By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — The climate is ripe with excuses.
Extreme winter weather has made a mockery of area sports schedules, stranding teams without a game for more than a week then hurtling them through a gauntlet of six games in eight days.
It's tough for a team to find traction. Consistency is supposed to be an unachievable dream.
Just don't try telling that to the Anderson girls basketball team.
This week the Lady Tribe (16-3) received its first recognition of the season from the Indiana Girls Basketball Coaches Association, checking in at No. 20 in the single-class all-state poll.
On Thursday, weather permitting, Anderson will put its 11-game winning streak on the line against the 19th-ranked team in that poll — Pike (14-8).
The Red Devils are the only team this season to knock off top-ranked Lawrence North, scoring a 53-50 victory in the teams' second meeting of the season on Jan. 11.
That's not exactly an ideal opponent for Senior Night, but for the Lady Tribe it's just another exciting challenge to tackle.
"We're going to play a team that plays with the best and beat the very best," Anderson coach Chad Cook said. "That's how you get better."
Cook has a simple design for the season, breaking it down as a series of 27 opportunities for his players to improve. That philosophy proved useful after a Dec. 21 loss at Logansport.
The game was hyped as a North Central Conference championship showdown, and a lot of emotion was poured into the effort. But because Cook refuses to allow the Lady Tribe to look at one game as a make or break proposition, the sting of the loss did not linger.
"All year, we've talked about mental toughness," Cook said. "No matter who we're playing, we're trying to be mentally tough for all four quarters. We keep them all the same."
Anderson's winning streak began 13 days after the loss to the Berries with a 56-50 victory at Noblesville.
The weather began its reign of terror soon after, and by the time the Lady Tribe opened the Madison County tournament on Jan. 10 it had played just one game in the previous three weeks. In the next eight days, Anderson won six games. By an average of 27 points.
"You give a lot of credit to the girls," Cook said, "because they're the ones that have to physically do it."
But it's easy for the fifth-year head coach to zero in on the secret to his team's success: Defense.
The Lady Tribe surrenders just 48.8 points per game and has allowed more than that average just three times during the current winning streak. Most impressively, Anderson's defense is adaptable.
If the Lady Tribe senses it can harass an opponent's backcourt, it will dive into a full-court press and create an up-tempo game fueled by turnovers. If the opponent has ballhandlers who aren't easily rattled, Anderson will sink back into the half court and deny offensive opportunities just the same.
"As Peyton Manning can tell you, offense wins a lot of games," Cook said. "It can win more games than anybody. But defense wins championships. And we're playing really good defense."
The Lady Tribe has adapted its offensive game in similar fashion, comfortable both in a free-flowing full-court track meet and a lockdown half-court slugfest. Add in the team's depth — with nine regulars in the rotation — and it's easy to see how Anderson presents such an interesting matchup dilemma every night.
But all that success does come with a price.
When Cook noticed his players reacting sluggishly to a recent Saturday practice, following games on Thursday and Friday night, he was quick to remind them of the six wins in eight days and told them he knew they had more to give him than they were showing.
In typical fashion, the players responded and ended the session on a high note.
"This is a really special group of girls here this year," Cook said.
Anderson soon will bid farewell to seniors Da'Sha Boyd, Chelsea Bentley, Samia Carter, Kez'Anique Gosha and Donjanae Chamberlain. They've helped build the program back to championship heights, and they will be severely missed.
But Cook plans to extend their careers as long as possible.
The Lady Tribe will be a prohibitive favorite in next week's Class 4A sectional at Connersville, opening with a rematch against NCC rival Richmond on Wednesday. Anderson is sure to get every team's best shot, and all the momentum its built for the past six weeks won't mean anything once the ball is thrown into the air for the opening tip-off.
That's when the mental toughness Cook has preached about all season needs to take over. The same kind of fortitude the Lady Tribe has shown in laughing off the weather and every other distraction over the past six weeks.
"They do what's expected of them," Cook said, again keeping things simple. "As long as they continue to do that, hopefully everything will work out for us."