GARY | West Side's Rod Fisher said that there have been years in his 37 seasons when he's had to work harder as a coach than he did this year.
For instance, when the Class of 2015 entered West Side as freshmen, Fisher had to work harder.
"The talent was there, the maturity wasn’t there (two years ago)," Fisher said. "Instead of being 14 years old, they’re 16 or 17 years old now. They’re just more mature now."
But preparing this year's juniors when they were freshmen helped set up the 2013-14 team that won a sectional and reached a regional final. It also helped set the stage for the chemistry that kept the Cougars together through a rocky postseason.
On the Monday before the sectional, a fight during practice forced the suspension of several key players. While the Cougars could have imploded, instead, they rallied and remembered the message Fisher had given them before the season: united we stand, divided we fall.
"It wasn’t so much what I did, after that incident, it was what the kids did. I was just, I was devastated," said Fisher, who was named by The Times as the girls basketball coach of the year. "I remember walking into the gym Tuesday, after that was over, ‘Oh my God, we have eight kids out there practicing.’
"After practice, I was sitting in the chair, just staring, and they came over and apologized for what had happened the night before. They’re the ones that rallied me to get inspiration for the next day. It was more what they did for me than it was what I did for them. I felt very proud of them the way they played Wednesday and it just sort of snowballed."
As part of his coaching plan this season, Fisher had to convince the junior class — that had propelled West Side to a 34-9 record as freshmen and sophomores — away from leading the team offensively and into key role players.
While freshman phenom Dana Evans, who started the year with Division I offers, led her team with 20.4 points, the former offensive leaders gave up their points for the greater good.
"At the beginning of the season, I thought there’d be a problem, that’s basically why we came up with the ‘United we stand, Divided we fall,’ because there’d been some friction in earlier years," Fisher said. "That was the least of my worries during the season. They got along fine."
The Cougars, who handed Logansport one of only two losses in the regular season and its first of the year, closed to within three points of Penn with more than three minutes remaining in the regional final game. Penn went on to play in the Class 4A state final.
The loss in the regional was greater emotionally for the team than any previous sectional loss. The Class of 2015 was expected to win sectionals in their freshman and sophomore years, but in both seasons lost to the eventual sectional champ.
After losing to Penn, the team quickly wanted back into the gym.
"They’ve already called a week after, saying, 'When can we get in the gym? Can we get in the gym?'" Fisher said. "Not for an official practice, you know, but they’re not satisfied. Maybe last year, it’s a whole lot different when you’re a senior, going to be a senior and this is your last hurrah, instead of ‘I’ve got a few more years and I can be satisfied,’ we’ve got five seniors that don’t want to end the season the way they did this year."
The Cougars expect to lose no starters from the postseason roster come October, with a trip to the state finals — the first since 2005 — on their minds.
Their coach is ready to make the return, too.
"It was very rewarding to see how they performed during the postseason," Fisher said. "They’re hungry, that’s the best I can describe it."