Could next season be East’s year?

Going into Saturday night’s Columbus North Sectional final, the Columbus East Olympians had lost 10 consecutive girls basketball games to the Bull Dogs, all by at least 15 points.

But all of that meant absolutely nothing to this group of Olympians.

East stood toe-to-toe with heavily-favored North before the Bull Dogs escaped with a 43-41 win. The sectional title was North’s sixth in a row since the Olympians last won in 2011.

Since then, the Bull Dogs have had their way with East. But the Olympians appear to have closed the gap. They closed it a little in a 58-43 loss in December at East, then closed it almost entirely with their performance on Saturday.

With all six players who saw action Saturday coming back next year, the Olympians will have go into next season as the sectional favorite. East started three juniors, a sophomore and a freshman and brought a sophomore off the bench.

While East appears to be well-stocked next year, its toughest sectional opponents will lose players to graduation. North will lose its top three players in Maliah Howard-Bass, Imani Guy and Ashlyn Huffman; and Bloomington South loses six seniors.

“I think we could do some potential damage next year,” junior Britney Ballard said. “I think it’s going to be a great season for us next year. We’re going to be really determined next season.”

The Olympians are a team without a superstar, but with tremendous balance. Four players — sophomore Claire Cunningham and juniors Addy Galarno, Ballard and Kristen Lyons — all scored eight points Saturday. The other starter — freshman Whitley Rankin — added six.

The Bull Dogs, meanwhile, will have to build without three of their key players, but they aren’t thinking about that now. They have a week to prepare for a tough regional at Bedford North Lawrence.

First up at Bedford will be 23-1 Evansville Central. The Bears return all five starters from a team that gave the Bull Dogs all they wanted in last year’s regional final before North pulled out an 86-82 win.

“They’re a terrific team, and if we play like (in the sectional final), we’ll be on the bus pretty quick,” North coach Pat McKee said. “But we’re capable of playing better, as we showed earlier in the week, and hopefully getting a week of practice and getting our bearings, we’ll be all right.”

If the Bull Dogs are able to get past that game, they’ll face either Martinsville or the host Stars. North claimed a 55-50 win at Martinsville the second game of the season.

The Bull Dogs didn’t play Bedford in the regular season, but split four regional games with the Stars from 2012-15. Three of those times, the winner went on to capture the Class 4A state title.

If East would have won Saturday night, it would have made a big day for the school even bigger. In the afternoon, the Olympians’ boys basketball team upset 4A No. 1 New Albany, and the wrestling team captured its first regional title in school history.

The girls basketball team’s two-point loss to North figures to fuel the Olympians’ desire to finally get over that hurdle next season.

“We have the momentum, so if we put in the work over the summer and go into next season strong, we can compete with them,” Cunningham said. “We’re going to look back at this game and improve all the way around.”

Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.