Inside his office on Wednesday afternoon, Jeffersonville girls basketball coach Mike Warren is reclined at his desk, joking with his staff before making way through the school hallway and onto the Johnson Arena playing surface to begin practice.
The Red Devils were less than 24 hours removed from an overtime win at Seymour, which clinched at least a share of the Hoosier Hills Conference title – Jeffersonville’s first since the 2011 state championship season.
With another league win in the books, Warren is noticeably pleased with the team’s recent play, but the coach didn’t mince words – the Red Devils are far from content. Jeffersonville (13-7), winner in five of its past six games and 6-0 in conference play, can nab the HHC crown outright with a win over rival New Albany (14-5, 3-1) at home at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“We’re not playing for a share,” Warren said.
“We haven’t been anywhere close to a conference championship. This is my fourth year now. Would it be nice to share it and have that satisfaction? Yes, but there is not one kid in this program that has any intention of sharing that conference (title). … We’re getting better, and the program is going in the right direction. I think this would just be another step that we need to take.”
Now 61-33 at Jeffersonville, Warren has seen consistent success with the Red Devils, but conference championships and sectional titles have eluded the program in recent years. Warren, along with seniors Jhala Henry and Jaelyn Lee, has advanced to the sectional final in each of the past three seasons only to fall short.
Warren’s seniors have endured “a lot of disappointment” in postseason play during their time with the Red Devils, but by way of improved team morale and a mix of youth with the team’s veterans, this year could prove different, Lee said.
“Our team is a lot closer,” Lee said. “ … We just made it a big deal to make the chemistry better, because that has always been an issue, and it’s always affected our playing and the way we play as a team. Now that we’ve fixed that, it’s shown.”
With its sights set on sectional redemption, Jeffersonville ousted Bedford North Lawrence 43-34 earlier this season, which snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Stars.
BNL is the five-time defending sectional champion, which includes the three straight over Warren, Henry and Lee. However, in addition to its perfect conference record, Jeffersonville is 4-0 in games played against sectional opponents this season. The Red Devils’ win over the Stars helped lead to the team’s improved sense of self-assuredness, Warren said.
“Confidence with this group is very, very important,” Warren said. “ … We’re just playing with a little more confidence and a different mentality. I think that’s what’s propelling us.”
The Red Devils’ calling card, as usual, is defense. They’ve allowed 38.6 points per game this season – including 27 versus Class 3A No. 1 North Harrison in the season opener. BNL’s 34 points scored against Jeffersonville earlier this year are currently a season-low.
The team’s defensive game plan revolves entirely around Henry, Warren said. A track and field star, the senior is a headache for opposing offenses and individual performers. Henry helped limit Providence standout Claire Rauck to just nine points in the Red Devils’ 52-41 win on Jan. 3.
“Jhala is the heart and soul of this team,” Warren said. “She goes to war every single night. The scary part is, she’s a better track runner than she is a basketball player. … With her defensive intensity and what she does to the other team’s best player, it’s hard for the other kids to not try to play with that kind of defensive intensity. So that makes my job a heck of a lot easier.”
Henry and the Red Devils are faced with another tall task on Friday, as the Bulldogs travel to Johnson Arena. Jeffersonville owns an 8-4 record against New Albany dating back to 2009. The Bulldogs claimed last year’s regular-season meeting with the Red Devils before Jeffersonville ousted New Albany in sectional play.
As it has of late, confidence will key the Red Devils, but they’re far from content.
“We beat them in sectionals,” Henry said. “So I feel like they’re going to come 10 times harder. They’re going to bring it all, but we’re definitely going to bring it all (too). We’re ready.”