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.