While they enter this year’s tournament as the reigning champs, St. John’s Sauers girls eighth-grade basketball team isn’t taking anything for granted.
The feeling surrounding the Lutheran Basketball Association of America’s National Tournament remains the same: A mix of excitement and nerves.
“It doesn’t feel any different at all going into it,” Raiders coach Craig Klinge said. “You need to be good and also have some luck. I think we had that last year. We’re a good team, and if we get a little luck we might get another one.”
The Raiders will make a sixth straight trip up to Valparaiso University later this week, with the hopes of repeating as champions.
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Last season, the Raiders defeated Immanuel Lutheran of Palatine, Illinois, 34-28 in overtime for the championship. It was the second title for the Raiders, with the first coming in 2001.
This season, the Raiders enter the tournament with a 17-9 record.
Sauers finished runner-up at the Lutheran Invitational Tournament at Trinity Lutheran before again placing second at the state tourney in Fort Wayne last month.
Many inside and out of the program said they think that the Raiders have surprised some of the competition this season after losing some of their top talent.
“A lot of people thought that we weren’t going to be as good as we were. We’ve accomplished a lot of things this year,” Raider Emma Klinge said. “I think we’ve surprised a lot of people.”
While they’ve come close to winning a pair of major tournaments, the Raiders are looking to take that next step this year.
“We got to the championship game at LIT and State, so I feel like we’ve been doing well,” Raider Emma Schepman said. “I’m hoping we do well and play to our ability.”
Coach Klinge said that the team has grown as the season has unfolded.
“We came in with not as much experience as we had last year,” he said. “We’ve been building confidence, and getting more playing time for everyone. I think as the season has gone along, we’ve found moments of success. Hopefully that will translate into more success down the road.”
Having a handful of players back that were on last year’s team has helped this year’s squad get ready for nationals.
“I think all of the younger kids look up to the older kids,” coach Klinge said. “They’re like sponges. They see the success the older girls are having, and take it all in.”
Raider Katelyn Schepman said she is confident the team will play well this weekend.
“We’ve been working hard in practice,” Schepman said. “We just need to play how we’ve been playing all season and we will do well at nationals.”
The Raiders will see some familiar faces at nationals, with both Lutheran Central (Brownstown) and Immanuel Lutheran (Seymour)
“I think it’s great,” coach Klinge said. “ We get to bump into each other up there and help each other along the way. We are happy to help them any way we can until we meet them.
“I think we’ve surprised a lot of teams. We’re not undefeated, but I think we’re good enough to beat about anybody. We just need to make our shots when the time is right.”
The tournament will go Thursday through Sunday, and brackets can be found on lbaa.org.
“We just need to play the best of our ability,” Raider Ellen Zabor said. “We’re going to have to work really hard to win it again.”