Every year, the Northeast Corner Conference dedicates a week in the middle of January to put on a conference tournament for both boys and girls basketball. Well, that week is this week, and this year’s tournament brings a lot of intrigue on both sides.
The brackets are made at random months in advance, creating some potentially interesting matchups. The four schools we follow from the NECC at The Goshen News — Fairfield, Lakeland, West Noble and Westview — all enter this week with different things to prove. Here’s the one team from each side that I’ll be paying close attention to this week.
GIRLS — Lakeland
The Lakers are white hot right now, winning 10 of their last 11 after starting the season 1-6. Their only loss since November came against Angola, who’s 8-0 in NECC play.
After being reliant on junior Bailey Hartsough — who recently eclipsed 1,000 career points scored — for the majority of their scoring early in the season, Lakeland has started finding balance on the offensive end. In their 65-60 victory over West Noble this past Friday, Hartsough had 18 points, senior Beth Stroop had 17 and freshman Faith Riehl had 13. When the Lakers can get three 10-plus point scorers on a consistent basis, they become a tough team to beat.
Lakeland drew a really nice bracket, clearing a path for a potential title game rematch against Angola. They open with Westview (3-13, 0-7 NECC) Tuesday at home. Should the Lakers get past the Warriors, they’ll get to play Fairfield (9-7, 4-3) Wednesday at home. Then a potential matchup with either Prairie Heights or Fremont would be in their path to the title game.
Both the Panthers and Eagles are .500 teams, giving Lakeland the best overall record on that side of the bracket. Couple that with their recent winning ways, and the Lakers could be playing in the finale against Angola Saturday night at Garrett High School.
BOYS — Westview
It’s weird to associate the words “Westview” and “underdog” together, but that’s exactly what the Warriors are heading into this week’s conference tournament.
Westview enters as back-to-back NECC Tournament champions, but currently sit in third place in the conference standings behind Prairie Heights (10-1, 5-1 NECC) and Central Noble (8-2, 4-1 NECC). The Warriors are 7-2 overall and 4-1 in conference play.
What helps Westview this week is the bracket should allow them to make it to the semifinals Friday night. They open up with Lakeland (4-6, 2-3 NECC) Tuesday on the road before playing either Fairfield (3-7, 3-1 NECC) or Hamilton (0-10, 0-5 NECC) Wednesday at home. Then, however, is when the fun could potentially begin.
Should Westview advance to the semifinals, they’ll most likely play Prairie Heights. This would be an “old guard vs. new guard”-type showdown, as the Panthers are trying to assert themselves as the top dog in the NECC in 2019-20. Prairie Heights was 10-0 before suffering their first loss of the season this past Friday against Angola. Meanwhile, Westview enters this week winners of six straight. A lot of people, including myself, are hoping to see these two heavyweights face off Friday night in Topeka.
AN NLC TOURNAMENT?
Personally, I enjoy seeing the NECC do a tournament like this. The only tweak I would make to it is playing it during the final regular season week of the girls season. However, I doubt coaches would want to play up to four games in five days less than a week before the state tournament begins. Having the conference tournament this week allows teams to get rested up enough for the important tournament come February and March.
The NECC Tournament, though, makes me wonder: would the Northern Lakes Conference ever consider doing a tournament of their own? You could follow the same format as the NECC, with a random draw months before the season begins to determine the bracket. With eight teams, it’d be a little easier to schedule than the 12-team NECC.
You could also do the NLC tournament in two days: quarterfinals at home arenas on Friday night, then semifinal and championship games at a neutral site on Saturday. Or, you could schedule it out like a normal week goes for most teams: quarterfinals Tuesday, semifinals Friday and championship game Saturday night. The sites of the semifinals would be determined by how the bracket fell, much like the NECC one does.
An NLC tournament would draw a lot more interest than a typical non-conference game would. Crowds would be up and players would be more excited for the games. A three-game week is nothing out of the ordinary for basketball teams, so it wouldn’t be work overload on the players. And a chance to win a trophy saying you’re NLC tournament champions would be really cool. Who doesn’t love winning trophies?
Just some food for thought as the NECC Tournament begins this week.