By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – All roads lead to Rome. In the southern section of Class 4A basketball, that convergence often takes place in the coliseum known as BNL Fieldhouse, home of the Empire, a dynasty that must be conquered and cannot be avoided.
For the 13th consecutive season, Bedford North Lawrence will compete in the IHSAA regional. For the eighth time in that ancestral line of dominance, BNL will host the second stage of the state tournament series. Home-court advantage has not always worked in BNL’s favor, as the Stars have gone 2-5 in home finals during that span. And this opponent will be the greatest challenge at this level in the last decade.
BNL (20-4) will collide with No.2 Center Grove (25-1) in the one-game regional on Saturday afternoon. That winner will advance to the two-game semistate, with the site and opponent to be announced by the IHSAA on Sunday. The Stars will seek to add to their state record of 14 regional titles, but they will be underdogs in this clash of titans.
The Trojans do not require a secretive horse to bash down BNL’s castle walls. They are ranked as the best team in the state by the Sagarin computer, they bring an 18-game winning streak into the battle for momentum and confidence. They are also pursuing vengeance after falling to BNL in last year’s semistate opener at Southport. All the factors point to a royal rumble between the defending state champion and a major contender for the 2024 crown.
“We’re excited for the challenge,” Center Grove coach Kevin Stuckmeyer said. “Bedford is one of the biggest challenges you can face at this level. They have set the bar. To be able to go beat them and compete is a step you have to take.”
What makes Center Grove so dangerous? The Trojans have all the necessary pieces to put together a title run. They have scoring balance, they have experience on this stage, they are defensive gladiators, they have perimeter firepower and an inside presence. Last season, they were tough to score against but limited in their attack. Not anymore.
Center Groove has boosted its scoring by over 12 points per game this year. The leader is senior wing Audrey Annee at 14.1, but she has plenty of help from 6-3 senior Rachel Wirts (12.9 plus 7.0 rebounds), junior guard Ava Grant (11.7) and junior guard Lilly Bischoff (10.9 plus 6.0 assists). They’ve done that without sacrificing on the other end. Center Grove has allowed fewer than 30 points eight times, seven during the current streak.
“It’s the improvement of our girls in the offseason, taking the next step as basketball players,” Stuckmeyer said. “We have more balance this year. Grant has played exceptionally well for us, and Bischoff has taken over at point guard and given us more of a dynamic ability to make plays. And the biggest thing is the ability to score at all five positions, to understand their roles and make plays together.
“Wirts has take the biggest steps. She has shown the ability in flashes as a sophomore and junior, it was just a matter of taking that next step and being more confident and consistent.”
Some of the Center Grove numbers stand out. Annee has hit 87 treys this season and launched 75 percent of her shots from that distance. She’s shooting 41 percent from deep. Grant has similar percentages – 64 treys, 63 percent of her shots, hitting 48 percent from there. Those are huge weapons. Wirts, given free space in the paint when opponents extend their coverage to the 3-line, is converting 60 percent from inside.
“Wirts has definitely gotten better,” BNL coach Jeff Allen said. “She’s a big, athletic kid. She poses some problems for us. And they have really good shooters around her, which makes it difficult to help a lot. They’re outstanding shooters, they have a quick trigger. We have to meet them on the catch and make it difficult. We’ll have to do the best we can.
“I think Kevin is one of the best defensive coaches in the state. And this year he has a team that can really score. That makes them very dangerous. But I don’t think we could have had better preparation to get ready for them than playing Silver Creek and Jennings County – two teams that had really good guards and a big person in the middle – in the sectional.”
What makes BNL so dangerous? The Stars have a Miss Basketball frontrunner in senior star Chloe Spreen, who’s averaging 20.9 points and 7.1 rebounds. They have senior Madisyn Bailey, who was simply sensational in the sectional. She’s been super of late, raising her averages to 11.7 points and a team-best 4.3 assists. And if overlooked, freshman Miley Sherrill (9.3 points, 4.3 boards) can do damage.
“If Chloe is not the best player in the state, she’s one of them,” Stuckmeyer said of the Alabama recruit. “She’s so explosive. She can create her own shot, she can create shots for others. She puts major pressure on your defense where she can score at any given moment, from all three levels on the floor.
