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FISHER — Hannah Varner’s comment is on point.
The junior forward on the Fisher girls basketball team had a bit role off the bench last year for the senior-led Bunnies squad that played for a Class 1A regional championship.
She was a key contributor her sophomore season on the Bunnies’ junior varsity squad that went 14-3, but didn’t see the court much at the varsity level since fifth-year Fisher head coach Ken Ingold relied on five seniors to fill up the majority of playing time.
“Last year my goal was to basically go in, don’t screw up, don’t turn the ball over and don’t kill us,” Varner said with a laugh. “This year I’m actually hoping to be more productive.”
She will need to, along with a host of other juniors, if Fisher wants to have a chance to replicate last year’s success.
The Bunnies opened the 2012-13 season on Monday night with a 49-24 win against Dwight in their first game of the sixth annual Lady Falcon/Bunnie Classic at Fisher, but this year may have a vibe that is circa to the 2010-11 season for Fisher.
That year’s squad only had two seniors on it (this year’s team has one in forward Gina Masko) and the Bunnies were coming off an eerily similar record (19-11 in 2009-10 compared to 19-13 last season).
“That’s a great comparison,” Ingold said. “Two years ago when Jacy Cochran and Marissa Williams and Ashley Miller were all juniors, I only had one senior basically that played a lot, and that was Morgan Varner. It is kind of similar. The bad thing is you’re not real experienced. The good thing is that this is kind of a two-year plan really, and that’s what we’re building towards.”
The 2010-11 Fisher squad finished with a record (6-21) that the current group most likely will try to avoid, even if some struggles ensue during the first month or two while players adjust to new roles.
But even with the lack of experience, Ingold doesn’t see this upcoming year as a throwaway season.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I think we can be pretty competitive this year.”
The Bunnies have one proven commodity who they will rely on to back up that statement. Junior center Caitlin Cole returns after a promising sophomore season saw her earn Heart of Illinois honorable mention all-conference accolades. The imposing force in the middle — Cole checks in at 6 feet, 2 inches — will try to increase numbers last year that saw her average 9.6 points, tied for first on the team, and lead the squad in rebounds (8.9) and blocked shots (3.5).
“We do have a solid player who I expect to be one of the top players in the area and in the conference,” Ingold said. “With her height — and she’s worked real hard this summer and played a lot of ball and gotten in the weight room — hopefully that will be something good to work around.”
Cole welcomes the challenge of teams locking in on her, and is confident other members of her class can produce.
“We have a lot of people who can shoot outside,” Cole said. “If they try to double team me, we can get it outside to them.”
Chief among those outside shooters is left-handed junior forward Sydney Blackwell (5-5).
Blackwell saw time on the Bunnies’ JV squad last year, but will have to have a more prominent role for Ingold’s squad this winter. She realizes other teams might take the Bunnies for granted this year based off what they lost.
“All the big-time players left, so (teams might not) think we’re capable,” Blackwell said. “In practice we know we have to work a lot harder than we did to get better. All the juniors want this year to go well.”
Junior guard Olivia Heffernan (4-11) will most likely have the responsibility of getting the Bunnies’ offense into sets. Heffernan will also handle the brunt of making sure Fisher can utilize its quickness to score easy baskets off turnovers and on fast breaks.
“We’re quicker rather than tall,” Heffernan said. “That’ll help on defense because we can push the ball more and press more. I think most of our points will come from fast breaks because we like to play quick.”
Varner (5-7) will be counted on for steady play on the block, with Masko (5-5) likely rounding out the starting lineup. Junior center Morgan Johnson (5-7) could also provide an inside presence for the Bunnies, with junior guard Sami Browning (5-5) and junior guard LaShaunda Craft (4-10) also possibilities in the backcourt.
Fisher will also have junior guard Shelby Clanton (5-6) in the fold. Ingold said the libero on the Fisher volleyball team could give the Bunnies some athleticism in her first year playing basketball since seventh grade.
“Depending on what kind of defense we’re facing, if a team’s pressing us a lot, then I’ll have to have some sophomores step in to help us handle the ball,” said Ingold, which includes guards Kelcie Fredrickson (5-5), Savanna Pflugmacher (5-2), Courtney Delaney (4-11) and Delaney Cochran (4-11). “I’m trying to get it down to where I’m going to be able to use an eight-, nine- or 10-person rotation. Early in the year, it’s probably even going to be more than that, and it may change as the year goes on. We’ve been trying a lot of different combinations in practice.”
Sophomore forwards Rachel Tobeck (5-7) and Leah Williams (5-7) could also contribute inside both offensively and defensively.
The Bunnies will play in the three tournaments they played in last year, which includes this week’s Lady Falcon/Bunnie Classic, the Blue Devil Classic at Bismarck-Henning from Dec. 27-29 and the McLean County/HOIC Tournament the week of Jan. 19-26. Fisher opens HOIC play at home on Monday, Nov. 26, against Lexington.
Ingold expects El Paso-Gridley, which went 28-1 last year, with its only loss in a Class 2A sectional championship game against Eureka, and a perfect 12-0 in HOIC play, to again factor into the 13-team conference race.
LeRoy, which placed fourth last year in 1A, lost several key senior starters, but could still shape how the league race unfolds, with Ingold anticipating Ridgeview, Tremont and Heyworth to pose quality tests this season in the HOIC.
“I’m hoping that we can kind of work into that top mix,” said Ingold, whose team finished a respectable fifth last year, “but I don’t know.”
Not knowing how the season will play out is a common refrain from the Bunnies at this point in the season. By the time January arrives, Ingold and company should have a better idea of what they have to offer.
“It makes it more exciting because other teams don’t know what to expect from you, and we don’t necessarily know what to expect from each other,” Heffernan said. “We lost a lot of seniors, so it’s going to be interesting, (but) it motivates us because we do work hard.”
Notes: In Monday’s win against Dwight, Cole scored a career-high 31 points while grabbing nine rebounds and blocking four shots. Blackwell made two 3-pointers and added eight points while Varner grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out five assists as the Bunnies led 26-14 at halftime and 40-17 to start the fourth quarter.