By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – The small team with the big heart, Bloomington South is primed for the big stage.
The No.9 Panthers, guard based and backcourt blessed, will seek its first regional championship since 1987 on Saturday, tangling with No.19 Castle in the second game of the Class 4A minefield at Bedford North Lawrence.
No.8 Center Grove will meet BNL in the opener at 10 a.m., and those winners will collide in the championship at 7:30 p.m.
No regional in the state is tougher than this foursome, and no team is tougher than South (21-3). Perhaps it’s a little Napoleon complex, with the Panthers giving away a lot of size to a lot of opponents. They would not have gotten to this level any other way.
“That’s been our calling card for the whole season,” South coach Larry Winters said. “Being undersized, we have to create pressure and some offense from getting the ball turned over. That’s no big secret, that’s how we have to play.”
That worked during the regular-season clash with Castle (21-4). The Panthers forced 19 turnovers during a 60-57 victory. Addy Blackwell, the spitfire 5-4 scoring leader, had 24 points and powered South to a 45-29 lead late in the third quarter before the Knights staged a desperate rally.
“In our earlier game, they played better and harder than we did and deserved to win,” Castle coach Bob Meier said. “I feel we have been able to correct some of our mistakes and hopefully the ladies will be ready to play.”
Castle’s standout will certainly stand above the crowd. Jessica Nunge, a 6-2 forward who will play volleyball at Florida State, averages 16.5 points and 5.4 rebounds. She gets plenty of support from freshman Natalie Niehaus (13.0, 7.0) and senior Hannah Hood (12.0 points). Nunge will attract the most attention, especially after totaling 20 points in the first meeting.
“It starts with Nunge and drifts down to the other four starters, but it starts with her,” Winters said. “She’s a tough match-up for anyone, not just us. With our lack of size, it causes some issues. We’ll have to do the best we can to limit the touches she gets in the post.”
Blackwell, destined for Southern Indiana, leads South in scoring at 15.7 while Lauren Conner contributes 11.3. South has won six straight games and had to survive a tough sectional (beating East Central in overtime and edging Columbus North 50-45 in the final) to advance.
“We haven’t shot the ball as well as we’re going to have to shoot it, but we’re playing pretty well,” Winters said. “I’m pretty happy with where we are.
“In this field, if you don’t play well, anybody you play is going to beat you, and beat you soundly. I don’t think anyone will be surprised at the outcome either way.”
The Knights didn’t come into the postseason with momentum after losing to Jeffersonville in the regular-season finale, but they created their own with three dominant wins in the sectional, capped by a 44-32 triumph over Evansville North in the final.
“There are a lot of positives we took out of sectional week,” Meier said. “We did a lot of things right and had to play a hard-fought game to get the victory over North. I feel that will help build our confidence and desire to compete.”
South won its first sectional since 2010, now it will chase its first regional game win since 2002. Castle hasn’t had success at this level since its last title in 2006.
The regional champion will advance to the one-game semistate at either Jasper or Jeffersonville on Feb. 16. The IHSAA will announce the sites for all the semistates on Sunday.
CLASS 4A REGIONAL
CASTLE vs. BLOOMINGTON SOUTH
When: Saturday, 11:30 a.m. at BNL
Records: Castle 21-4, ranked No.19; Bloomington South 21-3, ranked No.9
Sagarin ratings: Castle 89.68; South 89.17
Last meeting: On Dec. 15 in Bloomington, South posted a 60-57 victory. Addy Blackwell score 24 points for the Panthers, who ended Castle’s 32-game regular-season winning streak. Jessica Nunge had 20 points for the Knights.
Game notes: Castle has won three regional titles in program history, the last in 2006. South won its last regional in 1987. South’s Addy Blackwell joined the 1,000-point club during the win over the Knights.
F – Jessica Nunge 6-2 Sr.
G – Natalie Niehaus 5-9 Fr.
G – Carly Harpenau 5-8 Jr.
G – Josie Freeman 5-7 Jr.
G – Hannah Hood 5-7 Sr.
Bloomington South Panthers
F – Lauren Conner 5-9 Jr.
F – Kristen Ridner 5-8 Jr.
G – Addisyn Blackwell 5-4 Sr.
G – Clara Voskuil 5-9 Jr.
G – Cameron Gillard 5-7 Jr.