Just a handful of games into the season, Crown Point coach Chris Seibert realized he had one of the state’s best teams.

Seibert knew all offseason that his Bulldogs would improve on a solid but unspectacular 13-11 campaign in 2017-18. Rival coaches throughout the Region right away saw freshman point guard Jessica Carrothers as an impact player. But even Seibert didn’t foresee a season that asserted Crown Point as one of Indiana’s top programs, until the Bulldogs’ win at Northridge on Nov. 17 and followed it with a win at LaPorte six days later.

Crown Point never slowed down, pressing its way to a 28-0 start and Class 4A semistate appearance, where it fell to eventual state champ Hamilton Southeastern. Seibert’s role in the turnaround made him The Times Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.

“Very seldom at the 4A level do you win championships with two freshmen and a sophomore and a lot of young kids,” Seibert said. “It’s humbling, for sure. … I’m proud of the program, proud of the kids.”

The Bulldogs’ 15-win jump was the largest such improvement among Region teams — boys or girls. Along the way, Seibert helped insulate a team heavy on freshmen and sophomores from the mounting pressure as the Bulldogs remained undefeated first into the new year, then even into February.

Young players like sophomore guard Alyna Santiago and freshman center Lilly Stoddard rarely showed their inexperience. When Seibert took over at C.P. in 2015, one of his main goals was to standardize the playing style and coaching at all levels of Bulldogs basketball. Crown Point’s middle school teams run the same press and the same inbounds plays as the varsity squad.

While Carrothers didn’t play for Crown Point before this season, Santiago and Stoddard have brought immediate impact, particularly on the defensive end.

“Initially, we spent even more time with our lower levels than we did with the high school level, to try to get our feeder system and get our middle school program and everything on the same page,” said Seibert, who also recently received District 1 honors for the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association's Bob King Coach of the Year award. “Now we’re starting to reap the benefits of that, as you see these young kids coming up and playing and being successful.”

The team’s goals were to win the Duneland Athletic Conference and sectionals, according to Seibert — the latter a seemingly ambitious aspiration, considering the Bulldogs last advanced to regionals in 2001. By the time Crown Point strung together five premium wins away from home against teams like E.C. Central and LaPorte before the end of November, the team found itself dealing with outside expectations that it hadn’t set itself prior to the season.

The Bulldogs never let the pressure affect their play. They pulled out competitive wins over Michigan City and Bishop Noll late in the regular season and continued to play their up-tempo, aggressive game.

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Carrothers said Seibert masterfully managed the mental side of the season. He kept the Bulldogs ready for every opponent, no matter how many points onlookers expected Crown Point to win by. He kept the everyday grind fun, even during the monotonous winter months.

After a rousing home win over Kankakee Valley on Jan. 15, Seibert entered the locker room so hyped up that he slapped a white board in celebration. He looked down at his hand and asked, “Why did I do that?” as the team cracked up. Carrothers said the Bulldogs still talk about the incident.

“Most teams, they might say, ‘Ugh, we have practice after school,’” Carrothers said. “It was like that some days, but most days it was, ‘Yeah, we have practice, it shouldn’t be that bad. We have film later, so it should be shorter.’ We didn’t really have to worry about being bored all practice, and I guess it was something to look forward to.”

Once Crown Point had completed an undefeated regular season, Seibert and his staff had to make their first major adjustment. Junior starting center Abby Stoddard developed a blood clot in her shoulder and had to be shut down for the rest of the season, starting with sectionals. Crown Point went to a six- or seven-player rotation that forced its starters to log big minutes, as Lilly Stoddard stepped in for her sister.

The Bulldogs’ depth took a hit, but they knocked off undefeated Penn in overtime for the Class 4A LaPorte Regional title, anyway. With Lilly Stoddard as its only true center, Crown Point did all it could to protect her from foul trouble while taking advantage of her 6-foot-3 frame.

Seibert said he developed a significant amount of his in-game coaching ability as the boys junior varsity coach under Mike Jones at Wheeler from 2005 to 2007; 12 years later, he used that knowledge to help push the Bulldogs through to semistate.

“I think he learned that, one, you’re trying to develop players, but at the same time, you’re trying to evaluate (how) to play to the players’ strengths and try to avoid their weaknesses,” said Jones, who guided the Bearcats to the Class 2A state title in 2010. “I think he allowed those kids to play to their strengths.”

Crown Point returns four of its top five scorers next season, among which only Abby Stoddard will be a senior. The Bulldogs were invited to play in the prestigious Hall of Fame Classic in New Castle on Dec. 27, and Carrothers has an argument as the Region’s top player.

Carrothers said Seibert reminded the team throughout the year that it hadn’t accomplished its goals yet as a way to keep the Bulldogs focused. Crown Point achieved its initial objectives, but that opens up a new set of possibilities.

“They tasted it now,” Seibert said. “They’ve had experience with success. Crown Point basketball, the excitement in the community is back. We saw the support that we will get if we have a successful team and if we play the game the right way. But nothing is taken for granted.”

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Porter County Sports Reporter

Robbie Weinstein covers Porter County prep sports and Valparaiso University athletics for The Times. You can find the Vanderbilt University and Northwestern University grad posted up on the nearest field of play or in front of the TV.