SPRINGFIELD TWP. There is a fine line between winning and losing and so far this season, the Springfield Spartans have been trying to find a way to stay on the right side of that margin.
With a 1-8 record, they've been in close game after close game and for the most part, haven't been able to crack the winning equation. Veteran head coach Kevin Pletcher has seen the program move forward during his tenure with the program, but getting over the hurdle of transitioning from competitive to consistently winning has proven the be the toughest challenge.
"We're 1-8, but that could easily be a 5-4 or 6-3 record with the close games we’ve had," Pletcher said.
It's easy to think that such an observation is a natural thought for a coach whose team is fighting hard for wins and wants to see things in the best possible light, but through nine games, Springfield is battling issues in two important statistical categories that go a long way toward deciding winners and losers in the world of high school girls basketball.
One is turnovers, an issue that has been a chief struggle for the Spartans across multiple years and head coaches over the past decade. Another is free-throw shooting, which can have a massive impact on the outcome of close games – the sort Springfield has played more often than not this season.
In trying to shore up their efforts in those two areas, the Spartans have zeroed in on some specific goals and standards for which they're aiming for the rest of the season. "Our free throw shooting is one thing we've got to get better at, along with cutting down on turnovers," Pletcher said. "Our goal is to have 15 or less turnovers a game and to get to line 20 times and be 70 percent shooting from there."
Those are both lofty goals and there are many college and professional teams with players on their roster who shoot below 70 percent from the foul line, but free throws are unique in that they come from a distance – 15 feet – that is makable for players of all ages and skill levels and also, they're a unique chance to shoot with no defensive resistance and with the game stopped.
Picking up those points and holding onto the ball more could well propel the Spartans to wins in games that have slipped through their fingers up to this point and Pletcher believes more success at the line could hinge on multiple reasons.
"It may be a combination depending on technique it could be going up and down a couple of minutes straight and being tired and then having to shoot," he said. "Our kids have got to be able to be consistent from the line."
Right now, Springfield is converting 52 percent of its foul shots. Upping that mark to 70 percent will take time and effort, but the team regularly works on foul shooting through drills and other activities in practice.
One sees the team split into two groups vying against one another, with each player shooting three free throws in a row. If they can make all three, they earn a point for their team. They also shoot foul shots after going up and down the court during scrimmages in practice, with the idea that making foul shots in practice when they're tired is good training for making those shots in games, when their legs are tired and the pressure is on.
Senior Natalie Phillips is leading the way through nine games with an average of 12.1 points per game and has been the primary focal point for the offense, but she's also gotten help from junior forward Tia Gardinier, who has taken a step forward this season in an expanded role and is averaging 8.6 points per game, which ranks second on the team.
Both Phillips and Gardinier will need to continue their scoring efforts and get plenty of help if the Spartans are to make the second half of their season more successful than the first. "We're competing with well and with exception of Norton we've been in the game, but we've got to be able to come in and hit shots and limit turnovers," Pletcher said. "We talked about it today ... that we still have a lot of very good opportunities to be successful in second half of the season. On Saturday, we back into Portage Trail Conference league games with Field and we know we can compete."
Knowing they can compete and executing the game plans and tactics that will allow them to do so is a not-so-simple equation for a team aspiring to make the leap from competitive to consistently winning the way Springfield is, but the next two months will be their chance to prove they have what it takes.