GENEVA — Fillmore Central proved last winter that it’s a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court.

The Panthers racked up 23 wins, captured the Southern Nebraska Conference tournament championship for the first time, and finished fourth in their first state tournament appearance in six years.

“I think going into last year we knew we had some talent,” FC head coach Shad Eberhardt said. “A few weeks before we won the conference tournament, things started clicking. Then to win the tournament for the first time in Fillmore Central history, that was a big jump for us as a team. That gave us a lot of confidence and from there we just kept it rolling and ended up getting to state. We won our first game at state, which was also a first for Fillmore Central.”

The year ended with losses to Crofton, the eventual runner-up, and Oakland-Craig. But there’s no doubt the experience is something to build on, and Eberhardt feels how motivated his team is for the upcoming year.

“I think it’s going to be really hard this year…but I think they’re up for the challenge and I think they’re excited to see if we can do it again,” the coach said.

If you look at the roster, it’s pretty easy to see why the Panthers were so successful and why they might be this year. If you watch them play, it’s even easier.

Not many C-2 teams have the size and strength to match up with Fillmore Central. And if that sounds like speed is their Achilles’ heel, they have that as well.

How about three forwards who each stand at 6-feet? How about a pair of guards who averaged 13.2 points, and 8.2 points last year?

“I think our athleticism is at a pretty high level,” Eberhardt said. “I think we have a lot of girls that can run and can play different positions. I think we’re pretty good defensively. We can interchange a lot. Our guards aren’t afraid to muddy up with posts if they have to. And offensively, we’re pretty well balanced. We have some height, but we also have some shooters and guards that can get to the hoop and kick.”

Jackie Schelkopf is the team’s leading returner in scoring. She averaged over 13 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 2.4 assists. Erin Schmidt averaged 12.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.7 assists. Macy Scott averaged 8.2 points, 2.2 steals, 2.5 assists. Halle Theis averaged 7.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.0 assists. Lexi Theis averaged 6.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.7 assists.

Also expected to contribute heavily are Abby Nichols (4.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg), and Rhiannon Shaner 91.9 ppg, 1.0 rpg).

“We have a lot of girls that can score. It’s not like you can key on one of our players. We have a lot of girls who are willing and able to step up and hit shots when they need to,” Eberhardt said. “We also don’t have a lot of selfishness on our team, which has been huge.”

Eberhardt mentioned one thing he learned as a coach last season was how crucial depth was to making long runs in the postseason. He pointed to the state tournament when all three opponents FC faced pressed the Panthers with their defense.

“Going into state we were comfortable at about seven (players) deep. We could go eight if we needed to, but pretty much seven,” Eberhardt said. ‘When you’re getting pressed three days in a row, legs start to go…then mental starts to go. And you make some uncharacteristic mistakes and you’re not running your stuff quite as well…It’s hard to play three games in a row, and play well for three days in a row.”

The Panthers play in one of the tougher conferences, which Eberhardt says helps prepare his team for tough competition. The SNC features the likes of Superior, Thayer Central, Centennial, Milford, Sutton and Fairbury among others.

“I think we have one of the strongest conferences,” the FC coach said. “It’s a really tough tournament to win. We play every single team in our conference during the regular season, which makes it a little bit harder to game plan (in the tournament) because you’ve already seen each other.”

The expectations are high in Geneva.

“I think our girls know we have the opportunity to make it back to state,” Eberhardt said.

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