MICHIGAN CITY — Last year's 58-18 victory for No. 1 Marquette Catholic over Tri-Central at the Class A Valparaiso Semistate exorcised a year's worth of demons for the Blazers following a 69-64 double-overtime defeat to Union City the prior season.
However, the effects of that game still linger this time of the year for Blazers coach Katie Collignon and her team that consists of almost all seniors, but now are seen in a much more positive light as the Blazers (25-2) bid for their second straight state title game berth Saturday against No. 4 Northfield (25-2) in the La Porte Semistate opener.
"After the Union City game, we've kept the same approach since then and the girls have bought into it," Collignon said before Wednesday's 90-minute practice in Slicer Gym on Wednesday night. "We don't look past anybody and we're focused on a common goal each game."
The difficulties can arise when a defending champ can see the end in sight, but for Collignon and the Blazers, it's been simply 'one game at a time' the last two seasons.
"We don't take anything for granted," she said. "We want to get better and better each time we're out on the floor and right now, we're playing pretty well."
Northfield has done the same, winning all five of its tournament games by an average of 31.4 points. Its lone two losses, both coming before Dec. 2, were by a combined eight points to 2A semistate participant Oak Hill (23-3) and Three Rivers Conference rival Manchester (17-8), who they later beat in the Wabash County Tournament on Dec. 29 by 15 points.
"They're very guard-oreinted," Collignon said on the Norsemen. "They've got some guards that can really shoot it and they get them down the floor quickly. They have a great transition game and their press is good. They have a lot of athletes up front. I think it should be a good uptempo game, which is what we're kind of used to and what we like, so I think that will be an advantage, that's for sure."
As well as the Norsemen have played offensively, the Blazers have played just as strong defensively, holding nine straight opponents to under 42 points, including all five tournament opponents to just 33 or less.
"A lot of teams they play against play zone, so it doesn't really help us with our man-to-man defense," Collignon said on the Norsemen's game tapes. "It does allow to see some of the tendencies of players where we can see what we think we can do, who we can have guard who and where we'll think we have the advantages. I also think people underestimate how quick my guards are. And the (Nolan) twins are 6-foot-2, but they can run."
Although Emma and Sophia Nolan weren't as dominant on the offensive end as they usually are in the Caston Regional, they played a massive role in helping the Blazers completely shackle South Central and Fremont to the tune of 53 total points across two wins.
"It's going to come down to if we can beat their press and get the ball across half-court, we'll have good opportunities to score," Collignon said. "I think we're playing really good team basketball right now. I like how we've moved the ball the way we have and we're taking good shots. I think we'll be fine if we continue to take and make those good shots. They'll struggle if we can play the defense like we have been the last couple weeks. I don't know if they've seen pressure like we play. I think when we play up and down. People are surprised at that sometimes. If we keep playing offensively and defensively like we've been playing, I like our chances."
Along with their ability to match up in virtually any style of game, the Blazers will have about as close of a home-court advantage as a team can have this time of the year, making just a short journey over to La Porte, where three members of the roster reside.
"It's so awesome," Collignon said. "The parents were all crossing their fingers on the bus before the pairings hoping that we get La Porte. It's just so nice to have your fans close. You know our fans will be able to be there to support us and we have a lot of support from the Region, too. It's great that Crown Point is there, too. It's just going to be a fun day and this adds to the excitement when you don't have worry about traveling far and all those different things, so it's just the icing on the cake."
That, combined with the experiences of their past, could give the Blazers the edge when it comes to the mental side.
"I think being here before will give us a little something. It'll help us know a little more of what's coming throughout the game," Collignon said. "When we walked in to semistate three years ago as sophomores, we didn't know what to expect and it wasn't what we expected. I think last year, we came ready to go and I think we'll be ready this year, too. The atmosphere won't affect us. We know we're there for a task at hand and we know we have a game to win. Everything else is just the fun part. I think I said this earlier to somebody else, but it's just a basketball game. It's the same court and the same everything else. We have one focus and being seniors now, it'll allow them to bring that focus."
On top of the short drive for the Blazers and their fan base, Collignon is also offering free pizza to Marquette students who purchase a game ticket before the boys varsity contest with Illiana Christian tonight.
"I'm thinking that the kids plan on breaking up with their Valentine dates at some point (Thursday)," she said. "We have sold a few, but I'm hoping there will be an influx of heartbreakers at the Scholl Center tonight for some pizza and some basketball."
Reach Michael Whitlow at email@example.com or (219) 214-4169. Follow him on Twitter @couldbelikemike.