Fairfield girls basketball wants to change little, rely on defense heading into semi-state game with Northwestern

The Fairfield girls basketball team drill their layups at practice as they prepare for the Class 3A semi state on Saturday at Logansport. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Fairfield senior Katie Lashley works during a dribbling drill at a practice earlier this week. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Fairfield senior Jenean Schwartz puts up a shot at practice. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)
Fairfield girls basketball coach Brodie Garber instructs his team during practice earlier this week. (Photo by Dan Vance of news-sentinel.com)

The Fairfield girls basketball team has had to fight against the assumptions of others all season long.

There was an assumption that the Northeast Corner Conference’s depth may not be on the Falcons’ side. Central Noble was coming off a semi-state appearance. Angola’s pressure was going to be a real problem. West Noble’s diversity in defense kept it listed at the top of the preseason heap. There was also Westview and Eastside and just a host of potential problem games.

Save for an upset loss to West Noble during the NECC Tournament, none of those assumptions mattered. The Falcons posted a 20-2 record before the postseason began.

Last weekend, there were assumptions that the good run was going to come to an end. This was an NECC team after all up against a Summit Athletic Conference team and one of the area’s most natural scorers in Carissa Garcia. Then Fairfield got down by a dozen. Maybe Concordia assumed the game was in hand, but the senior-laden Falcons didn’t.

“It was really exhausting. Our team worked really hard and it felt really good to come back and win that first game in the morning. And then we knew we had to win that second game,” senior Jenean Schwartz said of last weekend’s regional wins over Concordia and Hamilton Heights.

Four of the Falcons’ senior class have been playing on the varsity level since they were sophomores, in a way building for this year.

All six seniors have played in all 26 games, with five of them averaging eight or more points per game, led by Erica Zook’s 11.6 points per contest.

“You could just see early on that they had the makings of being a pretty special group, said Fairfield coach Brodie Garber. “Each year, they continuously improve. Even if you look at them from junior to senior year, they still improve. I feel like sometimes kids flat line at that point. You look at Jenean Schwartz and she keeps getting better sometimes week by week. And that’s just a testament to them and how important this season has been to them.”

Of that senior group, Schwartz, Zook, Felicity Bontrager and Jordan Kintigh were all named NECC All-Conference this week. A fifth senior, Katie Lashley, was named All-NECC Honorable Mention. Those five, along with senior Drea Lockwood, make up 91 percent of Fairfield’s scoring.

Success has not been an issue at Fairfield. Garber, in his sixth season, has not had a losing effort yet. The program itself hasn’t had a losing season in 14 years, but save for a pair of sectional titles in 2009 and 2011, postseason success has not come to fruition. This is the program’s first-ever semistate appearance.

A big part of this run has hinged on a defense that held Hamilton Heights to a season-low 21 points last Saturday in the regional final. In the morning game, the Falcons held Concordia to its eighth worst offensive output over 25 games.

“Jenean and Erica just have a great way of figuring out the best way to play those top people. They kept Hamilton Heights’ guards in front of them. That was kind of our big thing before we started was don’t allow penetration, keep them in front and let those two execute,” Garber said.

Now, the Falcons face their stiffest test of the year in Class 3A top-ranked Northwestern, a team which has actually lost less than Fairfield. At 27-1, Northwestern’s one loss of the year came out of state. In state, it has been perfect, with no game being within 10 points. Its closest margin of victory in the state tournament? A 34-point win over Mishawaka Marian last Saturday morning.

“It is nice to be able to focus on one, but it is one that is very good, very talented. We have a hard time simulating that obviously in practice, but with the group that I have, I don’t think anything anymore is going to surprise them,” Garber said. “I think they are going to be very calm and I feel pretty good about how they are going to approach this week.”

Fairfield has the fourteenth-best defense in the state while Northwestern boasts the third-best offense. But it is not Northwestern’s offense that is a focal point after Fairfield has shown what it can do on the defensive end. With plenty of confidence in its defense, which gives up just 34.38 points per game, Fairfield is focused on offense heading into Saturday and not so much about doing anything special if you ask Garber, but just staying consistent to what got Fairfield to 24-2 and just a spot away from a state finals appearance.

“We’ve got to take care of the ball. They get a lot of hands on the ball, whether it is deflections or steals. I feel like No. 1 on the list that we are going to talk about is taking care of the ball,” Garber said. “But part of that too is attacking and not looking at it like they are No. 1. You still have to after it, go to the basket and everyone needs to keep taking the shots they’ve been taking.”

Schwartz feels that being the older team too could give them an edge on Saturday. Northwestern’s two best players are sophomores.

“We’ve been playing for a long time. Hopefully, all the experience we’ve had playing together and all of the years we’ve played varsity will show on the court,” Schwartz said.

Assumptions going into Saturday’s game at approximately 7 p.m. at Logansport are clear. Northwestern holds the state’s third-best offense and second-best defense. Northwestern has steamrolled through an entire year, posting a 94-point game just three weeks ago.

But Fairfield knows something that others are learning. Assumptions are very dangerous to make and an underdog role is nothing at all but a label based on assumptions.