Despite doubts over the course of a decade, Wood Memorial High School Lady Trojans basketball head coach Johnnie Bartley made history.
Not only did Bartley lead the Lady Trojans to the school’s first ever IHSAA State Championship, he led the team to their first Blue Chip Conference championship and first Toyota/Gibson County Teamwork Classic Tournament championship as well.
Thus, leading Bartley to the title of the 2016-17 Daily Clarion Alan Hopewell Gibson County Coach of the Year.
The 1988 Wood Memorial High School grad returned to the school in 1997 as a teacher and went from a freshman basketball coach to the varsity girls basketball coach. He’s led the team to 10 sectional titles, two regional titles, two visits to the state finals and of course, one historical state championship.
The Lady Trojans went 29-1 during the 2016-17 season and secured Wood Memorial’s first state title with a 68-43 victory over Union City on Feb. 25 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
After finishing the regular season with a 23-1 record, the lone loss coming on the road to Gibson County rivals, the Princeton Community High School Lady Tigers on Jan. 12 (68-64), the Lady Trojans secured a Blue Chip Conference title with a 8-0 record in Blue Chip play.
The team won their third sectional in four years (2014, 2015, 2017) with wins over Tecumseh (52-34) and Northeast Dubois (59-42) at Tecumseh High School before grabbing the Lady Trojans first regional championship since 2007 with wins over Crothersville (73-57) and Blue Chip foe Vincennes Rivet (46-40) at Springs Valley High School.
The team continued its impressive postseason with a semi-state victory over Tindley (59-50) at Jeffersonville High School before securing the state title.
Bartley also coached a core group of Wood Memorial seniors that dominated in multiple sports throughout the 2016-27 school year. That group of seniors includes Brenna Maikranz, daughter Chloe Bartley, Sydney Day, Carsen Robinson, step-daughter Katie Thacker among others.
Bartley was assisted this season by Joe Robinson, Carsen’s father, and former player Whitney (Malin) Powers, a member of the 2007 state runnerup team, leading to a tight knit group with a lot of chemistry.
I recently sat down with coach Bartley and got his thoughts and views on the state championship season:
Coming into the season, what was running through your head?
“I was really optimistic. I don’t want to sit here and tell you that I thought we’d win a state championship, but I knew we had a really good summer. The chemistry of the team was really good and Lexi Lashbrook had blossomed into that missing piece that we needed, a rim protector and rebounder. I really felt like this could be a good year for us. Looking down the schedule and seeing that the key games set up right for us and were home games were nice. I felt like playing Vincennes Rivet out of the gate was really nice and I felt like we’d be ahead of them at that point in the season. There was a lot of optimism.”
At what point this season did you think ‘We’ve got something special going on?’
“Probably when we got through the North Knox game. We had gotten Rivet here at home and beating Gibson Southern was also a good monkey off our back this season. Mark Monroe does a great job with them. Getting through North Knox here at home and the way we dominated was really huge for us. That’s when I thought we could win the conference. Talking points on the chalkboard was never state championships, it was always winning the conference. If we could do that, then everything else would develop as we went along. I thought it was important for us to accomplish. We had the toughest teams in the conference at home, which is always nice.”
Do you think the loss to Princeton hurt or helped your team more?
“I think at that moment it didn’t feel like it helped us. We knew coming into it that at that point we were thinking we could run to state. We didn’t talk about it, you didn’t have to talk about it because everybody knew. You could look at the schedule and that was the last game on the schedule that could really trip us up. In terms of toughest games left on the road, that was a big one. Coming out after getting beat and feeling like we didn’t play well, hats off to Princeton that night, I thought their kids played well, and losing that game got us to quit thinking about it. It wasn’t that important. That was the message. We got beat and we focused on the conference and getting ready for the tournament. It wasn’t the worst thing to happen to us.”
What runs through your head after you aren’t undefeated anymore? Do you try and change something or just roll with the punches?
“We beat ourselves up for a little bit in the locker room and I remember on the way home assistant coach Joe Robinson said, ‘how did we [lose] nine times last year’ because it was so devastating. But, the nice thing about it was that we didn’t have a lot of time to feel sorry for ourselves. We played Loogootee next, not a bad team, and we really took it out on them. Once I saw us respond in that way, I knew we were going to be okay. The girls were mad and Loogootee had to take the brunt of it. It was good to see my kids respond that way. Being undefeated was never our focus, winning the conference was. There was still focus on winning the conference which we’ve never won before and we got back in focus.”
What does it mean to you to be the first coach to bring that Blue Chip Conference championship to WMHS?
