BOB WONNELL IS VICTORIOUS IN HIS KOKOMO WILDKATS DEBUT

Bob Wonnell coaches the Kokomo Wildkats against Western in his Memorial Gym debut. (SJ photo/William Gibson)

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

KOKOMO, Ind. –  The Bob Wonnell era at Kokomo High School is off to a bang – at least inside the friendly confines of Memorial Gymnasium. After his Wildkat debut was delayed 13 days due to the success of the football team, Wonnell led Kokomo to a 69-44 victory over Western in his first game and the Kats improved to 2-1 with a thrilling come-from-behind 88-77 overtime win over Frankfort last Saturday.

For the coach who led Class 1A Indianapolis Tindley to a state championship inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse nine months ago, walking into Memorial Gymnasium for the first time was exactly how he envisioned it when he accepted the job as the 25th head coach in the 115th season of Wildkat boys basketball. His first Kats victory was played before a Tuesday night crowd of nearly 3,000 fans in the annual cross-county opening night rivalry game.

“This is what I was looking forward to; this is Indiana high school basketball,” said Wonnell after the Western victory. “There are movies made about this state and this sport. When you close your eyes and envision what that would and should look like, this was it.”

With his win over Western, Wonnell became the first head coach to win his debut game since Mike Wade defeated Western 76-72 in 2000. Along the way, Rick Baumgartner lost to Western 62-57 in 2005 after Wade became the Kats athletic director, Brian McCauley lost to Western 61-50 in 2006 and Matt Moore lost to the Panthers 54-47 in 2014.

“I had heard from colleagues and students (about this game),” said Wonnell. “And the student section and the Star Wars theme and performance – this is what every coach wants to be a part of. It is an environment in a community that cares about its team – it was everything I had hoped for … and more.”

Wonnell, who led Tindley to a 51-49 win over Lafayette Central Catholic on March 25 to win a state championship, said the delayed start to the season was tough but worth it.

“We had tryouts on Nov. 6 and are finally here on Dec. 5, but it was fun,” said Wonnell, who has a 157-88 record in 11 years on the bench. “Man, it exceeded my expectations. It had a big-game feel.”

The Kats season started with a fast-paced win over Western. Kokomo jumped to a 17-7 lead in the first stanza and led 47-22 at halftime. Trajan Deckard paced Kokomo with 16 points (6 for 8 shooting), four assists and three steals. Jeremy Baker added 16 points, Anthony Barnard scored 11 and Nate Hemmerich added nine.

Western was led by the 17 points of Zyaire Kelley, who hit 4 of 5 3-point attempts.

Kokomo fell on the road in its second game to Class 4A No. 11 McCutcheon 84-55 but recovered with a thrilling win in game three at home. Down by 17 in the fourth stanza, Kokomo mounted an improbable comeback that was sealed by a step-back 3-pointer from the deep corner near the Wildkats bench by Trajan Deckard to tie the game at 73.

The comeback was propelled by Barnard, a senior bound for Purdue Northwest this fall. While the Hot Dogs were red hot through three quarters (62.9-percent from the field), Barnard struggled on 6 for 15 shooting. But with the game on the line, he caught fire and hit 7 of his last 12 shots and scored 21 of his game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. In OT, Barnard sealed the game with a slam dunk that electrified the already raucous crowd.

“Man, we could have tucked our tail, but we fought,” said Wonnell.

In the 30-point fourth quarter, Barnard scored 13 points and Deckard had 10 as the Kats kicked its pace-of-play into high gear – something the Hot Dogs could not match. Fundamentals also helped Kokomo as it finished 24 for 29 at the free throw line.

Deckard finished with 24 points, Jayveon White scored 11 and Shemar Robinson had six points, including four in the fourth quarter stretch run.

Kokomo has another double-header weekend when they travel to Marion (3-1) on Friday night before hosting Huntington North (5-0) on Saturday.

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NORTHWESTERN TIGERS OFF TO A 4-0 START IN BOYS BASKETBALL

Northwestern celebrates a road victory over Western in an early-season Hoosier Conference clash. (SJ photo/William Gibson)

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

RUSSIAVILLE, Ind. – The Class 3A No. 17 Northwestern Tigers are hot, and it is only the first week of December. Following easy wins over Madison-Grant (79-45) and Tri-Central (84-42), the Tigers knocked off a feisty and surprising Western squad 57-49 in Russiaville before returning home and stunning Mississinewa 45-43. It is the second consecutive year Northwestern has started the boys basketball season 4-0.

Last Friday night, the Tigers traveled to a nearly sold-out Richard R. Rea Gymnasium looking for a fourth-straight win in the Hoosier Conference and cross-county rivalry. While they grabbed the victory, it was not easy. After jumping to a quick 16-8 lead after eight minutes, it was not until a final minute slam dunk by sophomore Tayson Parker that head coach Jim Gish could breathe easy.

In between the quick start and final slam dunk was a classic battle of the long-time rivals – and the emergence of two stars in the making. For the Tigers, it was Parker – a player who has been homeschooled and enrolled at Northwestern over the summer. Making his big-game debut in front of a raucous crowd, Parker scored 26 points and had six assists. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, he scored 12 fourth quarter points – including the dunk, a 3-pointer and the Tigers final nine points.

