Active Cats key on quickened pace

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Senior Emily Jones is one of three returning starters for Jasper, which secured its fourth straight Class 3A sectional title last season. Though they boast less height than past years, the Wildcats rely on a slew of speed they’re hoping will translate to a quicker-paced offense. The Cats will kick off the season at approximately 7:30 p.m. Thursday at home against Class 1A No. 2 Vincennes Rivet.

Herald Sports Writer

Elisabeth Ahlbrand dives to intercept a pass. Emily Jones joins her on the hardwood. Tori Sermersheim runs the floor for a fastbreak layup. Brooke Lueken zips to intercept a ball by midcourt and jets for a transition basket. Then another steal, and a pass ahead to Sermersheim for an easy deuce. Next it’s Maddison Ubelhor for a steal and fastbreak bucket of her own.

Catch your breath. Five minutes in a Jasper girls basketball practice speeds by quickly.

Pace aside, Wildcat coach Ryan Erny emphasizes longevity. The season, which begins Thursday at home against Class 1A No. 2 Vincennes Rivet, is a thorough, three-month escapade where consecutive weeks could bring contrasting diagnoses of a team’s progress.

“We’re looking big picture,” the sixth-year coach said. “We want to see victories along the way, but we also want to learn things about our team and we make adjustments throughout the year.

“We always use the expression, ”˜It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.’”

The idiom bears irony. Yes, the journey is long. Just don’t expect the Wildcats to jaunt at a gingerly pace. With this group, the pedal will be pushed.

“We’re a lot faster this year than we were last year,” Jasper senior Emily Jones said. “We were very ”˜big’-oriented (last season), and now we’ve got all these little guards running around everywhere. … So we’re just going to use our speed to our advantage.”

The Cats’ style is one they began revamping last season and has continued to be tweaked this offseason, Erny said. Most evident is Jasper’s newfound void.

As the Wildcat coach explained, first it was Megan Sternberg. Then Sternberg teamed with Shelby Merder. With Sternberg graduated two years ago, it was just Merder. And with Merder’s passage to Ball State this year, Jasper is void of the 6-foot height it enjoyed for five seasons, during which the team earned four straight sectional titles, including one during last year’s 15-10 campaign.

“Some of the other teams are probably glad we don’t have either one of those two now,” Erny kidded. “And we have to adjust a little bit to what we’re going to do. We don’t have 6-foot-3 standing back at the basket.”

With that, the emphasis for Erny’s group falls heavily on defensive rebounding. While the squad has a bevy of quickness and a sure capacity for on-ball pestering, the biggest issue could be ball security once the shot goes up.

While the rebound committee doesn’t include any girl taller than 6 feet, Erny still sees potential. With seniors Sermersheim (5-foot-10) and Lueken (5-9), juniors Ahlbrand (5-10) and Alex Krapf (5-10) and sophomores Elizabeth Verkamp (5-11) and Reagan Hochmeister (5-10), the numbers are high in terms of bodies if not inches.

And when the Cats corral the clanks, it could be off to the races.

With Jones (4.1 ppg) returning as point guard, Ubelhor (10.2 ppg), a junior, remaining at shooting guard and Sermersheim (10.2 ppg) back as a forward, the Wildcats boast speed at all positions. From there, Erny will incorporate a blend of Lueken, Ahlbrand, Krapf and Verkamp in the frontcourt slots while sophomore Nicolette Eckert will combine with the senior guards. Sophomore Katelyn Hedinger could also push for backcourt minutes, Erny said.

Erny suggested there’s a newfound grit with the group as well. When the team ventured to Plainfield over the summer for a tournament, he noticed an amplified edge and willingness to match the physicality and tempo the competition supplied. For the first time in the four years the Wildcats have played in the event, they collared a victory. The Cats also held a halftime lead on four-time Class 4A state champion Ben Davis.

“They didn’t back down from any of those teams,” Erny said. “Some of the teams we’ve (had) in the past were a little scared of some things when we’ve gone up there, but just getting exposed to some of those northern teams and the style they play, we’re trying to bring that back here and using that to our advantage and, ”˜Hey, let’s play like that. Why can’t we play that style?’”

Erny alluded to Jasper’s 62-48 blitz of Gibson Southern last season, when Sermersheim dropped 31 points, with many of those buckets coming via the fastbreak. It’s a prototype for what the Cats hope to install this season.

“We’re going to try to move the ball more, push the ball up the floor and get the transitions layups,” Lueken said.

Added Jones: “Our speed gives us a newfound confidence, especially for us guards. We’ve always talked about how we were so fast and how it was hard for us to use that aside from just playing defense, getting steals and stuff.  

“So now we’re really fast. Now we get to use that. We get to actually push it down the floor and know people are backing us up. We’re all playing at the same speed.”

If the team does set up in the halfcourt, Jones and Lueken both anticipate the offense to flow a bit more fluidly. The team has been exercising a “five-out” motion offense that is more responsive than prescribed. And with Ubelhor polishing her dribble-drive ability, Jones, Eckert and Ahlbrand refining their outside shots and Sermersheim, Verkamp and Lueken supplementing the inside-outside threat as well, shot selection will be far from predictable.

“It allows us to find the open shot and not be like robots on the floor,” Lueken said. “I find that sometimes with our offense, it’s like, ”˜Cut here, cut here, you have to go here.’ And people don’t really look for the open spot. And with five-out, you can cut, you do different things and it just makes it more unpredictable.”

While Jasper’s marathon pace may quicken with each steal or snared rebound, the eyes remain set on sustaining success in the trek’s final stages.

“It’s preparing for the tournament. That’s what it comes down to for us as a coaching staff and as a team, is the sectional,” Erny said.

“It’s not going to be easy (to win sectional), but that’s our goal. And that’s what we’re going to work for.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at

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