For the third straight season, the Pender Pendragons are proving to be one of the hottest teams in the state.
Coach Larry Ballinger’s squad is 20-2 and ranked second in Class D-1. Pender is seeking its third consecutive trip to the state tournament, following a runner-up finish in 2011 and a third-place finish in 2012.
“We don’t talk about a goal, because we all know what it is,” Ballinger said. “We want to get back to state and show what we can do.”
The coach added that he wasn’t sure what to expect heading into this season. Pender graduated five solid players from the 2011-2012 squad, including leading scorer Alexia Henschke.
But the return of three starters — including Ballinger’s daughter Paige — provided a solid nucleus.
“We were still pretty up in the air about how we were going to do,” the coach said. “We’ve only got two seniors on the roster, so we knew the younger players would need to step up.”
The three returning junior starters have all done that. Paige Ballinger leads the team in scoring at 17 points per game, followed by Maggie Fillipi (13.0 ppg) and Trista Morgan (10.0). Ballinger, a 6-foot-1 forward, leads the team in rebounding at 10 per game.
Pender won its first six games before losing to Class D-2 No. 1 Humphrey 48-41 in overtime. The Pendragons have won 14 of their past 15 games, losing only to Class C-2 No. 2 Homer.
“I’ve been blessed with another good group of girls,” coach Ballinger said. “They believe in themselves, and that’s always a positive thing.”
Pender will finish the regular season this week with road games against Ponca and Scribner-Snyder. That will lead the Pendragons into the postseason, and that’s when it really gets tough.
The D1-5 subdistrict includes the top three ranked teams in D-1 — West Point Guardian Angels Central Catholic, Pender and Howells-Dodge. The winner will play the champion of the D1-6 subdistrict, which includes two other ranked teams.
“Our district is just ridiculous,” Larry Ballinger said. “When five of the teams are ranked, you know it’s going to be tough.”
The Pendragons are second in wild-card points, and that could be important as the postseason plays out. Pender has reached state the previous two years by pulling down one of two available wild-card berths.
“I don’t really dwell on our past trips to state,” the coach said. “But we do want to get down there again and give it another shot.”
Still perfect: After capturing the Mid-State Conference tournament title, Crofton remains the only unbeaten team left in the state.
The Warriors defeated Wayne, West Point GACC and Pierce to win the title. The defending Class C-2 champion is riding a 26-game winning streak, longest in the state.
Ratings update: No changes atop the classes, though D-1 West Point GACC and D-2 Humphrey did suffer losses. The Bluejays fell to unbeaten Crofton while the Bulldogs lost to D-1 No. 3 Howells-Dodge.
Top games this week:
Class C-1 — Tuesday: Fillmore Central at Sandy Creek; Fairbury at Seward. Thursday: Pierce at West Point GACC. Friday: Chadron at Sidney; Milford at Sandy Creek.
Class C-2 — Tuesday: Boyd County at O’Neill SM. Thursday: Norfolk Catholic at Crofton; Hastings SC at Sutton; Hershey at North Platte St. Patrick’s. Friday: Crofton at Randolph; Deshler at Blue Hill.
Class D-1 — Tuesday: Emerson-Hubbard at Randolph; Amherst at Alma. Thursday: Howells-Dodge at North Bend; West Holt at O’Neill SM.
Class D-2 — Tuesday: David City Aquinas at Humphrey SF. Friday: Lindsay Holy Family at Bancroft-Rosalie.
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