“It’s been frustrating. We had years back in 2007 and 2008 where I really thought we could have won the thing and we just didn’t. Schedule is always important. I think sometimes winning the conference is harder than winning a sectional. You have to win eight games over an entire season where in the sectional, if you’re just good for a week you can win it. It meant a lot to me. It was one of those things where I never thought I’d see it happen. I was almost to the point where I said “Okay, we’re never going to win the conference. I don’t know if I’ll coach long enough.” So that was really nice for me personally.”
What did it feel like to get back past the regional for the first time since 2007?
“I think the regional rolled out nice for us. Winning the sectional is always tough. You know your opponents so well. We weren’t playing in the friendly confines of Woodchuck Stadium here. It was good to get through them and when we got to the regional we were set up well. Crothersville came in having never won a sectional and had a really nice player, but beyond that we didn’t think they were really strong. They had that happy to be here kind of stuff. I don’t think they were really thinking about winning the regional. Also, playing two games in one day is so hard. I think it’s the hardest part of the whole tournament in terms of physical and mental conditioning. So having an easier game in the morning I think was good for us. Having beaten Rivet earlier in the season gave us a mental edge. I think our kids were really fired up to be playing those guys on that stage. That’s the team that beat us when my kids were freshman. Getting through that, I think I was probably just as excited in that moment, just me personally, as I was at any point in the tournament, maybe with the exception of being at Bankers [Life Fieldhouse]. To beat the team that had been so hard for us to get past was a good feeling.
“We’ve won 10 sectionals and only one regional, so you feel like there were times that we had some chances, but we got to the point that when we got to regional we felt like we had no chance, that we had accomplished the best we could in winning sectional. In 2008 we probably should have won the regional, but we had a kid go down. I felt like we really could have gotten back to the state championship.
“So it was pretty awesome. I think I was one of the last people to walk off that floor [at Springs Valley High School]. We just didn’t want to leave.”
What was running through your head when you stepped back into Bankers Life Fieldhouse?
“It was really nice having experienced all this before. I wasn’t overwhelmed and I knew how it was going to play out. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I felt comfortable, if that’s even possible. It just didn’t feel foreign. To get to walk out there with [assistant coach and former player] Whitney [Powers] again, because the last time we walked off we were pretty bummed out, and getting to know that we get to do this again was pretty cool.”
What was the first thing you thought of when the final buzzer of the season went off?
“I don’t know. There’s a picture of me pointing to the crowd and I was pointing at my wife. That was pretty cool. Getting to do this with my kids and finally getting something that had felt designed so long ago coming to be was pretty neat. It was nice to know that with four or five minutes to go that we had this thing. We didn’t have to wait until the final minute to know if we were going to win like at the regional. There, we got to enjoy the last two or three minutes of the game and watch it and get kids in. I just remember from other coaches and my best experience to look around and enjoy it because there are no promises that you’ll get to return again.”
What are some differences between coaching this team and the team in 2007?
“In 2007, we didn’t expect to be up there. I knew we could with this team. The mind-set was different and the preparation was better. Getting to experience it with my kids was a whole new ballgame. Not even just with my kids, because the whole senior class is so close. I could show you tons of pictures of those girls at my house running around at a slumber party and swim parties and all the stuff, so they all felt like my kids. It felt more that my family was there with me.”
Family seemed to be a big part of this, how important do you think that closeness is in a run like this?
“I think it was a big part of it. Chemistry was huge for us. Through the growing pains and relationships, I don’t think we had that chemistry the previous year. I think they matured through the course of the summer and up into this point that they found each other again and wanted to share this experience together. I always talk about playing for each other and I think you saw that. Nobody ever asked me how many points they had. Stats were never important. It was really about playing for each other. It seems cliche, but it is nice to see us be very cliche in that respect.”
What was it like coaching this core group of seniors?
“We talked about that group. They were together when they plated soccer long ago. We told them that if they played the same sports, they were going to be really good. Some played soccer and some played volleyball in the fall and in the spring we had tennis and track and softball. Although they were good, they weren’t quite as powerful as they are when they come together. Having them all together made my job a lot easier.”
What’s an early outlook for when you’re no longer the reigning state champions, but the defending state champions next season?
“I remember in 2007 walking into a hardware store and the guy telling me that I must be done and ride off while I was on top. I told him that I enjoy this too much. I got the same response this year. I’m still enjoying it and like the kids. I guess when the day comes and I walk out there and don’t enjoy it, it’s time to walk away. My assistants promised they’re coming back and we had a good summer and good kids that I’m excited to see what they can do. I don’t know that this has ever been about me. I’ve always wanted to help kids get better.
“We’ll be a lot different team. You don’t graduate that group of kids without losing something. Talent ebbs and flows here at our level. We don’t have 800 kids to choose from. You have to think, between 2007 and 2017, right in the middle of that was a 3-20 season. Looking ahead, I think it’ll be fun. Those young kids are inspired by what they witnessed, just like these kids were inspired by the 2007 team. We’ll be the defending champs no matter what, though, right?”