East Central has experienced a remarkable turnaround this season in girls basketball.
The Raiders went a combined 10-30 the past two seasons but finished this season ranked 13th in Class 1A and are 17-4 after winning their postseason opener. East Central was also one of three teams that tied for the Big East Conference championship.
This season may be surprising, but not to the team.
“At the very beginning, before the season even started, I said, ‘Conference champs,’ was my goal,” senior Keri Cassaday said. “Some people agreed and some were skeptical.”
Senior Tessa Daniels added: “People just thought it was a far goal.”
This group of nine girls, led by coach Charles Jargo, accomplished that goal. and the The team credits that to one main thing — togetherness.
“At the beginning of the season, coach talked about (Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski) who is kind of like his coaching idol,” Sam Lippens said. “This guy’s big thing was: when you hold up a hand, it’s just a hand. It has five fingers, nothing else. But when you close your hand and make a fist, they’re all together and that’s what team is about. So, we say 'together’ in every huddle, and that’s our team motto.”
Sophomore Jacinta Jargo expanded on that: “The fist is stronger than when they’re apart.”
Eight players have been in 13 or more of the Raiders' 21 games — four seniors and four sophomores. Cassaday, Daniels and sophomore Cassie Aldis each average more than 11 points a game, and five different players have been the leading scorer in a game this season.
“We can’t win, unless we play together,” sophomore Ryleigh Keeney said.
Having the core of the team from two different grade levels has helped East Central excel.
“The seniors have been together since fourth or fifth grade,” Sam Lippens said. The sophomores have been together since fourth or fifth grade. We all played enough sports other than basketball, too, that we’re able to mesh well. Both of our teams had success when we were younger, so we all knew what we could go after. We’re finally doing that together.”
The players are also close off the court, which has helped translate into the feeling of togetherness of the court.
“I think our offcourt relationship more than anything,” Cassaday said helped the team come together.
Aldis said: “We have a lot of respect for one another. We never tell someone that they’re stupid for their ideas. We actually listen to each other.”
For the seniors especially, this year has been the payoff after three tough years, years that Cassaday called “frustrating.”
“I was getting fed up with it,” she said. “I couldn’t wait for the season to be done, but this year is the opposite. I’m just dreading the last game.”
The team working together seems to be what was missing the past couple of seasons.
“The last three years nothing ever seemed to click,” Sam Lippens said. “There wasn’t team chemistry on the court. Something was missing, and we could never find it. It’s there this year.
“It feels like in the past years, it was ‘You do this and we’re going to be awesome,’” she said. “This year it’s, ‘If we all do this, we’re going to be good.’ It’s more a team thing.”
The Raiders have a chance Tuesday to extend this season and stay together when they host Marquette Catholic in the second round of the postseason.
“We need to go in there with a strong attitude,” Daniels said.
“And confidence,” Cassaday added.
East Central is feeling a little extra pressure because of the accolades it has received.
“I don’t want to say there’s like a tag on us for being ranked and being conference champs, but we’ve got to uphold that,” Cassaday said. “And show people it wasn’t a fluke that we won.”
“Fluke,” Aldis said with a laugh. “That’s a funny word.”
The rest of the team burst into laughter.
Another motivation is continuing to erase the stigma that surrounded this program the past couple of seasons.
“We want to show those people who didn’t think we could do good that we can do it,” Keeney said.
The team hasn’t had doubts, though those outside the program may have.
“I think we were optimistic throughout the whole season,” Cassaday said. “We never doubted ourselves.”
The tone was set for the Raiders’ success over the summer.
“In the summer, we could tell that we clicked together, and we knew it was going to be a good season,” Sabrina Lippens said.
East Central has had to overcome adversity this season, including the loss of senior Brittany Volquardsen in the fourth game of the season. Volquardsen led the team in scoring the past two seasons.
“Everybody had to play a little better to make up for Brittany,” Sabrina Lippens said.
Sam Lippens said: “We still had eight girls. We were still very capable as a team.”
Volquardsen was put on the postseason roster and will likely serve as a captain. It is possible, though unlikely, she will play again this season. The main reason for her inclusion on the roster goes to the team motto.
“She’s been part of our team from the beginning, so we’re not going to leave her out of anything,” Keeney said. “We want her to be there for whatever successes or failures we have.”
Volquardsen said she hated that she couldn’t be out there with her teammates, and they seem to feel the same way.
“It’s not like it’s her fault,” Aldis said. “She didn’t quit. She came to all the games that she could. She still deserves to ...”
“Get recognized,” Cassaday said, finishing the sentence.
“That’s together,” Daniels and Sam Lippens said in unison when asked about finishing each other’s sentences.
Daniels said the girls finish each other's sentences all the time.
With the season winding down, the focus is on performing well, more than actual results.
“I just want every game to be our best,” Sam Lippens said. “If we happen to lose, as long as we played to the best of our ability, there’s nothing more than you could ask for.”
Daniels said: “I want to go out with a bang. We don’t necessarily have to win state, just go out with a bang and play our best the whole way there.”
The players feel a closer bond to each other than just teammates.
“We’re family,” Sabrina Lippens said. “We’re sisters.”