SHOOTER: Northeast Corner Conference shows strengths in boosting both Fairfield and Central Noble to regional girls basketball titles

The 2018 Class 3A Columbia City regional champion Fairfield Falcons. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Fairfield's Jenean Schwartz cuts down a piece of net at Columbia City last Saturday. The Falcons beat Hamilton Heights to advance to the Class 3A semi state round. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)

Shooter will say it: with their wins on Saturday night, Central Noble and Fairfield secured the Northeast Corner Conference as the best conference left standing in girls prep hoops.

The Cougars, winning their second straight Class 2A regional title, and Fairfield, winning the school’s first-ever regional crown, make the NECC the only conference in Indiana that will send two teams to the semi-state round. That speaks for itself. No, truly, Shooter could be done typing now.

But if you know this frog by now, you know I’m not done.

I received the luxury of taking in Fairfield’s 40-21 win on Saturday in the regional final over Hamilton Heights and color me impressed — as long as “impressed” is a shade of green. The Falcons diced up the Lady Huskies in a variety of ways from a fast-paced offensive game with senior Jenean Schwartz hitting every shot imaginable from three-point range and never letting Hamilton Heights catch its breath.

That is about the NECC in a nutshell: never letting your opponent catch their breath.

“We’ve gotten so much better and I think it’s a compliment to the coaches in the conference,” Fairfield coach Brodie Garber said. “There are a lot of guys who are working very hard, working with their youth. Our top half of the conference, I would put up against a lot of teams.”

Central Noble coach Josh Treesh agrees.

“I don’t know that the NECC ever gets any credit. Usually there are about four of us in that conference I think that can compete against some of the other conferences around, maybe excluding the SAC.”

Last Saturday, not even the Summit Athletic Conference was immune. After getting behind by a dozen or so points, Fairfield rallied back against Concordia Lutheran, using a 31-16 second half and a 21-9 fourth quarter to end the Cadets’ season. Concordia was in control, Carissa Garcia was hitting her shots and bing, bang, boom Fairfield just took over behind seniors Erica Zook (10 points), Felicity Bontrager (10 points) and Schwartz (13 points).

“A lot of different emotions, I almost felt like the first game was so emotional, I didn’t know what we’d have left in the tank,” Garber said about Saturday. “They are just gutsy kids and it’s a group that whenever we are done, I am really, really going to miss them.”

Shooter was highly impressed watching the Falcons over the weekend. Their 2-3 zone of defense was stifling with Hamilton Heights defenders looking as confused about getting the ball by the 2 part of that zone that the 3 didn’t have to factor in until late in possessions. It was a snapshot of a conference that has been bred on defensive effort. The top six teams in the NECC this season gave up just 38.4 points per game on average. Fairfield, for its part, has the 14th best defensive average in the state at 34.38 points per game.

Giving up 38.2 points per game, Central Noble doesn’t even make the top 50 on defensive average. That is just silly, because the Cougars are all defensive, all of the time. That pressure gave them the school’s first back-to-back regional titles ever in any sport with a 48-36 win over Hammond Boll on Saturday.

“I think the message that we’ve given this year is offense wins games, defense wins championships and I really feel like our program has bought into that,” Treesh said. ” I think the girls did a really good job of keeping their poise and being disciplined throughout the whole regional.”

And neither Fairfield or Central Noble even won the conference tournament in January.

The Falcons and the Cougars are not the only NECC programs that made postseason waves. Angola advanced to the finals of a tough Class 3A Bishop Dwenger Sectional during a 23-win season. Eastside, which finished sixth in the conference, upset South Adams in Class 2A.

Yet here we sit, just 16 teams left in the state and two left in the area, both from the NECC. A couple handfuls of other conferences have one. The SAC, ACAC and NE8 — those other area conferences — have none.

This happens, in Shooter’s humble and usually correct opinion, because NECC teams are uniquely strong at breathing when they force opponents into suffocation. Explosive offenses mixed with stifling defenses. Confidence and composure while others panic.

“We had four girls who had been there last year that had playing time and those four looked very comfortable,” Treesh said of the regional round. “You rely on those upperclassmen to lead the way and it never felt like we were rattled.”

Garber knows that push and pull.

“We try to push when we can, but towards the end of that game, the girls have a really good understanding of ‘this is when we need to work it a little bit more.’ When we can get a couple of outlets, we go,” he said after Saturday’s title victory. “I think the pace of the game was exactly what we needed and we didn’t even talk about that, it was all the kids.”

Fairfield got the nod when the Falcons and Central Noble played during conference season. They get to see each other again, albeit in passing, on Saturday when they both head to Logansport searching for the first state finals trip in either program’s history. Either way, the state should now be prone to a belief that Shooter has gotten on board with: the NECC is for real.

For more from Shooter, follow him on Twitter at shooter_ns

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