HIGHLAND | The atmosphere in the Highland girls basketball locker room Friday was a far cry from what the Trojans expressed a year ago under similar circumstances.
After losing to Andrean, 53-50, in the first loss of the season, Highland players were quiet, reserved and contemplative, the team captains said.
Last year, after losing to Andrean 40-36, the room was business as usual.
"Last year we were more apathetic," senior captain Kara Randall said. "It's not that we wanted to lose, but we were so used to it, really it didn't matter. Now, we know we can win and beat good schools, so we're asking ourselves how are we going to respond when we do lose?"
Friday's loss to Andrean was the first this year, not the fourth as it was last season. The Trojans started the 2013-14 campaign 5-0 for the first time since 2002-03.
"It's one of those things where I feel like the kids got used to losing. You get numb to it because it's so hard to be disappointed over and over and over again," coach Tracie Mezera said. "We had to move right past it ... they were actually mad, which is good. They were disappointed in themselves and asked immediately to come in early and shoot the next day. That shows maturity."
Highland's success has come slowly, Mezera said, and with an attitude change on the team.
The senior class was 18-2 as a junior varsity team in 2011-12. Last year's 8-14 season was considered an anomaly.
"To them it's getting back to how they want to be playing and the results they want to see," Mezera said. "In bad seasons you're always saying, what do we need to do to fix it, what needs to click? Now that it has for us, we're like, what is it? What did we do that made it work? It's so many different things and I think No. 1 is the change of attitude."
In addition to the improved attitude, Highland changed its schedule.
Instead of opening against Merrillville as they have for the last 10 seasons, the Trojans played Bishop Noll. They added Crown Point and the Northridge Tournament to their schedule.
"It was a matter of just getting our confidence shot straight out of the gate. Nobody wants to play Merrillville the first game of the season," Mezera said. "We had looked into doing something different with our schedule to be in a better place mentally. We didn't want to soften our schedule ... but maybe just rearranging some things to help ourselves out."
The Trojans have six seniors, but no standout star, so they aren't heavily relying on one player for success. They've found success with Aleysha Slaven running the floor from the point and youngsters like Ellie Morinville, Taylor Steele and Hannah Ryzewski adding talent.
In the early part of the century, when Highland went to the 2003 semistate or won the 2007 sectional title, the young players now watched as gyms were packed with fans. That's the basketball they hoped to see when they reached the high school.
"A decade ago, here at Highland, there was a culture of winning at girls basketball and it takes time to build that back up," Mezera said. "I don't think we're going to see immediate results but the atmosphere in the locker room shows me that the expectation has changed. I'm hoping that it stays that way.
"They want it to be like that, they want to pack the gyms like that. They have to understand the type of work that goes into playing like that and the type of players (Julie and Jenny) DeMuth were. That didn't just happen by chance, those girls worked extremely hard. They grew up around the culture of seeing those gyms packed and we hope this is the start of getting back to that."
The Trojans are not adverse to starting the restoration by competing for an NCC title. A win over Kankakee Valley, an early top contender, showed Highland that those are realistic hopes.
"This has been such an exciting season for us," Morinville said. "In the past we haven't done so well. Now we are proving what we really can do."