Tough sectional paved way for Lapel state finals run
Feb. 21—LAPEL — The Lapel Bulldogs will take on defending champion Forest Park in Saturday's Class 2A girls basketball state championship.
It has not been an easy journey.
Four of the seven teams assigned to Sectional 40 were fully capable of advancing to regional, meaning the road to capturing his school's first sectional title in 16 years was going to be tough, no matter how the draw played out.
When the chaos of the ping-pong balls was revealed, that path to the team's goal was as difficult as it could possibly be but not unattainable.
"When the draw came out, the kids were all excited, and I was like, 'How are we going to do this?'" Lapel coach Zach Newby recalled. "Beating a team twice is not easy to do, beating them twice on their home floor and then doing it in the same week, that task alone — I didn't think it was going to be too much — but I didn't think it would be an easy thing for us to do."
The Bulldogs opened with host Wapahani — a team they needed overtime to defeat on the same floor just a week earlier — then a rematch with prolific scorer Jacklynn Hosier and Alexandria loomed in the semifinals. If they passed those tests, state-power Winchester would be the probable opponent in the championship game, a team that defeated Lapel by 14 points in the season opener.
The Bulldogs certainly did not make things any easier, falling behind Wapahani by 10 points before the near capacity crowd had fully settled into its seats.
"Maybe the most talented team I've ever had and this task might be too much," Newby remembered thinking that night.
Lapel overcame that deficit as well as double-digit leads for both Alexandria and Winchester in the games that followed, sending the Bulldogs off to regional for the first time since 2007.
Overcoming adversity during a week that required travelling from Lapel to Selma three times in five days also shaped what the Bulldogs faced in the weeks ahead as the team conquered Eastbrook — and illness — at regional and vanquished top-five semistate opponents Andrean and Central Noble to move on to the program's first appearance in the state finals.
The coach can't help but think of how easily this state finals run could have been derailed at any stop along the way, including the double-digit semistate wins which were tight contests until the fourth quarter.
"To advance in the tournament, you don't have to just be good, you have to be lucky sometimes, too," Newby said. "In the first game against Wapahani, I thought 'Oh, no.' When we were down double-digits — that was really the only time I got worried in that sectional. I didn't get worried when we were down double-digits against Alex or Winchester, I could see the look in their eyes. If they weren't worried, then nobody else should have been."
That sectional title that started this month of Lapel madness was — along with January's Madison County championship — the ultimate goal laid out by Newby and his team before the season began.
While the schedule had been beefed up to better prepare the team for the postseason, even its coach did not envision the level of success the Bulldogs have enjoyed beyond those three long drives to Wapahani.
But they are taking time to savor the ride.
"Winning county and winning sectional were our goals," Newby said. "In my first few years, that was another mistake I had made. We talked a lot about winning a state championship, and that's a far reach. That's part of being a new coach, and I was walking into talent.
"This year, we never talked about anything but county and sectional. The goal was sectional. The dream was regional, semistate and state. Now we're not accomplishing our goals. We're living our dream, and that's what's awesome about it."
Contact Rob Hunt at email@example.com or 765-640-4886.