The Arlington High School girls basketball team has already achieved its No. 1 goal: finish the season.
The Golden Knights ended last year early when just four players were academically eligible for the second semester. The forfeits were part of what would become a 33-game losing streak that included a 107-2 defeat to Bloomington South on Dec. 11, 2012, which attracted national attention.
This season, all 11 players are eligible as sectionals begin around the state Tuesday. Arlington (6-9), which will face host Morristown (8-9) in a Class A Sectional 59 contest on Wednesday night, started the season with eight players and three more were eligible for second semester.
“We started by saying goal number one is to play a complete season,” Arlington first-year coach Steve Stirn said. “We have to put things in order. No. 1 is your academics. Basketball is to supplement your education and experience, it can’t be first.
“Proud doesn’t do it justice in terms of what I feel for the girls. They’ve had a willingness to learn and willingness to do things they’ve never done before. They’ve truly bought in because they wanted to be successful.”
While the Golden Knights have just six victories, that’s a significant improvement.
They were 1-18 in the 2011-12 season and 0-14 last year. Arlington lost their first eight games last season then forfeited their final six games. (The state record is 113 games, set by Daleville from 1999-2005 according to hickoryhusker.com.)
“It was really tough. I cried,” senior Dajia Rupert said of the season ending early.
Of the 107-2 loss, senior Angelique Davis said: “It was very frustrating but at the same time it was a learning experience. It taught us to never give up. We could have stopped the game but we didn’t. We kept fighting through it.”
Davis said Stirn deserves a great deal of credit for turning the program around.
“His name is exactly what he is,” Davis said. “He’s stern. He puts us to work and makes sure nobody gives up.”
Stirn, 47, had never coached girls before but had been an assistant boys basketball coach and a head football coach at Hamilton Heights and Paoli. He resigned at Hamilton Heights in 2007 citing personal and family reasons following an investigation that he provided alcohol to a minor. He entered a deferral program that led to the case being dismissed.
“We’re trying to build a foundation,” Stirn said. “This is as much a humble beginning as anyone could face. But the successes we’ve had have been on and off the court.”
In addition to staying eligible, the girls have bonded. Stirn said the wins the team has achieved have meant so much considering the previous two seasons.
“Our confidence at times was not the best, but that’s understandable having gone through what they’ve gone through,” Stirn said. “That scar is still there but not as prominent as was early in our season.”
The Golden Knights have four seniors, two sophomores and five freshmen. Freshman Alec Fitts leads the team with a 9.6 scoring average. Rupert averages a team-high 6.2 rebounds.
“We wanted to show everybody we were capable,” Fitts said. “We’re on the same page. Every game we want to play as hard as we can.”
Stirn said the girls have done that.
“They girls are winners now,” Stirn said. “Everyone should feel good about what we’ve done and where we are going next season. Our goal by tournament time was to be competitive and I think we’re there.”