WINCHESTER, Ind. — It's hard to argue that Winchester wasn't the East Central Indiana girls basketball team most hindered by COVID-19 last year.
Although the Golden Falcons had success with a 9-3 record, their 12 games were by far the fewest played of the local schools. Head coach Holly Gutierrez, who missed two weeks herself because of the virus, said elevating to Class 3A exacerbated the issues as Winchester's streak of four consecutive sectional titles was broken in a discouraging 64-42 first-round loss.
"Every day last year we were so worried about getting quarantined. We had tears every night at practice," Gutierrez said. "We were just hit so hard that we never got going ... every time we were getting to a point where we felt were going to take off and fly somebody else got quarantined ... it was a very deflating season."
It was the first time since Gutierrez took over the program in 2015 that Winchester failed to win at least one postseason game. She led the team to its first two semi-state titles in 2017-18 and 2018-19, so suffering several setbacks amid the pandemic was tough for her and the players to accept.
Yet Winchester brought all its key contributors back this season, and Gutierrez had them play a more difficult summer schedule to push her team to rise above the challenges of 2020-21.
She also said the Golden Falcons feel "back home" in Class 2A, and thus are more motivated and confident they will rebound this season.
"I feel like we were all just down because we only played 12 games, so we felt behind," junior forward Caitlyn Campbell said. "I think at practice and games (now) we're more apt to work our hardest because we know that at any moment it can just be over."
Winchester is 6-0 following a dominant 69-19 home win over Delta on Wednesday, a good start but not an unfamiliar feeling for a coach who entered the year 116-32 in her six seasons at the helm.
Campbell has been the star of the show even more than she was last year. Following a terrific, albeit shortened, sophomore campaign (17 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Campbell has increased her offensive output 21.5 points per game on 45% shooting.
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She's embraced her role as Winchester's engine, thriving as she takes games over with her combination of length, athleticism and basketball I.Q. Campbell wreaks havoc at the head of the trap, is the team's best rebounder and defender and likes to dribble end-to-end and either finish at the rim or find a cutting teammate for a layup.
"She feels like she can spread her wings and fly this year. The sky's the limit," Gutierrez said. "I'm so excited for her and her team. She wants her teammates to do just as well as she does. She shares the ball, she's very unselfish, but she's as fast as they come and as athletic as they come."
Campbell's shooting is her biggest improvement from a year ago. She made six of her 33 3-point attempts and shot 65% at the free throw line in 2020-21, and she's already made 10 triples and hit 78.1% of her free throws through six games this year. Free throws, in particular, was the area Gutierrez challenged Campbell to improve and the results are encouraging thus far.
Campbell knows a lot is asked of her on and off the court for Winchester to be successful. She must do the bulk of the scoring, passing, rebounding and defending for the Golden Falcons to reach their goals. It's "nerve-wracking" for her at times, but she appreciates how her teammates encourage her and that the roster's chemistry is better after more consistent time playing together.
"She never gets too high or too low, and that's what you want out of a leader on your floor. She's always even-keeled," Gutierrez said. "She handles it all and accepts responsibility ... she's fantastic, she's fun to watch."
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Gutierrez is not satisfied with the team's undefeated record, however. She knows what it takes to reach the highest levels in 2A, and Gutierrez thinks her team's intensity has been lacking to start the year.
She called it a "slump" compared to how she felt the team was playing in the summer, and while Winchester's only played in one close game so far, laying the foundation for consistent effort and execution now increases the likelihood of postseason success later.
That's been the Golden Falcons' culture and a big reason for their recent dominance. Gutierrez said the Delta win was the best her team has played so far this year, citing better ball movement and sustained intensity for all 10 players.
Campbell attributed the improvement to a change in practice approach. Rather than game planning to thwart their opponent, this week's practices focused on correcting Winchester's issues. Campbell saw it as the "reset" the team needed to find itself again.
"They just come in like they're clocking in, clocking out, like they're coming to a job every day. There's no horsing around, there's no horseplay, and it's all business when we come to practice," Gutierrez said. "That's just been contagious every year, the younger ones see that from the older ones, and so far it's been helpful."
Winchester has gotten solid contributions from senior Haley Lanter (9.5 ppg), junior Morgan Lawrence (8.2 ppg) and junior Nevaeh Lanter (7.2 ppg), but guard Gena Moore has had a slow start to her senior season.
Moore's 12 points per game last season were second on the team and her 17 made triples were a team-high. But this year she's averaging just 8.8 points per game and looked less assertive.
She sports a smooth shooting motion and is a standout three-sport athlete, so Gutierrez and Campbell, her cousin, aren't sure why she's shooting less. Campbell said their relationship helps them "click" on the court easily, but both she and Gutierrez have challenged her to return to form.
Moore notched 10 points against Delta, eight in the first half as she looked more like herself before the bench played significant minutes.
"She really hasn't, offensively, been as much of a threat as she was last year," Gutierrez said. "I challenged her to get back to the free throw line, get to the hole, and she did those things (against Delta)."
If Campbell and Moore can recapture their 1-2 punch, Winchester's solid team structure and passing should lead them to more success come March. What the Golden Falcons lack in rebounding they make up for in offensive unselfishness, but they'll only go as far as Campbell carries them.
Gutierrez preaches a "one day at a time" mindset to the group as she wants them to focus on the now, especially after a tough 2020-21 season. She strives for banners, but she'll be happy as long as the team is playing its best at the right time.
Still, the players recognize the opportunity in front of them.
"We are always told not to look far ahead," Campbell said. "But deep down I think we know that we can make it pretty far."
Gus Martin is a sports reporter at The Star Press. Follow him on Twitter @GusMartin_SP, and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 765-729-4742.
This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: IHSAA basketball: Winchester girls rebounding from COVID season