Perfection. It is hard to do.
The Napoleon Lady Cats’ 22-0 regular season, which they just completed, is the first ever for the program. No girls basketball team in Henry County has ever done it.
The last boys basketball teams to do it were the 1979-80 and 1980-81 Napoleon Wildcats, with the latter winning a state title.
“The biggest thing it means is the kids’ engagement throughout the season,” said Napoleon girls basketball coach Corey Kreinbrink. “Mentally it can be so easy to almost take a break at times because it is such a long season. To be able to stay engaged for that many games, especially winning that many, teams are going to be more and more up for you. To be ready and to respond to the team’s play and play together that many times means mentally we have a lot of toughness. To go through that many games and always be engaged and be ready says a lot of the kids’ mental character.
“I have been impressed with how well the girls have handled it and been able to be engaged every game,” added Kreinbrink, who is in his fifth season leading the Wildcats. “It can be real easy for anybody to get distracted from what we are supposed to do each night. They have done a great job of always being in the moment and where we are. To be able make it through an entire season and be ready to go every night says a lot for 16 and 17 year olds and they have done a great job handling it.”
The Lady Cats’ perfect season had few even close calls, with the 54-46 overtime victory over Perrysburg back in December the only game decided by single digits.
Napoleon’s average margin of victory this season is 30 points.
“It means a lot,” said Napoleon junior Taylor Strock. “I don’t think it was our original goal, we just wanted to win the league, but I don’t think we expected to go undefeated.”
“It’s a crazy, unbelievable feeling,” said Napoleon senior Stevie Rieger. “Obviously, no team has done that before. It is really exciting to be a part of that, making history. I am just so excited and happy that this happened.”
“It is crazy,” said Napoleon junior Kali Helberg. “When I was little it was a dream of mine that me, Taylor (Strock) and Caely (Ressler) (would go undefeated). So it was like fulfilling that dream with everyone else on the team.”
The Lady Cats were able to win all their games by being a team in the truest sense of the word. Six players have led the team in scoring during a game this season. Five have led the team in rebounding and seven players have led the team in assists.
Of the 10 players that see regular time on the court, nine have led the team in one of those three categories this season.
“We all know, night in night out, what is expected of us,” said Ressler, a junior. “We also know that our roles can change. We are ready to take advantage of an opportunity every time we are out there.”
“We have people that can knock down shots or be big inside,” said Napoleon senior Cait Good. “Everyone can do everything.”
Strock is the team’s scoring leader at 12.2 points per game, followed by Ressler at 10.5 and senior Shae Pedroza at 9.5. Pedroza scored her 1,000th career point earlier this season.
Helberg leads the Lady Cats with 5.4 rebounds per game, followed by Ressler with 4.8 and junior Emma Pedroza at 3.9. Ressler is the team leader with 92 assists, which is a school record.
“Our strength is we have so many players that can do everything,” said Helberg. “If someone is having an off shooting night, there is someone else that can step up. If someone is getting tired defensively, we have so many defenders that can step up and help us.”
“Our versatility is a big thing we play off of,” said Napoleon senior Emily Bostelman. “We don’t have a best player. Some would say we all find ways to score, and if someone is not on scoring then they are locking down on defense. If they are not having great defensive game then they are on the bench cheering and making sure everyone is upbeat and energetic.”
“Everyone knows the game,” said Ressler. “Everyone on our team knows the game and understands their role so we can run a lot of people at you.”
One of the biggest differences between the Lady Cats and other teams is their defensive play.
Napoleon is allowing opponents just 27.7 points per game this season. Twelve times the Lady Cats have held teams under 30 points, six times under 20 points.
They are forcing teams into 18.3 turnovers per contest and have 288 steals this season, with Ressler leading the way with 54. Strock is a close second with 50. Six other players have at least 20 steals.
“We’ve got a lot of length and athleticism, which first and foremost helps schematically,” said Kreinbrink. “We can move a lot of stuff around, so that helps, not only saving time, but it helps even on the fly when we can switch stuff and force teams to do things they are not used to.
“We usually do a good job of not fouling people and force them to shoot over us, which is not easy to do,” continued Kreinbrink. “We have kids that have a high basketball IQ and understand the scheme in general. When they have a good understanding and how it works together that helps us build off different things.”
The players say their defense comes from practice.
“We just work really hard and know where we are supposed to be,” said Shae Pedroza. “We set down certain rules that we have to follow every game. We get a lot of our points off transition because of our defense.”
“It’s not like we do crazy drills or anything,” said Emma Pedroza. “We just do like a few drills and we become really good at those few drills. It’s not anything special. We work on the small things over and over again until Coach K feels like we got it right so there are no flaws.”
“I think our rules make us effective,” said Bostelman. “We have a strict set of rules we follow every game no matter who our opponent is and we make sure we are disciplined enough to follow those rules every single game.”
“We have a lot of long players,” said Napoleon senior Aliza Lankenau. “We really work on our defense in practice, especially our man-to-man and working on our gaps. I think we all know our spots defensively.”
As the season progressed, the crowds began to get larger and larger. Even on road games Napoleon’s fans will outnumber the home team.
“It’s so awesome,” said Strock. “The community follows us everywhere and we feed off their energy and that plays a big role in us starting each game strong and being ready to go.”
“It’s a great environment to play in,” added Rieger. “Even our away games we have more people sometimes cheering for us than the other team. It’s an amazing environment and it gives so much energy to the team.”
“At first we were all like, ‘Whoa,’” said Good. “When they finally pulled out both sides (of the bleachers), we have always begged Coach K for them to do that, it was insane to see everybody.”
It is certainly something the players will cherish.
“About halfway through the season when the (crowds) started getting bigger and bigger, before every game when they are doing the starting introductions I glance around the gym and take it all in,” said Bostelman. “It being my last year, it’s an image I don’t want to forget when I graduate.”
For almost all the players, winning the Northern Lakes League title and celebrating on the Grand Canyon floor after defeating Perrysburg was the highlight of the season, so far.
“Going into the game it didn’t matter, but it did matter to us,” said Good. “After we pulled it off and seeing everyone there, it was amazing.”
“All of us storming the floor and hugging each other (after winning the NLL title), it was an amazing feeling,” said Rieger.
“We hadn’t done that before and it was a great accomplishment for us,” said Shae Pedroza.
With the regular season over, the Lady Cats, who will have nine days off since their last game, turn their focus to the postseason.
Napoleon has been eliminated the last two years in the regional semifinals against Rogers. The Lady Cats are ready to take that next step and are hoping to use a perfect regular season as a springboard.
“We just want to keep getting better,” said Strock. “We are 22-0, but there is so much we have to get better at. This week preparing for the tournament that is what we are thinking about, cleaning up those little things we haven’t yet from the regular season.”
“We’re starting over, but we’re using the energy from our season carrying us through the tournament,” said Lankenau. “We don’t think our regular season is going to get us to state. We know we still have to work hard.”
“We can’t focus on all the games we won in the regular season,” said Helberg. “I feel like this is a new season now. We need to just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
“We know we had a great season and we know what we are as a team, but we also know nothing is promised,” said Ressler. “We have good shot at going far and we want to take advantage of our opportunities.”
Napoleon opens the postseason Saturday night, facing the winner of Celina and Kenton at 6:15 p.m. at Miller City High School.
“We have built an expectation of winning games,” said Kreinbrink. “That gives you confidence that you can win a game, no matter who you are playing against when you win that many in a row. That’s the biggest thing we can carry over since we can’t carry over any points or steals or rebounds or anything like that.
“We talk about having a target on our back, but you get into the tournament and every team is going to be ready to go and play extremely hard.”