PORTAGE — Seemingly every time Kristen Cravens shot, the noise started. It wasn't easy being in the starting lineup as a sophomore on a senior-laden team.
Two years later, Cravens is stronger for it. That “positive mental attitude,” as she calls it, has helped make the senior guard one of the Region's most-dangerous shooters.
“You have to actually push through the pain and all the comments,” Cravens said. “You just can't listen to it. You just have to think about the next shot if you miss the first one.”
Cravens leads a Portage team that should be toward the top of the Duneland Athletic Conference, and she brings an impressive offensive track record. She played some varsity as a freshman and earned a big role her second year but shot just 28% from 3-point range.
Portage coach Marc Bruner said Cravens had more to deal with that season than the average sophomore. On top of the typical adjustments to high school basketball, she dealt with the awkwardness of surpassing seniors as a younger player.
Bruner said that dynamic magnified Cravens' down games. Over the course of a three-month schedule, such issues can drag a team down. He said it bothered Cravens' teammates, too.
But Cravens kept shooting until results started to show — and they sure did show last season. She shot 38% from 3 last season and scored 9.3 points per game, illustrating the value of determination and self-belief.
“To see what she did last year — she was above 40% up until the sectional, when she had to (deal with Michigan City center) Hannah Noveroske for 30 minutes,” Bruner said. “It has been good to see a kid be able to overcome the mental fatigue of basketball, because it's a rough season.”
Portage brings back nearly its entire roster from last season, including senior point guard Troilisia Lacey. From the moment Lacey and Cravens stepped foot on the court together four years ago, they have had a natural chemistry that's impossible to replicate.
Lacey helps create open shots for Cravens with her quickness and vision — she led the team with 3.1 assists per game last year — while Cravens spaces the floor to clear room for Lacey in turn. It's a pairing that could make Portage difficult to stop in the DAC.
“She is literally like my right hand,” Lacey said. “We've been playing since eighth grade, since I came to Portage. Every since then, we balance each other out.
“If I'm down or something or doing bad, she picks me right up. If she's doing bad, I pick her right up. It really helps, her being on the court with me.”
Portage also returns juniors Jordan Barnes, Jaedyn Lowe and Diamond Howell and should have plenty of depth. Talent isn't an issue, and the Indians are off to a fast start with a 58-56 road win over Andrean on Tuesday.
Like with Cravens, Bruner and the coaching staff have worked with the entire team on “the power of positive thinking.”
From those origins came Portage's oft-repeated phrase this summer: “Get our of our own way.” The Indians feel that if they focus on themselves, play for each other and remain confident, they can accomplish all their goals this season — namely, to win a lot of games in the DAC and make a nice postseason run.
Lacey said she's particularly eager to show the Region that Portage is for real. The Indians have hovered around .500 since Bruner took over in 2015 — Lacey and Cravens said opponents may be expecting the same.
Portage knows better.
“The only thing that we think can keep us from having a really successful year is ourselves,” Bruner said. “We've told them, 'Get out of our own way, let basketball happen and we can be pretty good.'”