Brookside Christian, which won the CIF Division V state championship last season, moved up to the Open Division this season and removed a big hurdle in the way of anyone harboring D-5 title hopes.
"We were EXTREMELY fortunate that Brookside Christian was moved up to the Open Division," said Scheppler.
Had Brookside Christian remained in Division V, it's quite possible Pinewood would not be in Sacramento at Sleep Train Arena on Friday morning playing for its sixth state championship. To that, Scheppler tips his cap to last year's champ.
Pinewood (23-8) will go after some more history when it takes on Sierra Canyon (26-9) of Chatsworth for the Division V state title. The Panthers are making their third trip to the finals in four years and seventh appearance all-time. No other Division V team in state history can match that.
The title game matchup pits teams that knocked off No. 1 seeds in their respective NorCal and SoCal championship games. Sierra Canyon upended Horizon Christian, 63-62, and Pinewood toppled Eastside Prep, 48-36.
"I'm not surprised we are playing in a championship game," said Scheppler. "We have the ability to play at this level."
The Panthers proved that with their victory over Eastside Prep and their history of playing for state titles.
"The team we're playing is extremely long and athletic and can pose a significant problem for us, IF they play frenetically and create trapping situations. We haven't handled those types of teams well this year because of our youth and basketball inexperience. We are still a work in progress."
With no time to do much scouting or planning for Sierra Canyon, Scheppler will stick with what got the Panthers to the finals.
"We have a similar mindset — take away easy baskets inside and force non-shooters to beat you on the perimeter," he said. "In big games, or any games for that matter, getting easy baskets is crucial in being successful offensively. You can do that by press, steal, layup . . . having an inside scorer . . . dominating the offensive boards . . . having set plays whose end product is a layup.
"When our Pinewood teams are at a size disadvantage, we have to take the inside away by double teams in the post and holding our own on the boards. On the offensive end, we use our offensive skills to create the shots we want as a team — layups, floaters, 3's and free throws. Our strongest asset is our shot selection. If they take away our 3's, it leaves the rim open."
Pinewood will face another tall team that features 6-1 Kennedy Burke plus three other players standing 5-10 or 5-11. Then again, Eastside Prep put 6-3 Destiny Graham and 6-0 Hashima Carothers on the floor and Pinewood still found a way to win.
"We are excited to be playing on this stage," Scheppler said. "and I know this experience will greatly benefit their improvement as athletes."
Pinewood will lose only one player off this team, Angelina Mapa. Sophomores and juniors make up the core of the team that held opponents to an average of 29.3 points in three NorCal playoff games.
One of the Pinewood youngsters is sophomore point guard Marissa Hing, who woke up earlier than usual last Saturday morning, full of energy and excitement. She was bent on exacting a measure of revenge from Eastside Prep, a team that pounded Pinewood into submission three times during the West Bay Athletic League season.
Hing knew something would be different when she hit her first two free throws less than a minute into the CIF Northern California Division V girls' final at American Canyon High.
The foul shots gave her Panthers a lead they never relinquished en route to No. 3-seeded Pinewood's stunning upset of No. 1 Eastside Prep.
"When I woke up (at 5:30 a.m.) I was already excited for this game," Hing said. "It's always good for me when I can make my first shot or free throw. It pumps me up."
Hing made all 13 of her free-throw attempts, including eight during a frantic fourth quarter that saw Eastside Prep pressuring Pinewood into nine of its 16 turnovers as it valiantly tried to recover from an 18-point deficit.
"It was revenge time," Hing said. "They took it to us right away all three times. We had good practices this week. We had a lot of new things, and coming up on the bus, we just got pumped up."
Hing scored 17 points, though she was 0 of 6 from long range, and junior Leeana Bade added 18 points as Pinewood denied Eastside Prep its first trip to the state final.
"We did a great job of executing our game plan almost to perfection," Scheppler said. "The crucial part of the game was getting off to a good start and getting comfortable in this environment. We established control from the outset."
Pinewood extended its winning streak to four games by beating a team it had lost to by 24, 13 and 15 points in three previous meetings.
"I thought we came out a little sluggish," Eastside coach Donovan Blythe said. "The first three quarters it seemed like we were somewhere else. We just didn't come out and play."
Pinewood worked out a game plan that included paying particularly close attention to Carothers, who is headed to USF on a basketball scholarship in the fall.
Carothers finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds. She entered the game averaging 16.6 points and 11.2 rebounds a game.
Bade had the primary responsibility on Carothers, with anyone else in the vicinity ready to help when she got the ball. Sophomore Gabi Bade, who had six points and nine rebounds, and Mapa were never far away.
"We had help from the strong side," Leanna Bade said. "We had to try and box her out. The last few times she killed us with her rebounding. It was a challenge, especially with her being such a good player. But we finally got it after being outrebounded and outhustled before."
Carothers also found herself in foul trouble and had to sit out the final six minutes of the third quarter, which proved fatal for Eastside as it went 0 for 9 from the floor in the period. Pinewood opened its 18-point advantage without Carothers in the game.
"Having her in foul trouble was huge," Scheppler said. "During that segment of the third quarter the matchups were in our favor and we were able to get open lanes."
While neither team shot particularly well, the loss of Carothers affected Eastside Prep (22-9), which was 8 of 35 in the second half. Pinewood attempted 12 shots from the field, but was 18 of 21 from the foul line in the second half.
"If we could have just come out in the beginning and played our game," Carothers said. "I can't believe this is my last game."
Although Carothers will be attending college just a few miles up the road, she's already starting to miss the special bond.
"It's like my world, my life," Carothers said. "I love my coaching staff and my teammates are my family. I'm going to miss them so much."
Charmaine Bradford added 14 points and Alexus Simon grabbed 11 rebounds for Eastside Prep.
Pinewood lost freshman Chloe Eackles, one of its top rebounders, to fouls early in the fourth quarter. Junior Kendahl Wallis-Lang stepped in to finish the job. She was a factor in helping to hold her team together as Eastside made its mad rush, closing to within nine points with 3:44 remaining.
Wallis-Lang, who starts about half the time, made two key free throws, grabbed a few key rebounds, misdirected several shots in the paint and was diving on the floor to retrieve loose balls with the ferocity of, well, of a Panther.