DECATUR — Two coaches with two of the best post player combinations in the area watched St. Teresa's 2-3 zone take it away from them.
Tuscola coach Tim Kohlbecker said, after a Jan. 21 loss, "We haven't run into a team with that much length on the perimeter in a zone." The Bulldogs' size kept high-scoring forwards Halle McCrory and Maddie Meinhold under wraps.
Tri-City/Sangamon Valley coach Tony Nika called Aubrey Hunt and Ashley Ford two of the "best posts around," but St. Teresa's "great length" frustrated them during the Macon County girls basketball tournament in early January.
The Bulldogs (19-5), under second-year coach Ashley VanEtten, have made a habit of beating teams with defense.
They played a lot of man-to-man to simplify the defense during VanEtten's first year but have installed a unique zone scheme this season that is mirroring the success of the zone coach Tom Noonan runs for the St. Teresa boys.
VanEtten's zone is based off an idea from assistant coach Joe Handley.
"We're not the traditional where you put your trees down low. We put our trees up top and our strong ones inside," VanEtten said.
So if St. Teresa has its typical starting five on the floor, Brianna Niebrugge and DaeLin Switzer are the two at the top of the key, and Jordan Brunner, Vanessa Nutakor and Makenna Thornton form a line along the baseline.
"It's made it hard for some teams," VanEtten said. "It puts my strongest people down low to rebound. They're the quickest to step out and get back in."
Nutakor, in the middle, is the toughest player on the team. Thornton, in the corner, is one of the quickest and most aggressive.
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The Bulldogs switch between man and zone defense depending on the situation, Thornton said. They can go man when the pace is pushed and still bother opponents with their length and aggressiveness.
Their versatility on that end of the floor has led to a resurgent season. They finished 11-15 last season after an 0-7 start.
This year, they're up to 19 wins with the postseason closing in and have given some of the area's best teams their toughest battles.
"I think it's switching back and forth between man and zone, confusing them and throwing them off a little bit," Nutakor said. "In a zone, we talk a lot more. In man, I feel like everyone's a lot more aggressive."
Their offense almost always comes, like it did against TCSV. The Bulldogs missed 20 of their first 21 shots in the Jan. 7 game against the Tornadoes, making their defense the key to their 34-31 win.
With examples like that, VanEtten said she doesn't want her players stressing out over how many points they score.
"They're starting to figure out that defense is our thing," VanEtten said. "How they say a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while — anybody can put the ball in the hoop. Stopping somebody else ... that's a bigger issue.
"They've bought into that and all season defense has been our strong point."
Thornton said the Bulldogs are close to reaching their full potential. VanEtten is still waiting for them to play that game that makes her sit back in her chair and say, "Holy crap!" Both would like to do it this postseason.
The St. Teresa girls haven't won a regional since the 2011-2012 season, but the unified feeling is that they're getting closer.
"I think it's going to go well for us," Thornton said. "We're ready to get out of regionals already, even though we have to wait for the game to come."