Bluffton girls basketball focusing on fundamentals to restore tradition

Bluffton girls basketball coach Karl Grau talks to the team during practice on Monday. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Bluffton junior Grace Miller makes a move with the ball during practice on Monday. The Tigers won their first Sectional since 1998 last Saturday with a win over Canterbury. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Bluffton freshman Emme Boots plays defense during practice on Monday. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
The Bluffton girls basketball team practices on Monday in preparation for Saturday's game against Central Noble. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)

No player on the Bluffton girls basketball team was alive the last time their program won a postseason title.

It had to have made last Saturday’s 53-44 win over Canterbury that much sweeter.

The Tigers scratched and clawed late in the game, holding on to the lead they built in the second quarter. To the players, the game was never fully in hand until the sweet relief of the final buzzer.

“It was close all the way through, but then when you get to that last minute you think ‘OK, I think we got this thing and we are going to be able to do it,'” Bluffton coach Karl Grau said with a relieved grin.

The win was icing on the cake for the Tigers’ winningest season since 1998 when they won their last sectional and advanced to be Class 2A state runner-up behind still all-time leading scorer Abby Salcheider.

“It really means a lot to our whole community, to our whole school,” Grau said. “Our girls program really went through a long stretch where it was really, really down. Over the last five, six years we have been able to revive it. the last two or three years we’ve been kind of knocking on the door and finally this year we were able to break through.”

Grau took over a six-win program in 2012 and even though he did not post a winning season until this year, his team has been on the verge of breaking over that .500 mark, including marquee wins last season over South Adams and Heritage.

Rebuilding a program isn’t easy, but Grau took on the task full steam when he became the Tiger coach. From day one, when the current freshman class were fourth graders, through practice this week preparing for the biggest game of their careers, building blocks have been the focus.

On Monday, when a lot of teams would be focusing specifically on an opponent or still celebrating a weekend title, Grau and Bluffton found middle ground.

There they were in the gym, working on their shooting form, focusing on fundamentals just like it was the opening practice of a season.

“We develop our own players, we work with who we have and we really have stressed fundamentals all of the way through our program and certain things we want to have done,” Grau said.

“We’ve really grown as a team, whether it was just encouraging one another and being kind or our skill work. Our skill work has really improved and I just can’t be much prouder of our team because we have improved over the years,” added junior Grace Miller.

Miller has been a standout after her second knee surgery in as many years just this past fall during volleyball season. Freshman Emme Boots has also breathed fresh life into the program with added toughness and competitiveness Grau said.

The Tigers, (17-7) have just two seniors leading the way as they prpare for Saturday’s 10 a.m. meeting with Central Noble at the Winamac Regional. But depth has been the big ticket. In last Saturday’s sectional title win, eight different players chipped in offensively, led by Miller’s 13 points.

“We have a good group of girls surrounding us and they are flexible and they listen and do their best,” senior Megan Prater said. “I think it makes it easy for us to lead when they have basketball IQ and they are versatile.”

Her co-senior Gabrielle Streveler agrees.

“The senior class, my freshman year, really helped Megan and I see what true leaders are so we wanted to be like them.”

On Saturday, they will face off against the defending regional champion Central Noble Cougars. They Cougars are led by a pair of Division I recruits in juniors Sydney Freeman and Meleah Leatherman.

“We know that this team is going to be great so we are going to have to conserve our energy for defense most of all,” Boots said.

Grau believes that the unknown aspect for his team of the regional round could play into their favor come game time.

“They’ve been here and have that experience and this is our first time through it so we are going to try and see if we can’t just make this an atmosphere where we just go and have nothing to lose and lets just play,” he said.

Saturday is about bringing it all together for Grau and the Tigers and focusing on an always underlying theme of Grau’s rooted in his coaching focus of development: “let’s not be satisfied with where we are.”

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