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Ben Smith

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Semistate
Saturday
Warsaw
Class 2A: Eastern (Greentown) (21-3) vs. Bishop Luers (14-11), 4 p.m.
Class 4A: South Side (23-3) vs. Warsaw (24-1), 6 p.m.
Crown Point
Class A: Lafayette Central Catholic (17-9) vs. Canterbury (23-3), 1 p.m.
Class 3A: Hamilton Heights (22-2) vs. Benton Central (22-3), 3 p.m.
Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
South Side’s DeJoyah Johnson and her teammates credit the Archers’ tournament run on a one-sided loss last month.

South uses loss as springboard

The light went on for them in southern Indiana, 10 days before the sectional. South Side’s girls were at Bedford North Lawrence, the No. 2 team in Class 4A. It was halftime.

South coach Juanita Goodwell walked into her locker room, and it was not what she saw, but what she didn’t see, that jumped out at her.

“I didn’t see heads down,” she recalls, a month later. “I didn’t see girls who were ready to stop playing. They just said, ‘Coach, we’ve got to do better the second half.’ ”

And they did.

And they still lost by 24.

And if, in the cold calculus of simple numbers, that suggests it didn’t matter, it somehow mattered more than those numbers would ever say.

“It was a gut check,” Goodwell said. “We went down there, and we were down 32 at halftime. That wasn’t a moment we’ve ever experienced. And I think that was when the girls woke up.”

A month and six straight wins later, they’re still awake as the semistate beckons. The thump of post-practice music still ricochets around Don Reichert Gymnasium as the Archers scatter to shoot free throws. The temperature is breaching 50 degrees outside, and it’s a February 50 degrees, carrying with it the faintest whisper of spring.

And now, in her office, Goodwell leans forward and talks about a basketball team that struggled for a long time this year against its own success, and against the most peculiar form of adversity: The adversity of accomplishment recognized.

“I think what transpired is the energy and excitement for this team leading into the season overwhelmed them,” she says of her 23-3, 11th-ranked Archers. “Last year, they were fighting for a ranking, fighting for attention. This year they got it all starting the season.

“I think that played mentally with them. It made them take a step back and say ‘Hey, we’re as good as people say we are.’ ”

By and large they have been, of course. They tore through the SAC unbeaten, but there was a one-point loss to Homestead in December, when Goodwell sensed that her team didn’t realize the Spartans were more than just young and missing senior star Emily Bley. And there was the embarrassment, and subsequent revelation, at BNL on Jan. 26.

“It was a turning point,” forward Ariana Simmons says. “We realized we had to come out in every game and play our hardest to get it done.”

“It was a big eye-opener for us,” guard DeJoyah Johnson says.

And, eyes open, they’ve done what they all foresaw back in November.

Won the sectional by a point in the rematch with Homestead. Finally cleared the regional hurdle by outlasting Westfield in overtime and routing No. 4 Logansport by 16. And now it’s on to semistate, where once-beaten Warsaw, 11-0 at home this year, awaits.

One more chance for the light to burn brightly.

“DeJoyah Johnson made a comment, talking about our defense, saying ‘Coach, our press has just changed. I don’t know what it is,’ ” Goodwell says. “After we played those two games last weekend, I said, ‘The only thing different was you. Your effort.’

“Basically that’s just what it boils down to. They woke up and they performed at their highest peak and at their highest level.”

And discovered, along the way, that the view from there is extremely well-lit.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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