After winning the Class 4A state title in 2015, the Columbus North girls basketball team was supposed to come back to earth last season.
But throughout the summer, the Bull Dogs kept improving and finished the month of June by winning a tournament in Evansville. That led to a 27-2 season and a run to the 4A state title game again in 2016.
With three Indiana Junior All-Stars back from that squad, some are expecting big things from North in 2016-17. One publication ranked the Bull Dogs as the preseason No. 1 team in the nation.
But Pat McKee, who is entering his seventh season as North’s coach, isn’t sure his team is as far along at the end of this year’s June coaching period as it was last summer.
“There were some very good moments, and there were some moments that showed some things that needed some additional work,” McKee said. “We just need to show that we’re in good shape conditioning-wise and improve some strength issues. When we got tired, we didn’t play as well.”
The Bull Dogs fielded three teams this summer. The varsity unit went 14-5, the JV went 18-0 and the freshmen went 17-2.
Three of the varsity team’s losses were by three points or fewer, and three were to Kentucky schools, including state champion Louisville Butler.
“The people we lost to were good teams,” McKee said. “Butler is pretty good. I know we’re better than we showed that day.”
North concluded its summer season by going 1-2 in a shootout June 24 at Thomas More College in northern Kentucky. In that regard, the Bull Dogs didn’t finish the summer as well as last year.
“In some ways, we’re more stable,” McKee said. “Last summer, we had some games where we were really bad, but by the end of the summer, I felt really good about where we were. This summer, we didn’t have any games that were nearly as bad as last summer, but I can’t say I feel as good as I did at the end of last summer.”
As expected, North was led this summer by the three Junior All-Stars — Maliah Howard-Bass, Ashlyn Huffman and Imani Guy. All three were starters last season.
Returning off the bench for the Bull Dogs are sophomore-to-be Nadia Lomax and juniors-to-be Kat Norman, Kenzie Patberg, Jenna Borger, Liz Tynan and Kelsey Patberg.
“The three seniors-to-be were the most consistent players throughout the month, and hopefully, they will continue to be good and be even better than they were last year,” McKee said. “The other players who have some varsity experience had moments of good play and moments where they need to get better.”
Jahna Smiley, who played JV as a sophomore last season, played some with the varsity this summer.
So did incoming freshman Tessa Lomax, who saw action with the freshman, JV and varsity squads in June.
Several incoming freshmen contributed to the JV team’s undefeated summer.
“We’re hopeful that some other younger players might step up and give some contributions,” McKee said. “We had seven or eight freshmen that played pretty well and a couple of sophomores.”
North will once again face a rigorous schedule in the winter. The Bull Dogs have added a game Nov. 26 at West Chester (Ohio) Lakota West and will play a yet-to-be-determined opponent in a showcase Jan. 21 at Louisville Mercy Academy.
With the Lakota West game, which will be the finale in a showcase, set for Thanksgiving Weekend, Columbus North has moved its home game with Lawrence North to Nov. 19. The Bull Dogs will host the Subway/Columbus North Invitational on Dec. 22 and 23.
“We have the potential to be really strong,” McKee said. “We’re not quite there. We have to take care of some details that we need to work on. We’re still playing a pretty good schedule.”
Columbus North girls basketball
Last year’s record: 27-2 (Class 4A state runner-up)
Starters lost: Paige Littrell, Elle Williams
Other key losses: Emily Kim, Amy Weisner
Returning starters: Maliah Howard-Bass, Ashlyn Huffman, Imani Guy
Other key returners: Nadia Lomax, Kat Norman, Kenzie Patberg, Jenna Borger, Liz Tynan, Kelsey Patberg