Since the tournament’s conception seven years ago, St. John’s Sauers’ eighth-grade girls basketball team has dominated the statewide competition.
They own more titles than any other team that has participated.
Returning all but one player from last year’s Indiana Lutheran Schools Athletic Association State Championship team, the Raiders returned to Fort Wayne this past weekend as the favorites.
The Raiders lived up to their expectations, repeating as the champs and winning their fourth title.
In their final game, the Raiders defeated Emmanuel St. Michael (Fort Wayne) 43-30.
The Raiders also topped Lutheran Central (Brownstown) 33-14 in the semifinals — who would finish third in the tourney — and Wyneken (Decatur) 31-7 in the quarterfinals.
“It’s difficult to repeat in anything you do,” Raiders coach Craig Klinge said. “From night to night, to maintain that level of intensity from season to season. We try to keep the girls motivated with themselves no matter what the score of the game was.”
With the state title comes an automatic bid into the Lutheran Basketball Association of America’s National Tournament from March 23 to March 26 in Valparaiso.
“It was an honor to win (state),” Raider Avery Koch said. “We all worked hard to go back to nationals. We all wanted to get back. A lot of the teams were a lot better than ones we played earlier in the season. I think our defense helped us a lot.”
Last season, Sauers placed fifth at the tournament, finishing 4-1 over the weekend. Their lone loss were to the eventual national champions, St. Michael Lutheran (Fort Myers, Florida).
Despite all the returning experience, the Raiders know that they have a tough task ahead of them.
“We’re going to have to work a lot harder,” Raider Maggie Connell said of returning to the national stage. We need to just talk even more. We need to one there ready mentally for each games on top of the physical part of it.”
This year, the Raiders hope to come back with some more hardware for the trophy case.
“They understand what (the national tournament is) is about,” Klinge said. “We have been talking about preparation. The physical part, everyone will be on the same level. We really have to prepare for the mental side of it. There will be a lot of outstanding teams, and it will be a dogfight no matter who we play against.”
Kilnge said that the team has grown in a variety of ways, as they’ve developed together over the years.
“I think that maturity was a big step this year, Klinge said. “The girls have grown. Now, they’re the eighth-graders who are leading where maybe before they were the followers. Physically, these girls have also grown three to four inches and gotten stronger. I think confidence has also gone along with that.”
Sauers has made the finals five out of seven years with the four crowns, and other programs have taken notice.
“Part of it has become our culture,” Klinge said. “Some people ask how were able to do it. We have parents and families believing in it. A lot of the kids’ parents have been and played here. I think the culture has created the atmosphere.”