“Then you add in Bailey, who is just phenomenal at staying within herself, being composed and allowing the game to come to her. She seems to have that ‘it’ factor, to make plays when she needs to. They all play their roles so well, and they’re ready for the moment. They don’t try to do too much. They make you go beat them. You have to play well and execute well. They put that pressure on you to play a great game, limit your mistakes but yet be aggressive enough to go win it. They’re tough as nails.”
BNL is coming off its most intense and impressive win of the year, battling past Jennings 43-39 in a classic sectional final. The Stars were at their defensive best, allowing only 10 points in the second half. Bailey was at her ultimate best, scoring a career-high 24 points while also taking the responsibility as the defensive stopper. The Stars will have to duplicate that energy and competitive toughness.
“We’ll have to be at our best,” Allen said. “At this level, the kids have to be ready with that type of intensity and focus, or you’re going to go home. We’ve been here enough that we understand that. I think the girls will be ready.
“They have to guard us, too. I go back to patience. If we are patient, we can make it difficult for people to guard us. And we have to rebound the ball. That’s one thing we did outstanding last week. Both teams (Silver Creek and Jennings) should have outrebounded us, but it was our effort and focus. We did a great job on the boards.”
Spreen was a star in last year’s semistate meeting, scoring 20 points during a 50-43 triumph. BNL got off to a quick getaway with a 9-0 run to a 16-7 lead, survived Center Grove’s gritty comeback, then made 12 free throws in the final 6 1/2 minutes to advance. Aubrie Booker had 14 points and Annee added 13, but the Trojans were guilty of 17 turnovers. Another fast start will be vital.
“Their pressure and our untimely turnovers were the difference,” Stuckmeyer said. “When you get to this stage and these types of games, you always need to set the tone, weather the storm with the game at their place, with their crowd. You have to withstand that, set the tone with the type of game our girls want to play.
“They’re playing at home, they’re the defending state champs. They have girls that have been there and done it before. I don’t know that the defending champs with those returning players are not the favorite, especially at home. I don’t think Sagarin ratings matter once you get in the tournament. On paper, that means something, but when you get to this point of the year, there are really good teams. The computers can say what they want, but it’s about matchups and execution, competing at a higher level when it matters.”
No.8 Franklin (23-3 and the only team to conquer Center Grove this season) will face Evansville North (16-10) in the second regional game at BNL Fieldhouse. Regional winners will trim the survivors to the Elite Eight. Center Grove represents BNL’s biggest regional obstacle since a legendary 71-45 win over No.1 Columbus North in 2013.
“I’m just happy to be playing,” Allen said. “This time of year, it’s a great feeling when a lot of people are done, and we’re still playing.”
CLASS 4A REGIONAL
CENTER GROVE at BNL
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Records: Center Grove 25-1, ranked No.2; BNL 20-4, ranked No.14
Sagarin ratings: Center Grove 99.21; BNL 93.35
Last meeting: Last year in the semistate at Southport, the Stars posted a 50-43 victory. Chloe Spreen had 20 points and Mallory Pride added 12 for BNL. Aubrie Booker totaled 14 points and Audrey Annee had 13 for the Trojans.
Previous game story: Stars hit the magic number
Game notes: BNL has won 14 regionals in program history, the most in state history. The Stars have conquered Center Grove four times in postseason meetings (2015, 2018, 2019 and 2023). Center Grove has won 5 regionals in program history, beating Franklin in last year’s one-game regional at BNL.
Bedford NL Stars
F – Chloe Spreen 5-10 Sr.
F – Miley Sherrill 5-9 Fr.
G – Madisyn Bailey 5-9 Sr.
G – Trinidy Bailey 5-7 So.
G – Tori Nikirk 5-6 Jr.
Center Grove Trojans
F – Audrey Annee 5-9 Sr.
C – Rachel Wirts 6-3 Sr.
G – Ava Grant 5-9 Jr.
G – Lilly Bischoff 5-9 Jr.
G – Aubrie Booker 5-8 Sr.