For Western, it was freshman Kyle Sanders who made a statement. After hitting a first quarter 3-pointer, he came to life in the third stanza with a trio of triples to keep the Panthers within striking distance at 39-33. He did not slow in the fourth, scoring 11 en route to a 23-point scoring night, which included six 3-pointers. He accounted for 20 of Western’s 27 second half points.

For Northwestern, Ben Harris added 12 points and Cameron Austin had seven. For the Panthers (0-2), Cooper O’Neal had 16 points and Blake Constable added six.

The following night, Northwestern found itself down by 10 points to Mississinewa in the final minute of play before Parker took the game over once again. Down 41-31, Parker scored on a drive to start the improbable comeback. Parker took a turnover and scored on a jumper before Ole Miss missed on a two-shot free throw attempt. Brayden Maples was then fouled and hit both Tigers freebies to trim the lead to four with :44 remaining.

Conner Wilson put Mississinewa up six with a pair of free throws only to see T.J. Macaluso score on the other end. Another Ole Miss turnover resulted in Parker canning a 3-pointer with 21 seconds remaining. The Indians then missed another pair of free throws, and then they fouled Parker. The sophomore hit both to give Northwestern a 44-43 lead. After another Ole Miss turnover, Parker hit one of two charity stripe attempts with one second remaining to seal the win.

Parker finished with 23 points while Macaluso and Bowser each had six.

Northwestern travels to Taylor Friday night while Western is at Memorial Gymnasium for its annual test with Kokomo on Dec. 5 as part of a girls-boys doubleheader (girls tip at 6 p.m.).

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DEAN’S LIST: BRETT COLBY IS TURNING KOKOMO INTO A FOOTBALL SCHOOL

Kokomo High School football head coach Brett Colby.

THE DEAN’S LIST BY DEAN HOCKNEY

Maybe someone forgot to send Kokomo football head coach Brett Colby the memo. Or maybe he just didn’t care. Regardless, he needs to take heed that Kokomo High School is NOT a football school. Basketball, yes. Baseball, of course. But not football.

Or is it?

Eleven years ago, Colby brought his run-first football mentality to a program that was in shambles – in the midst of a six-year stretch of losing campaigns. Before it was in shambles, it’s success was a hit-and-miss program. I am not saying it was a failure, but it was not a program that struck fear in the eyes of its opponents.

Let’s face it, when Colby arrived in Kokomo from Frankfort, the Wildkat football program had nine wins in its previous three seasons. And from 1973 to 2006 – from the start of the IHSAA state football tournament to the year before Colby arrived – the Kats were hovering around the .500 mark at 173-168. Take out the 1985 squad – which won the programs first and only sectional championship to that point in time – and the team was below .500.

That is not to take away from some very good football teams; the 1996 squad finished 10-1. But 18 times Kokomo was under the .500 mark – and even worse in tournament play. From 1985 to 2006, Kokomo was 13-22 in the playoffs with one sectional championship. With Colby in charge, the Kats are 12-11 with three sectional titles, two regional championships, one semi-state trophy – and we all know what happened last weekend when the Kats finished as the Class 5A state runners-up.

I get it, though. The competition may be deemed easier with the addition of Class 6A. When Westfield and Fort Wayne Snider and Carmel and Ben Davis moved up to the top class, that eased the field for the Kats to run through the competition. Even so, Kokomo knocked off four straight higher-ranked teams this year in tournament play. And an easier Class 5A is simply the hand that has been dealt – and Kokomo has made the best of the opportunity as it was presented.

With Colby in charge, Kokomo has 11 consecutive seasons of at least a .500 or better record – the longest such streak since 12 consecutive winning seasons from 1955-1966. That streak occurred prior to the state tournament and included some of the best Wildkat teams in history – including the mythical state champion 10-0 squad in 1964 and a 9-0 campaign in 1957.

Colby’s 90 victories at Kokomo are second most in Wildkat history (Bob Hamilton has 147), he is first in winning percentage at .743, first in North Central Conference Coach of the Year awards with six and his teams own seven NCC titles in 11 years.

For those who say his offense is “boring,” I say hog wash. Would you rather have a winning program or an exciting offense? And let me tell you, when kids like Armon Bridgeforth (2008-2011) and Jeron Gray (2012-2015) and Bo Baker (2011-2014) are running the ball out of Colby’s compact double wing, that is exciting football. And don’t forget, Kyle Wade has two of the three best passing seasons in Kokomo history – so coach knows how to open it up and go airborne (at least a little).

My hat goes off to Coach Colby and the entire Kokomo football program. In the last three school years, Kokomo boys teams have won six IHSAA sectional titles – and three of those belong to the football program. So, who says Kokomo is not a football school? With Brett Colby in charge, the football trophy case is constantly growing. Yep, maybe Kokomo is a football school after all.

Until next time, remember to keep the man and ship in sports – and I’ll see you at the game.

Dean Hockney is the publisher of the Sports Journal of Central Indiana, Hit Country WWKI sports contributor and the public address voice of the Kokomo Jackrabbits and other events. You can follow him on Twitter (@Sports_Journal) for the latest in local sports news and in-game reports.

 

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