Call me a homer

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The 2017 IHSAA girls basketball sectionals got under way this week, with many teams starting play Tuesday evening in the first round. Pendleton Heights and Lapel will begin their postseason journey Friday evening, as they both drew byes into the semifinal round.

Both the Arabians (19-4) and the Bulldogs (17-5) have emerged from a difficult schedule with stellar records and have had an outstanding season.

Speaking personally, both teams have been a lot of fun to cover this year. They are loaded with great kids who play the game with love and passion.

But now, it’s time to get down to business.

It’s time to predict sectional winners.

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m terrible at predictions, but I’ve never let that stop me.

And you can call me a “homer” if you like, but I’m picking both Pendleton Heights and Lapel to win their first sectionals in a long time, 2011 for the Arabians and 2007 for the Bulldogs.

I’m making these predictions despite a tough road ahead. Both teams face a challenging sectional field, so I better have reasons for my picks.

Well, I do, and I’ll start with Pendleton Heights.

The first thing with the Arabians is the seniors. I like seniors in the postseason, and Pendleton Heights has five good ones. Guard Sam Hammel has improved her game this season, especially from the perimeter, and has become the type of prolific scorer who can carry a team from time to time. Adrienne Philips, who could join Hammel in the 1,000-point club with a run to regionals, Kelsey Burton and Maggie Dooley are good outside shooters who can put points up in a hurry. And if a team forgets about Ashley King, she can hurt you, too.

These kids have been there, done that. They won’t be fazed by the atmosphere.

Second, Pendleton Heights has shown a will to win — sometimes a flat refusal to lose. Earlier this year against New Castle and Hamilton Heights, the Arabians seemed on the verge of defeat, but they found a way. That is the biggest improvement from a year ago — this team wins games down the stretch.

Finally, defense is a key for the Arabians, and they play it as well as anybody. If all the scorers I named above go into a slump, they can still shut down the opposition. They have held opponents to fewer than 45 points 13 times this season, winning all 13. Hammel and Burton are fantastic on-the-ball defenders, as is junior Lauren Landes.

And if the Arabians need a shot blocker, freshman Gracie King is maybe the best I’ve seen this season.

For Lapel, depth is its biggest advantage. Junior Bree Boles gets most of the attention, and deservedly so. But the Bulldogs can run 9 to 10 players into the game who can contribute. With Boles (6-foot-3), senior Samantha Kern (6-foot) and freshman Makynlee Taylor (5-foot-8), Lapel has more size than any of its opponents as well as a deep and flexible backcourt, where each player can score and handle the ball.

Second, the Bulldogs have an axe to grind with several of their potential opponents. Wapahani beat Lapel in the season finale last week; Frankton beat the Bulldogs in sectional last season; and Monroe Central, despite losing to Lapel earlier this season by 14 points, is ranked No. 3 in the state, while Lapel is unranked.

And then there is defense. Sound familiar? Same as Pendleton Heights, this is something the Bulldogs have done well all season. Lapel has held opponents to fewer than 45 points 14 times and won 13 of those games. They don’t necessarily pile up the steals and blocked shots, but they contest ball handlers and perimeter shooters and press as well as anyone.

So, don’t blame me if it doesn’t work out this way. I’m not trying to hex anyone. But watching these teams all season, they just feel like winners to me.

That’s probably because they are.

By the way, New England 35, Atlanta 31 in the Super Bowl.