WINONA LAKE – The Lakeland Christian girls basketball team was so close to taking home sectional hardware last season.

The Lady Cougars went 16-9 and were edged 41-38 by Lakewood Park in the sectional title game.

They’ve been steadily improving under coach Allison Kaufman, who played at Grace College and has a 40-32 record heading into her fourth season.  

“Our eye’s still on (the sectional championship),” Kaufman said. “We were right there last year, so hopefully we can come back this year and be able to finish it.”

Not only does Lakeland Christian have five returning seniors, all five have experience excelling in a sectional in another sport.

Abigail Fishel advanced to a golf regional this fall, while Anna Reimink, Tori Calizo, Maddie Paris and Lauren Starrett were on the Lady Cougars’ sectional title-winning squad from a month ago. It was the school’s first IHSAA sectional title in any sport.

“Hopefully getting that taste of victory helps them with their confidence and getting over the edge, because that’s really what it is,” Kaufman said. “(It’s) their confidence in themselves and stepping on that floor each night, knowing they’re gonna win and not hoping they’re gonna win.”

Lakeland Christian will aim to emphasize that confidence on the offensive side of the floor.

“You have an off-night, keep shooting,” Kaufman said. “A lot of these girls have been used to being role players as far as just passing the ball.”

They’ll have to fight for every rebound, as they’re small in stature since losing Jess Slone and Brady Gross to graduation.

Slone and Gross had size and each pulled down around eight rebounds per game. Without them, Kaufman is preaching positioning.

“Our main thing we’re working on right now is our rebounding on the inside, making sure we’re being strong (and) we’re getting positioned defensively on the inside,” Kaufman said.

What they lack in size, the Lady Cougars make up for in quickness.

“We’re definitely gonna have a lot of speed, so we’re gonna look to really attack defensively and hopefully get a lot of points off the transition baskets,” Kaufman said.

That speed will be bolstered by the addition of Carly O’Hara, who played soccer this fall in her first year at Lakeland Christian, and freshman Jessi Calizo, who also played soccer.

They’ll be a part of a team defense which Kaufman emphasizes as strong. Offensively, no matter who has the ball, she wants them to be assertive.

“This year, they’re gonna have to step up and be that scorer, and look to score,” Kaufman said. “So that’ll be something we need to keep working on and growing that confidence offensively.”