When you walk into a Park Tudor High School basketball practice, odds are you will see a large contingent of boys running up and down the court during the scrimmages. At the same time, you will be watching a team that has garnered some of the top respect of the teams in Central Indiana, one that has accomplished some post-season success.
However if you are reading this in hopes of finding out more about Senior Yogi Ferrell and the Class 2A number-one ranked Panthers boys squad, you are envisioning the wrong court. This gym has six girls varsity basketball players, all Sectional champions, and a large boys scout team brought together to give the girls just enough players to have a successful five-on-five run with depth on each bench.
"We have recruited some of the guys in our high school to play us," said Panthers Senior Abby Frank with a smile. "They are definitely some of the reasons as to why we have gotten so much better. They started practicing with us, and that's when we started to win again."
The players on the court aren't the first sight that takes getting used too for an outsider. After all, there also happens to be one of the most accomplished tennis coaches in IHSAA history in Dave Heffern, who has won 12 State titles with the Panthers girls and boys tennis squads, patrolling the sidelines in his second year as head basketball coach. A former State champion boys basketball coach from the state of California, Heffern seems to have made the effort from the green court back to the hardwood floors almost seamlessly.
"Coaching is about communication with the kids," said Heffern.
"And I think I try to give them some control over what they are doing. I am open to input in what they are doing. But the biggest thing was the look on their faces when they won that game last Saturday night against Heritage, and you can't buy that stuff."
That's where the Panthers find themselves now, smiling for the fact there is still basketball to be played this week, but also smiling from the long journey that it has taken to get to this current point now.
However to get to this point, three of the varsity basketball players had to suffer the heartbreak of heartbreaks in terms of athletics. The 6'4 Senior Frank, along with Juniors Abby Buroker and Bailey Dominguez were all part of the Panthers Sectional champion volleyball squad. But the night of the Regional Championship against Union County turned sour, with the Panthers dropping the first two sets to go down 0-2.
What would transpire next was almost an incredible comeback, with Park Tudor winning the next two sets to send the match to a decidiing fifth round. But in crushing fashion, the Panthers lost that final set 16-14, conceding the match by a final of 3-2.
The end of volleyball season allowed Heffern to have three of his six varsity players officially return to the basketball team for practice, and less than two weeks to prepare for one of the top teams in the State of Indiana in Triton Central. Under those conditions, the Panthers played well enough to keep the game close in a 45-41 loss, with Frank scoring 21 points in the effort.
"I think at that point we hadn't gotten used to the point that there were only six of us," said Frank. "And we hadn't really gotten used to the fact that we had to play basically the entire game with only one sub."
In fact, it took the Panthers quite a few games to get used to the rotation, with the squad starting off 3-4 to start the season. But along with recruiting boys to play as a scout squad, Heffern and the Park Tudor coaching squad toughened his team the old-fashion way to play long minutes. Heffern had the girls run. Then run some more. And then run even more, shaping them into a machine that would then run off a stretch of winning 13 of their final 14 games.
But outside of being perhaps the most enduranced team left in the State tournament, skill-wise the Panthers succes depends soley on what each player is able to bring to the table. Frank (14.1 ppg, 8.8 rebounds) towers over most opponents on the boards and in the post, but also has a soft shooting touch that makes her dangerous. Abby Buroker is the scrappy rebounder and defensive player that makes the extra hustle on plays to keep plays alive; Senior Maya Vance is the court-general point guard who sets everything up and is a defensive stopper on the opposite end; and Junior Bailey Dominguez (46.97% from behind the arc) and Natalie Orr (12.4 ppg) are a duo of deep threats for Park Tudor. Lastly, there's the important role of Junior Ella Freihofer, who coming off the bench at anytime fills in the role for all five of those girls.
"It's just a nice blend of talents," said Heffern.
That mixture of skill led them all the way to the Sectional Championship against Heritage Christian last Saturday, but the Panthers found themselves down 43-42 entering the fourth quarter. But behind Bailey Dominguez' 18 points and Frank's 17, the Panthers were able to rally back to win their first Sectional championship since 2002.
"That was a big thing to let people know that we are a team," said Vance. "We are ready to play, and we are just as good as other teams."
Well Vance and the Panthers will have that opportunity to prove on Saturday that they are just as good as the other teams in form of a rematch. During the first round of the Speedway Regional, Park Tudor will face off against Triton Central (22-1) once again in a game it seems they have been looking foward to all season long. Both Vance and Heffern believe the key will be using their height advantage for getting rebounds and keeping Triton Central Point Guard Samantha Dewey grounded, but also playing smart basketball.
"Saturday we just need to bring our A-game," said Vance. "We need to watch our passes, and keep our heads from just getting frazzled and making plays where we don't need to put the ball."
And a win in that first round game, with the winner facing off against the victor of Covenant Christian/Centerville, would give at least half of the Panthers a shot they have been waiting for since they came back to the game of basketball.
"We want to get past Regionals," said Frank. "We know what it feels like to lose in that situation, and we don't want to do it again. We want to go as far as we can in the tournament.