Raiders’ state championship ‘didn’t seem real’June 25, 2020
By JONATHAN SAXON
HUNTINGBURG — It’s a shame when injuries derail momentum in sports. Such instances can cap the potential of players or teams that fans believed could have accomplished great things. Then come the questions of what could have been that become associated with the injuries. One Southridge girls basketball team almost fell victim to these circumstances.
The Raiders were blessed with the talents of Kara Meyer and Jill (Fenneman) Barnett in the late 1990s. Both women were more than 6 feet tall and had complementary skill sets that made them a deadly duo on the basketball court. They played together their entire lives, and were looking forward to reaching new heights playing for the Raiders. Their junior season seemed primed for a good run, but then the injury bug came biting.
“We had an OK season,” Barnett said. “I was out due to my ACL being torn.”
“We were just riddled with injuries that year,” added Stan Roesner, who coached the Raiders from 1992-2002. “A couple of our guards missed five or six games with stress fractures. It really fell apart on us. We really felt we had a good ball club.”
The Raiders finished 8-11 and lost to the Jasper Wildcats 64-25 in the sectional championship game at the end of the 1996-97 season, so they were chomping at the bit to heal and get back to the court.
“There had been some high expectations, but we just hadn’t put it together” Meyer said. “This was kind of our last stand. We were anxious to get through the season and get to the end.”
“We were excited to get started,” Barnett said. “I was ready to get back into the season and playing basketball. We were positive we had a good chance of going far.”
The Raiders were a balanced team that maximized the effectiveness of each members’ strengths. Barnett anchored the paint at center, and averaged 16.5 points per game despite the double-teams that tried to stop her. Meyer, who led the team with 18 points per game, operated more on the outside with the comfort that Barnett could rebound anything she missed, but she could also move inside in case Barnett got into foul trouble. Junior guards Rachel (Mathews) Wright and Ara Uebelhor were both outside shooters, and juniors Jayme Boeglin and Jessica Heidorn platooned the other forward spot.
“We had a good five- to six-person nucleus that could play with anybody,” Roesner said. “We had good size, leadership and guards. We shot and handled the ball well. It was hard for people to press us. We could score in different ways. There were four kids that could put up 20 any night. We could put the ball in the basket.”
The Raiders experienced peaks and valleys in their first 14 games, though they were on a three-game win streak going into their late-January game against the top-ranked Gibson Southern Titans. The Raiders gave the Titans everything they could handle in what turned into an overtime thriller, but it wasn’t enough as the Titans defeated them 64-63 that night. Roesner remembers the team gathering in the locker room after the game and it seemed like something clicked for the players.
“As coaches, we were thinking, ‘Man, if we can use this game and build off of it,’” he said. “They really showed they came around and played a complete game. We thought we may have something. You could just tell after that game they were more serious.”
“We were angry,” Meyer said. “We were mad. That pulled us together. The underclassmen really wanted to send Jill and me out in the right way. It fell on them to step up and get on board with the fire we were playing with.”
The Raiders won their last five games to close the regular season and were excited to finally reach the postseason. This is where they wanted to be, and the grind of the season hadn’t dulled their ambitions.
“Around tournament time, we turned it on,” Meyer said. “We finally let our confidence go, and we got the attitude that we were not going to lose.”
The Raiders opened their sectional run with a 64-46 win over the Forest Park Rangers, which was their third win over the county rival that season. Southridge then got past Perry Central 53-48 in the semifinal before coming across Pocket Athletic Conference foe South Spencer again in the championship. The Rebels were soundly beaten by the Raiders 74-41 on Feb. 12 and adopted a slowdown strategy to contain Southridge’s offense. The game was much closer this time around, but the result was the same, as the Raiders squeezed out a 31-22 win.
“We were pretty prepared for that,” Roesner said. “The composure really held throughout that game. We were able to do enough to win.”
Next up for the Raiders was a 56-54 overtime nail-biter against the Class 2A No. 2 North Knox Warriors in the regional round. Next were the two games that made up the semi-state round. Southridge picked up a 76-66 win in the late morning game against the Northeastern Knights and followed up with a 58-47 win over the Tri-West Bruins later that night. The Raiders hadn’t really thought much about going to state throughout the season, but as the wins piled up, the reality of their path became clearer.
“We took it one tournament game at a time,” Barnett said. “We never looked forward to state. I don’t think we thought about that until we got to semi-state. We were like, ‘Wow, we made it this far. We actually could go to state.’”
But the Raiders had to get past the Bluffton Tigers, who were having their best season ever, in the Class 2A state championship game. The Tigers had won their first-ever sectional, regional and semi-state titles during the ‘98 postseason. They were led by Abby Salscheider, who was recruited to Michigan State University and averaged 26 points per game that season.
“We realized we were evenly matched with Bluffton, so we knew it was going to be a tough game,” Barnett said.
“Our coaches did a good job of scouting for us and explaining what everyone would do,” Meyer added. “We were willing to give up a long three-pointer from some of the guards to focus on [Salscheider] more.”
But there was pregame drama on the morning of state. Wright experienced flu-like symptoms that were so dire, she had to go to the hospital before the game. Roesner described her as “deathly sick” and “white as a ghost,” and it was doubtful she would be able to play. But she managed to hold it all together to make the starting lineup that night.
“She had a rough way to go, but kept competing,” Roesner said. “I don’t think you were going to keep her off the floor.”
The game tipped off and it was a close affair throughout. Southridge was able to get the lead early, but it could never put a good distance between itself and the Tigers. The score stayed within the five- to six-point margin most of the way, and the Tigers cut the deficit to one point a couple of times. Then Barnett, who had 12 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks, fouled out with 3:27 left in the game.
“Those three minutes were probably the longest three minutes of the entire year,” Barnett said. “We were at the free throw line so many times. Having to sit on the sidelines was really difficult, but at the same time, I knew all I could do was cheer on the girls that were still on the floor.”
The free throws made all the difference in the game. After a Salscheider jumper cut the lead to 58-57, Wright made a pair of free throws with 13.4 seconds left. After a missed three from Salscheider to tie the game, Heidorn made another two foul shots with 2.4 seconds left that sealed the game, 62-57. In total, the Raiders were 17 of 23 from the foul line and made 11 of 12 in the fourth quarter. Meyer finished with 28 points on 12-of-21 shooting and 13 rebounds.
“I remember hugging Jill for a long time,” Meyer said about the moments immediately after the game. “It was such a rush to see all of our fans there. I feel like the entire community was there, our students were awesome. Huntingburg and Holland were shut down that day.”
“For a while, it didn’t seem real,” Barnett added. “You’ve played these games for so many weekends in a row, and then you get to that last game and it’s over. You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, we did it.’”
Roesner could sing the praises of his players from now until the end of time in regards to how they held themselves together throughout such a tough game.
“They were the best basketball team I’d been around,” he said. “We always stressed for the kids to play loose and let it happen. They had a unique way of playing, and the confidence level was special. We had to keep countering their baskets. We were able to get enough stops.”
And with that, the 1997-98 team went down as the first Southridge girls basketball team to win a state title. They were also the first-ever Class 2A girls state basketball champion, as the class system was first implemented that season. Meyer and Barnett are proud they ended their high school careers on such a high note, and left such a historic mark on the Raider program.
“It’s a sense of pride to look back and say we were the only state champs,” Barnett said. “I would love to see another Southridge team be able to go that far and be in the stands rooting them on.”
“I loved representing Southridge and our entire community,” Meyer added. “I get a sense of pride when I step foot back [at Memorial Gym]. There’s such great memories, you’ll never forget them.”
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