WHEELING -Lindsey Baker wanted to make sure one thing was clear when I spoke with her after practice Monday.
''I'm not nervous,'' the Wheeling Central sophomore said. ''I'm ready to play. I think we're going to go down and shock a lot of people with what we're going to do.''
Baker's not the only one who thinks the Maroon Knights, who play Charleston Catholic tonight at 9 p.m. at the Charleston Civic Center in the first round of the state tournament, are going to surprise teams when they take the court. Every Central player believes it as well.
''If we play with the intensity we have, we know the great thing we can do,'' senior Maira Olsen said.
''We remind each other of that. Whenever someone makes a mistake, you always pat them on the back and tell them to go get the next one.''
If you were to tell Coach Penn Kurtz, who has guided Central to 19 state tournaments in his 21 years as coach, during the summer that this team would be oozing with confidence days before they made the trip to Charleston, he probably would have nodded and said sure. Whether or not he fully believed it, he'd never admit.
''During the summer, I saw a team that had the potential to be very good, but was inconsistent,'' Kurtz said. ''From day one, that's what we've been talking about, trying to develop some consistency. Anytime you take five new starters, and especially players who haven't played a whole lot of varsity, it takes awhile for them to come together and figure it out. This group was challenging in that area of, they wanted to be good, they just didn't know quite how to come and do it.''
Then, after months of practice and hard work, it all came together at the right time.
The Knights were 10-10 and had dropped three straight games where they were beat by an average of 24 points. To everyone else, their season was over. The last game on their schedule was a trip to No. 1 and undefeated St. Marys, the same team that knocked the Knights out of the state tournament in the first round a year ago.
''Before we go out on the floor the five starters give a pep talk,'' Baker said. ''(Senior) Ashton (Cross) told us before (the St. Marys) game, 'Do it for Penn. Do it for everyone that hasn't had faith in us to win.' We just wanted to prove to everyone in that game that we could play together as a team. That's when we just went out and took over.''
Baker put up a game-high 29 points as the Knights routed the top ranked team in Class A, 58-37.
''It's all about intensity with us,'' Baker said. ''When we have a lot of intensity, we play more together as a team. We all get really psyched for a game. When we realized we could play together and we did, that's when it all came together.''
Olsen, who started for Central a year ago but now comes off the bench to provide a spark, said there has been a drastic change in the team's chemistry since the begining of the season.
''Even though we were all here last year, it was still a new team,'' she said. ''We found out early that it was going to take a lot more than just go out there and win. It took us a while to figure it out, but we have now.
''We had a couple tough games against Parkersburg South and University. Even though we did get beat, we played very well as a team. I think playing harder teams made us realize that we need to keep up that intensity.''
If it's intensity that drives the Knights, than there's nothing more intense than playing on the state's biggest stage.
''We just have to play every game like it's going to be our last, but it definitely won't be,'' Baker said. ''We're going to keep going. We have to leave everything out on the court and that's how we're going to win it.
''I just know we're going to be on our A game. We got this.''
Tony Viola can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org