By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
With three seniors who had played at least parts of the last two seasons on varsity, and a standout freshman making her debut, the Caro girls basketball team had plenty of reasons to make winning its league the goal this winter.
But with Reese coming off its 12th-straight conference title – and Caro seeking its first since 1985 – history was not on the Tigers’ side.
That’s changed quite a bit over the last month. Caro has set itself up to make history, with a chance to head into the Feb. 20 rematch with the Rockets already owning a share of the Greater Thumb Conference West championship.
The MHSAA/Applebee’s Team of the Month for January moved to 14-1 overall and 9-0 in league play Tuesday night, a far shout from the three games the Tigers won three seasons ago and 2-19 record they posted when that current trio of seniors were sophomores.
“I’ve learned more history this year (than ever before),” Riley said Monday, a day before picking up win 14 over Vassar. “That it’s only the third winning season in 24 years. And if we hold on to our first place in the league, it would be the first time in 35 years we’d win a league championship.
“It’s been a fun experience. My first two years we won five games combined, and last year we won 10. And if we win both games this week, we’ll match three years of wins in just 16 games this year. That’s kinda special.”
And pretty incredible.
Caro indeed finished 3-17 in 2016-17, with current senior forward Kaitlyn Arebalo a freshman on the varsity.
Now-senior point guard Ellie Hornbacher joined the mix for that 2-19 run in 2017-18 before an injury ended her season six weeks early. Classmate Raegan Ball also came up to varsity for a handful of games at the end of that winter, picking up some valuable experience.
While not necessarily historic, last season certainly was an improvement. The Tigers were at points 7-4 and 10-8 before settling in at 10-11 after losing their final three games – including 63-23 to Reese.
That has to be something of a distant memory at this point. Caro’s only loss this season came in its third game, to Sandusky (13-3). The Tigers handed the only defeat to GTC East leader Ubly (14-1) and also picked up a 23-point win over Croswell-Lexington (10-7) in their first game of calendar year 2020.
Two weeks later, Caro beat the Rockets 46-37.
“Before Reese, I just told them the pressure was still on Reese. They’re the 12-time defending league champs, and we don’t have anything to lose,” said Riley, who served as the junior varsity coach for five years before taking over the program prior to 2016-17. “That’s kinda been our chip on our shoulder all year. The girls came up with the slogan at the beginning of the year of ‘Respect all. Fear none.’ And that’s the mindset they’ve taken.”
Freshman Adelyn Moore is a player area teams likely will fear for the next three years. She’s Caro’s leading scorer (17 ppg), rebounder (10.6) and also averages the most steals (5.6) for a defensive effort giving up 34 points per game.
Arebalo adds 14.6 points and 7.4 rebounds game, and Ball has sharpened her shooting this winter and is averaging 8.4 points per game. Hornbacher, last year’s leading scorer, made a decision this season to become more of a distributor instead – and while she’s down a few points to 6.4 ppg, she’s grabbing 8.2 rebounds per game at 5-foot-6 and dishing a team high 4.4 assists per contest.
That defensive average is a definite difference this season – and has been one of Riley’s points of emphasis from the start. But just as impressive are the 54 points Caro is scoring on average – up from the low 30s of the last few winters.
Riley multiple times Monday threw complete credit to his players, who have bought into the heightened defense and cultivated the offense it has produced. Combine those improvements with strong senior leadership and a freshman standout, and ending the title drought hasn’t seemed at all far-fetched.
“It was just going to be how we blended together,” he said. “I wasn't sure necessarily how that would take off. But the seniors have mentored the other players, and those other players have had some pivotal roles for us.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2019-20
December: Hartland girls basketball - Report
November: Bridgman girls cross country - Report
October: Allegan boys tennis - Report
September: Ishpeming Westwood girls tennis - Report
PHOTOS: (Top) Caro's Adelyn Moore pulls up for a shot during her team's 46-37 win over Reese on Jan. 23. (Middle) This season's Caro girls basketball team. (Top photo courtesy of Sports Finest Magazine; middle courtesy of the Caro girls basketball program.)