As jump shots rained down Tuesday afternoon at Eastern High School in Pekin, Indiana, senior girls basketball standout Taylor Drury cheered her teammates from the baseline. Drury joyfully counted made baskets aloud as the Musketeers wrapped up practice.
Beyond the 3-point arc, junior star Rachel Stewart set her feet and launched from the right wing. As her shot rattled in, players shouted the number of consecutive shots made in unison, each with a smile from cheek to cheek.
Eastern girls basketball is headed to the school’s first state championship appearance in any sport. However, ahead of Saturday’s 12:45 p.m. Class 2A title game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, coach Michael McBride’s Musketeers appear to be anything but tense.
“They’ve just been really loose all the time,” McBride said. “They haven’t showed any sense of pressure or anxiety. They’ve been really, really good. So it’s been fun for me.”
After the team concluded practice, players gathered to attempt half-court heaves, spearheaded by Drury and Stewart. The duo is largely responsible for the Musketeers’ success.
At 19.1 and 15.5 points per game, respectively, Stewart and Drury account for more than 60 percent of the team’s scoring, and they do it efficiently. Stewart, who scored 34 to lift Eastern Pekin to a semi-state title, nets 55 percent of her field-goal attempts, and Drury sinks 50 percent. The senior also pulls down a team-high 8.8 rebounds per game, and Stewart is second at 5.8.
“(Rachel’s) got a motor that doesn’t quit,” McBride said. “She’s full of energy. She comes to work every day and tries to get better, and she’s never satisfied. She never gets tired. Her play, her passion has been great. Taylor’s leadership has been through the roof. If I could have identified a way for Taylor to finish her career, this would have been it. Her leadership has been outstanding. It’s really taken the pressure off of me.”
In addition to the weight lifted off McBride’s shoulders, the 10-year coach said Drury and Stewart help pave the way for others to succeed, too. Behind that leadership, the Musketeers have rattled off 14 straight wins.
Eastern was 8-7 after three straight losses in late December, but the Musketeers, who “learned a lot about themselves,” during the skid, per McBride, have since outscored opponents by 13.3 points while holding them to fewer than 40 per outing.
Increased offensive contributions from other areas, McBride said, also helped keyed Eastern’s deep postseason run. Two juniors – Savannah Emmert (4.3 points per game) and Jeronica Judson (3.3) – start alongside Drury and Stewart, and freshman Isabell Claywell (6.2) runs the show at point guard. Seniors Holly Purlee (3.8) and Kolbi Sponcel (1.8), along with freshman Caylee Graves (1.9), are more contributors for the Musketeers.
“There are five girls on the court,” Stewart said. “So they have to guard their girl. Isabell’s stepped up for being a freshman. Before every game she’s really anxious and scared, but she calms down whenever it starts. Savannah is getting in there this year, and Veronica is getting more confident.”
Above all, Drury and Stewart are the team’s go-to options, but according to Emmert, the duo is selfless.
“It helps a lot, but they don’t make themselves more valuable (than the rest of the team),” Emmert said. “They like to share everything that they accomplish.”
In fact, Judson said, Drury is quick to criticize her teammates for passing up open looks.
“Taylor yells at us,” Judson said. “If we’re not shooting, she will definitely yell at us.”
The Musketeers, who’ve won their first regional and semi-state on the way to state, practiced at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday ahead of their title bout Saturday afternoon.
“There are goosebumps, and I told the girls, ‘Those goosebumps aren’t bad nerves,’” McBride said. “Those goosebumps have to be, ‘Hey, we deserve to be here, let’s go win this thing.’ The goosebumps have to be an incentive, a motivation to say let’s go play. Like I said, they’ve been a loose group – on the bus, in the locker room. They don’t feel any pressure at all. They’re fired up about it.”
A senior University of Indianapolis signee, Drury will end to her high school career on said court. Despite the result, she’ll continue her career in the same city with memories of this season’s run and a sense of pride in the community she came from.
“It’s been great,” Drury said. “There’s no better way to put it. … Before we played in semi-state, it was weird to think we only needed to win one more to play at Bankers Life. Now, we only need to win one more to be state champions.
“It’s just great to represent Southern Indiana in that way.”