MERRILLVILLE | By the end of the 2012 summer offseason, Merrillville's girls basketball team had lost more than its graduating class of four seniors.
The Pirates had a few other players they were hoping would help fill the gaps after a 20-0 regular-season record.
They weren't sure how sophomore Victoria Gaines would play after missing nearly six months of practice rehabbing from an ACL injury. Then they lost incoming freshman Taylor Miller, who was competing to be the varsity point guard, when her mother moved to Alabama.
There were many more question marks than answers could provide.
So the Pirates started with simple goals, none of which had to do with a string of regular-season wins that started the season at 21.
"We just wanted to get better every game," said coach Amy Govert, who was named The Times' Indiana Girls Basketball Coach of the Year. "I don't know what we ended the streak at, but if that's all you care about, you're not going to be successful. Every day we wanted to get better, and as long as we took care of the little things then everything fell into place. I thought this year, defensively, we were a lot better than we'd been in the last two years, which kept us in games."
The Pirates' streak of regular-season wins ended at 39 when they lost to Michigan City by three points on Jan. 25.
By that point, Merrillville had reached as high as third in both the IBCA all-class poll and the ICGSA Class 4A rankings, doing so with new leaders, new scorers and answering a few of those preseason questions.
"I think those that got the taste of winning last year just keeps going," Govert said. "Every game they were focused on wanting to win. To get teenage girls to come together and get along every day for a common goal, that's huge and shows a lot about the character of this entire group."
The two losses the Pirates had this season came at a total of three points, including a 42-41 defeat in the regional final.
Govert finished her eighth season as Merrillville's head coach, and holds a 145-38 record, with only one team finishing below .500.
She said she wanted to create an atmosphere of responsibility with the Pirates, making them not just athletes, but also school leaders.
She added that she hasn't hesitated to kick strong athletes off of her team that haven't adhered to the rules.
"We've built a great relationship with these kids, and it comes from some of the rules we've created in the system," Govert said.
Those rules include timeliness, showing respect to teachers and administrators when the Pirates play on the road, winning and losing with class.
"I was scared of her my freshman year," senior guard Dariyan Morris said. "She's small, but she's really intimidating. We've all grown such a tight bond with her over the years and she's like a second mom to all the girls on the team."
Govert was looking for the perfect former player to return to help lead the program. She found that in Britney Cruz, a 2008 grad who recently finished her career at St. Joseph's College and became an assistant coach this season.
"Having her come back to the program was huge," Govert said. "She knows what I expect. She can tell the kids, this is the reason we're doing this."
As defensive-minded as this team was this season, Govert said her biggest fear came true in the regional final when the Pirates shot poorly against Warsaw. In all, the 23-2 record helped Merrillville finish in a tie for fifth in both state polls.
"I knew we were going to be pretty good, but for this group to go 19-1 and we were up in the last 30 seconds in the games we lost, shows what can be accomplished when everyone has one common goal," Govert said. "I didn't think we'd have the same success we'd have from the year before with as many question marks as we had. I can't say enough about how hard these kids worked."