points) shared it in the finals, while junior Hanna Smith and sophomore Stephanie Conrad, who leads the team with 11.4 points and 7.5 rebounds, have hit late game-winners.

And these Knights won’t wow you with their size – far from it. The tallest player is 5-foot-9, which is unlike the days when 6-2 Rupright was roaming the court.

“We go by the quote, ‘We are not big but we have big hearts,’ ” the 5-7 Chaney said. “Our energy and our scrappiness, and our want for the win are there.”

The constants have been the team’s pressure defense, shooting and ability to deliver in the clutch.

“We just want to be ourselves,” Thornton said. “This is what we are, game in and game out.”

gjones@jg.net

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