CROWN POINT — Chris Seibert has asked his teams to control the controllables, and that lesson has never been more important than during a challenging season with COVID-19 responsibilities added onto the day-to-day responsibilities of running a top-level program.
It’s easy for Crown Point to embody that message when its chief leader had to do just that before the season began.
Seibert’s mother, Rin, died before the season began. He fought through tears as he remembered his mother in a phone call with The Times on Thursday.
"She was my biggest fan and my No. 1 supporter. She had been at all my games for as long as I can remember, 5 years old," he said. "Not to see her in the stands or be able to talk to her after a tough game or long day of practice was definitely a change."
Seibert, 38, asks his team to find its solace place on the court. The practices and games are the escape from the pressures of being a teenage girl, or a father and husband or a grandparent.
The Bulldogs have done that better than anybody in recent years, and Saturday they reached the peak, winning the Class 4A state championship 44-34 over Brownsburg to deliver the girls basketball program its third state title, and first since 1985.
“The one thing that I really wanted to do when I got here was just trying to get our kids to understand what that means to put on our uniform, and how to embrace all the people that came before you,” said Seibert, who is in his sixth season as Crown Point's head coach. “And then to hopefully make your own history and add to that legacy.”
This team’s legacy will be cemented in history with navigating a once-in-100-year pandemic complicating matters. But the truck is still pouring the foundation as a program that is now 79-3 over the last three seasons becomes the favorite to repeat, which the Bulldogs were the first to do in 1984 and 1985.
The trio of Alyna Santiago, Jessica Carrothers and Lilly Stoddard has been the constant through those three seasons. Santiago tore her ACL last season, leaving a significant loss from perhaps the most talented team of the three. Being fully recovered allowed her to be the captain of the defense, Crown Point’s best unit, and she’ll graduate and move on to play at Indiana Northwest.
“Sometimes you make shots and sometimes you don’t, but if you can bring it on the defensive end and you can create turnovers from the defense,” Seibert said, “that’s been our calling card for the past few years and I truly believe that’s why we’ve been able to be so consistent.”
Returning are Carrothers and Stoddard, who make up one of, if not the most talented duo in the state. Stoddard, a 6-foot-4 junior is committed to Purdue and ranked No. 58 by ESPN in the Class of 2022. Carrothers is a four-star prospect and in May was ranked in ESPN’s top 50 of the junior class.
Surrounding them will be a full complement of players, each brought together by the community they reside, but bonded by a stoppage due to COVID-19.
“I think that we just have a great group of kids with our role players, with kids who don’t even play that much that are great leaders, kids who push us in practice, and it’s just the right mix of kids that has allowed us to have the success this year,” Seibert said.
COVID creates chemistry
Before the season even got started, Crown Point realized the significance COVID-19 could play. The numbers are horrifying: over 500,000 deaths and 28.5 million cases in the United States alone according to John Hopkins University of Medicine. On a much smaller scale, a positive test at the wrong time could end their season prematurely, something that happened to Munster, Whiting and River Forest.
Crown Point’s focus tightened before playing a game. The Bulldogs were preparing for Bishop Noll and star guard Courtney Blakely, who finished as the state’s scoring leader. But the game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test within the school district, causing a two-week pause of practices.
“We always knew it was a real possibility,” Seibert said. “I felt like we were in a very good place practice-wise, getting ready for Bishop Noll which was supposed to be our first game, and I think it kind of brought us all back to the reality of the situation right away before we ever got to step on the floor and play a game. I think it made the kids even more determined (and) even more cautious. It allowed them to stay really disciplined throughout the year.”
If anyone questioned the value of controlling the controllables, it was now evident how critical that was. The other aspect of thriving in their solace place allowed Seibert to escape the new challenges of COVID-19 by putting technology away for a few hours.
“Literally just waiting for the other shoe to drop as a coach, with waiting for the next email or phone call or text message; every time you finish playing a team wondering if you’re going to get a call saying somebody on that team tested positive.
“It’s hard to put into words how challenging that has been, and it’s really allowed us — when we’re together — to focus on basketball.”
The lone loss
During the incredible stretch of losing one game per season, Crown Point had a new experience: a wake-up call. On Jan. 2, the Bulldogs suffered their first regular-season loss in nearly three years, losing 53-49 to Silver Creek during the Mac Jelks Invitational. It was the first regular-season loss since Jan. 18, 2018.
“Having that loss be in the middle of the season allowed us to sit down with them and watch the film as a team and figure out some things we needed to change and things we needed to improve upon,” Seibert said. “… It also was a good wake-up call for our kids. ‘Hey, we’re playing well but there are also things you can constantly improve upon.’ There’s no better way to get somebody’s attention than to lose a game.”
Attention to detail became a theme, dissecting their own faults as opposed to preparing for opponents, in cases when games were canceled. The loss to Silver Creek, which won the Class 3A state championship Saturday, gave the Bulldogs an opportunity to improve instead of wondering what could have been like the two previous season-ending losses.
They focused on setting better screens, moving better without the ball, having everyone box out instead of two or three players, and working through offensive options if the main player was covered.
For all the extra challenges of a season in a pandemic, Seibert had it right all along: Control the controllables and take solace in the opportunity to play. As the Crown Point community celebrates a talented group, it’ll also be celebrating teachable moments, ones instilled in Seibert by his mother.
"(I'll remember) just how positive and how kind she was to everyone," he said. "I think the way she treated others was the biggest thing."
(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in The Times of Northwest Indiana)