Girls basketball preview: Whiteland Warriors

That larger-than-life presence in the paint won’t be there anymore.

Mackenzie Blazek, one of just 11 girls in state history with 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career, is now playing at the University of Illinois, leaving Whiteland without the best player in school history.

The good news for the Warriors? Everyone else is back. So while the team will need to create a new identity without its franchise center, it’s certainly well equipped to do so.

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“It was great to have Mackenzie and have that presence,” senior Megan Harlow said, “but this year I think we can be just as good as we were last year.”

“We’re just going to be able to play basketball,” classmate Natalie Stuck added. “Without Mackenzie, there’s more opportunities for each individual.”

The most likely beneficiaries figure to be Harlow (the Warriors’ top returning scorer and an IU East commit), Stuck and junior Toni Joyner, who excelled as part of a high-low post combo with Blazek last year and should become the focal point in the paint.

The prospect of facing the year without Blazek might have felt a lot scarier for the returning crew had it not been for a late-season victory over Mooresville. In that game, which clinched the outright Mid-State Conference championship, Whiteland prevailed down the stretch without the services of Blazek, who fouled out early in the fourth quarter.

“I think the Mooresville game really gave us the momentum of, we can do this, and we know we can,” said senior Taylor Klenner, also a returning starter.

Warriors coach Kyle Shipp feels very comfortable with the veteran group he has back, and he’s eager to see both how opponents prepare for them and how his girls respond.

“It’ll be interesting to see new game plans for the first time in maybe three years,” Shipp said, “where there’s not a sagging defender, there’s not somebody that’s unguarded or there’s not a direct double-team right away, and how are we going to react to that?”

There are several unknowns as the Warriors begin the new season, but with six experienced seniors back in the fold, the Warriors are confident that they’ll be able to answer any and all questions.

So is their coach.

“These girls have been in the fire,” Shipp said. “They’ve felt the varsity schedule, they’ve felt the wrath of the Mid-State and all that type of stuff. So we’ll see.”

“A lot of things are still the same,” Harlow added. “We’re still the same old Whiteland.”

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Coach: Kyle Shipp

Last season: 19-5, won Mid-State Conference title; lost to Center Grove in sectional opener

Top returnees: Libby Baker, Megan Harlow, Taylor Klenner, Taylor Mirowski, Madelyn Napier and Natalie Stuck, seniors; Toni Joyner and Abby Prine, juniors; Gracie McCullars, sophomore

Key newcomer: Taylor Baker, junior

What to expect: The Warriors will look a lot different without Mackenzie Blazek patrolling the paint, but they’ve got everyone else back from one of the best teams in school history. Harlow, Joyner and Stuck combined for 27.5 points a game last year, and each figures to get more shots this winter. The biggest question mark will be on the glass, but if Joyner can become a more dominant presence there, there’s no reason Whiteland can’t remain a serious contender in the Mid-State.

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Which gym is your favorite — or least favorite — to play in, and why?

"My favorite gym would have to be here at Whiteland, just because I’m so used to it; it’s home. But my least favorite would probably be Center Grove, just because there’s nothing in the background. You shoot the ball and there’s nothing. It’s so big and wide open that there’s no depth perception."

Which team not on your schedule would you most want to play?

"I’d like to take a shot at Noblesville. They’re a bigger school, but I think that we could take one of those bigger schools on just because we have the potential of doing it."

Which player that we might not know about is likely to have a breakout season?

"Probably Taylor Mirowski. Ever since she came back from her ACL injury, she’s been working her butt off. Everything that she can do to get back to where she was, and even better, she’s been doing it. So I think people have got to watch out for her this year."