One thing the Amboy Clippers girls basketball team has had in the seven seasons under the guidance of Mike McCracken, it's consistency.
The Clippers have been at .500 or above in six of those seasons, with a high-water mark of 21 wins in 2009, and a low win total of 10 in 2011. But the consistency that comes with that 88-79 record was in jeopardy coming into this year, with just one senior returning.
The big question mark at the start of the season has quickly turned into a resounding answer – and it's been nothing but positive. Amboy is 18-6 overall, and its 9-3 mark in Three Rivers North play is good for second place alone, a half-game ahead of Riverdale.
"There's nothing fancy about our scoring or our stats," McCracken said. "Everybody on this team can score, rebound, pass, steal the ball … and they all seem to step up at different times when we need them to."
The vacuum caused by the loss of four seniors who did a lot of heavy lifting last year, has been filled in admirably by an experienced group of juniors – most of whom played varsity as sophomores a season ago – and some younger players who have joined the ranks as underclassmen.
While they're a young team, don't think for a second that the Clippers aren't experienced. Junior Kennedy Dinges is McCracken's granddaughter, and has been watching his teams – both boys and girls – play her entire life. Classmate Kaitlyn Liebing has seen two older sisters go through the Amboy program, and she "never missed any of their games growing up; I was at all of them, cheering them on."
The group of juniors also has the benefit of playing together since middle school, starting under the tutelage of Dinges' mother, Shauna, the junior high coach and McCracken's varsity assistant.
"We've played together since seventh grade, and that really helps when you're building through the season," Kennedy Dinges said. "Our coaches – my grandpa and my mom – always expect the most out of you, in everything you do, and that pushes us to want to get better."
There have been two major keys to this season's success: balanced scoring and stingy defense.
The balance comes from a strong group of role players stepping up and filling in the starting spots, but still not trying to do too much. Playing within themselves is a theme up and down the Clipper roster.
"We know what each other can do," Liebing said, "and we all pick up points and rebounds at different times, in different games, and there's always a few of us doing it together. We're not very big, but we all work hard and hustle and rely on teamwork."
Liebing leads the Clippers in scoring (8.8 ppg) and rebounding (8.2 rpg), but there are six other players who average at least four points per game, and four others who pull down at least three rebounds per game.
But it's on the defensive end of the floor where Amboy often makes hay. Without a superstar scorer, the Clippers win most of their games by limiting the other teams' offense and sticking to lower-scoring contests.
Six players average at least a steal per game, and opponents are averaging just 34.5 points per game; Amboy scores 41.3 points per contest.
"We're only one point per game away from the school record for defensive average in a season," McCracken said, "and that's because we just have a lot of different pieces who can get the job done in different ways.
"Plus, they're kids who are used to winning, and they're confident and comfortable with each other and the system they're playing."
Leadership was the biggest void to fill with the loss of such a strong graduating class. But once again, the Clippers have made it a team effort.
"It's more about experience than anything else," said Micaela McCoy, the team's lone senior. "I love being that big sister type, but a lot of these girls have played varsity for a couple of seasons now, so it's not always them looking to me every time they need something. We can all take a leadership role if we need to."
That leadership often involves helping the younger players feel comfortable. It's almost second nature for the older Clippers, who were welcomed with open arms by the older players when they came up as freshmen and sophomores.
Now, they know it's their turn to return the favor, because they know how important it is for the younger players to feel like a part of the team when it comes to them making plays and helping to win games.
"The older kids were always very supportive of us," Dinges said, "and that made it easier for us to come in and play and make a difference right away. Since we felt comfortable when we were younger, we want the girls coming up behind us to feel just as comfortable. We all trust each other so much, and that's where it all starts."
The goal this season is the same as it's been for several years now. The Clipper girls haven't won a regional title since 1990, and would love to snap that drought this season – especially because they're hosting a 1A regional on their home court … as the top seed, no less.
But lessons learned from previous seasons have Amboy's players making sure they're not counting any chickens before they've hatched.
"We're not going into it thinking that we've already got it won," Liebing said. "We know we have to still play our game, stick with what's worked for us all season."
"I would love to go out my senior year by winning that first regional in 24 years," McCoy added. "We're coming together at the right time right now, and I can't think of a better end to my senior season than sharing a regional title with this group of girls."
By the Numbers
Per-game averages: 41.3 points, 30.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 13.0 steals, 17.3 turnovers
Opponent averages: 34.5 points, 26.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 11.3 steals, 14.0 turnovers
Scoring leaders: Kaitlyn Liebing (jr.) 8.8 ppg, Delaney Wilhelm (fr.) 7.6 ppg, Sydney Wilhelm* (jr.) 7.1 ppg, Kennedy Dinges (jr.) 7.0 ppg
Rebounding leaders: Liebing 8.2 rpg, Elizabeth Ortgiesen (jr.) 4.7 rpg, Sydney Wilhelm* 4.5 rpg, Dinges 3.4 rpg
Assist leaders: Dinges 2.5 apg, Micaela McCoy (sr.) 1.3 apg, Sydney Wilhelm* 1.0 apg
Steal leaders: Delaney Wilhelm 3.1 spg, Dinges 2.4 spg, McCoy 2.1 spg, Sydney Wilhlem* 2.1 apg
* – out for season with foot injury