HAMLER - At first glance, it seems to be an almost inevitable conclusion.
The Patrick Henry girls basketball team returned almost all the key players from a squad that reached the Division III state finals last season. And this year the Patriots moved down to Division IV.
As a result, a state title is automatic, right?
Not so fast, the team's six seniors all agree.
"A lot of people have been saying that, but it's definitely not going to be that easy," Jenna Inselmann said. "We have to play a lot of good teams even before we get to regionals, so it's not going to be as easy as people are talking about."
Alison Meyer agreed, adding, "Going into the year we didn't think of it as being easier - it's almost harder, because the competition level is still up there. The smaller the school doesn't mean the lesser the competition. We still have our work cut out for us."
Still, the Patriots have been on the march all season. They nearly have reached two of their goals - an undefeated record overall and at home - thanks to a 16-0 mark. PH's 6-0 record in Northwest Ohio Athletic League play has it on the verge of another goal, a league title.
What's more, Patrick Henry has dominated its competition, outscoring its first 16 opponents by more than 20 points per game. While only one contest has been decided by fewer than 10 points, coach Rick Schwiebert said those numbers can be misleading.
"To be honest, we've had only one or two easy games all season," he said. "Our kids know they have to play hard every night. In a lot of our games it has come down to the final quarter before we've been able to pull away."
Senior Danielle Collins said she and her teammates know they must play hard because they will get their opponent's best game - night after night all season.
"Since we're undefeated and went to the state tournament last year, everyone is trying to beat us," she said. "We always have that target on our back that people are aiming at. We still have to remember to play every game as hard as we can, and work as hard as we can."
The Patriots boast one of the area's most balanced lineups. Meyer leads the team in scoring with her average of 13.6 points, while Stacie Coressel also is in double figures at 11.9. But the rest of the all-senior starting lineup averages better than nine points per contest - Haley Badenhop scores 9.6, followed by Inselmann 9.5 and Collins 9.3. PH's deep bench adds exactly nine more points.
"Our kids understand their roles, and they know that no one is more important than another," Schwiebert said. "Plus, our seniors have a great work ethic. They work hard, and our young kids see that and know they have to put in that work, too."
Coressel said the team's ability to understand and accept its roles this season comes from having a corps of seniors that has played together since middle school.
"Whenever someone is having a bad game, other people are stepping up and helping them out," she said. "It helps that we've played together for so long. We all are comfortable with each other, so we don't feel pressure to play well. Everyone just steps it up."
Still, Patrick Henry faces increased pressure as it looks to stay unbeaten and defends a 23-game regular-season win streak.
"Before every game Coach mentions we have a target on our backs, and every game that target grows," Meyer said. "Each game, the team [we're playing] is going to give us their best game. Knowing that, it makes us play that much harder - and play that much better."
That pressure will intensify once state tournament play begins in a few weeks. The Patriots will face a tough road before theyeven can earn a return trip to Columbus, since Division IV powers such as Ottoville, Delphos Jefferson, Columbus Grove and Miller City all lurk in the same district.
"We haven't talked about going to state too much because we're trying to set our goals for right now," Badenhop said. "We talked about it a little bit, though, because it was such a good experience.
"Our goal is to get back where we were last year and hopefully take it a step further. But there are a ton of teams in Division IV as good as the teams in Division III."
But a chance to return to the Schottenstein Center is a huge motivational tool for Patrick Henry.
"You never know how good the feeling is to win everything until you do it," Badenhop said. "We got that feeling last year, and it gave us a taste. So we want it again this year."
Collins agreed, adding, "Since we've been down there, it's one of our goals [to go back]. We just look back and know how much fun it was to go down there -
everyone was cheering for us, even people from other schools. It was a great time, so we look forward to trying to do it again."
Contact John Wagner at: email@example.com or 419-724-6481.
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