BY DEAN HOCKNEY
A BLUE BANNER GOAL FOR DEFENDING STATE RUNNERS-UP
Anyone who watched the Kokomo boys basketball team lose to Bloomington South in the IHSAA Class 4A state championship game last March knows the 2011-2012 Kat team has one goal this year – WIN! With Indiana All-Star candidate and Evansville signee D.J. Balentine leading the way, the Kats want to hoist a blue state championship banner next to the red runners-up banner that recently found a place in the Memorial Gym rafters and erase the memory of a poor shooting performance in the finals.
“We had a great season last year,” said Kokomo Head coach Brian McCauley of the North Central Conference winning 25-3 campaign. “It was just an outstanding and fun year with great memories. I am just proud of what they accomplished. Obviously D.J. Balentine is a great player – there are a lot of expectations on him as one of the better players to ever play at Kokomo. He understands the game. He will be a marked man this year, as he was last year. He has to be mentally tough.”
But McCauley cautioned that while having big aspirations are good, this team will need to work hard to get back to Conseco Fieldhouse. The team will have a big red target on its back this year.
“High expectations are a great thing; they get the community excited and get the players excited and give you energy,” said McCauley. “But at the same time, expectations can be dangerous. If you focus on what’s down the road then you miss the moment and that is when you won’t hit your full potential. So the thing I constantly tell our guys is to get better in practice today. Then tomorrow we will take another step forward. Past success doesn’t equal future success. What’s in the past is gone and you have to learn from it, whether it is positive or negative.”
Joining Balentine on the floor will be three players who contributed heavily to the Kats title run: senior Armon Bridgeforth, junior LaBradford Sebree and sophomore Taylor Persons. Senior Jalen Tinder saw time off the bench last year and should contribute this year. McCauley said he will rely on a strong senior class this year.
“We have six outstanding seniors and we need these guys to be great leaders both on and off the court this year,” said McCauley. “Jalen Tinder gave us great minutes off the bench last year and will help this year. Tony Moses did a good job at the JV level last year and made great strides. Armon Bridgeforth is obviously a tremendous athlete and is one of the best athletes to ever come out of Kokomo. Jaylin Waldon is another JV player who improved and has a lot of athleticism. And Christian Arnett did not play last year but has returned and we are glad he is here.”
And now, let the Kat march to Conseco begin.
YOUNG COMETS LOOK TO PRICE, MYERS FOR EXPERIENCE
A new face will be roaming the Eastern Comets varsity bench this season, but it isn’t necessarily a new face to the Eastern Comets. 2001 Eastern graduate Kyle Bedwell moves up from the junior varsity team to take over for retired coach Duane Keisling – and he takes over a team with two strong performers but otherwise not much experience returning to the floor.
“It is good to be with Eastern,” said Bedwell. “I am really looking forward to what this team can do. It was fun working with (Keisling) and picking his brain after a game.”
Leading the Comets will be 6-foot-5 three-sport standout Josiah Price, a Michigan state football recruit. Last year, Price averaged nearly 19 points per game and nine rebounds in an all-conference season. He will be joined by returning point guard K.J. Myers (3.6 ppg and 1.7 assists per game), a junior who brought the ball up the court for a majority of his sophomore season.
“We lost five seniors last year, and that will be hard to replace,” said Bedwell. “Josiah Price will be a strength for us. Unfortunately every team knows that and they will try and take our strength away. Hopefully Michael Haynes, another senior, will reap some of the benefits of that – as will Josiah Marx (2.4 ppg).
“And we have our point guard up top in K.J. Myers returning. He started two-thirds of the season last year as a sophomore and that varsity time, well, there is no replacement for it and that will help us this season. He gained so much experience through that and has really stepped up as a leader for us through the summer and through the fall as we are getting ready for the season.”
The first-year coach said a lack of varsity experience will be a major hurdle to overcome this year, but he has a solid core of players ready to fill those roles.
“The big thing is a lack of varsity minutes, but we have kids ready to step in at almost every position,” said Bedwell. “Ball handling is a big concern. Myers does such a great job, but it takes more than one person to bring the ball up the court. The other thing is depth. But I think we will grow.”
Sophomore Braden Gibson should see time in the backcourt with Myers, while senior Trae Herglund, juniors Grant Cole and Josh Keith, and sophomore Will Porter are prepared to take other roles with the Comets. Senior Micah Marx and junior Hayden Vint should also see varsity time.
“I have a good solid 10 kids, but we have a lack of varsity minutes,” said Bedwell. “The kids work hard, but we will have to do a lot of teaching.”
DUBBELS LEADS STRONG SENIOR CLASS FOR TIGERS
Most coaches would love to have senior experience return to a team which saw progress a year ago. For Northwestern coach Jim Gish, that is exactly what he will get as nine seniors return for the Purple Tigers.
“With the exception of one, the kids we have coming back have been playing together since they were very young,” said Gish. “They know each other very well, and they tolerate each other very well. We had a wonderful summer. There are certain teams that you, as a coach, like being around – you enjoy spending time with them. I truly like spending time with these kids. They are fun, enjoyable, and they are going to have a lot success outside of basketball in life.”
Leading the senior-laden Tiger squad is 5-10 all-area point guard Kylan Dubbels, who tallied nearly 16 points per game, four assists and four rebounds per game a year ago.
“The mainstay for the last (three) years is Kylan Dubbels,” said Gish. “We are going to turn to him for a lot of leadership. He is stepping up and saying things and doing things because he knows this is their last go-around.”
Gish said three other seniors saw significant playing time last year, including another 5-10 guard in Tanner Thomas (10.7 ppg).
“Tanner Thomas had a nice shooting year for us,” said Gish. “Tanner, Kyle Hardwick and Jake Ridgeway played the inside game for us last year and did a good job for us. Ridgeway also did a nice job for us on the perimeter.”
Joining that Tiger four-some are fellow seniors David Alexander, Jordan Carpenter, Zack Gabriel, Cody Yeakel, and Dakota Eller.
“We are going to turn to them,” said Gish. “The other seniors got a lot of minutes at the JV and varsity level. Alexander is one of the better defenders I have ever coached and Gabriel is shooting the ball very well right now.”
Rounding out the squad is 6-3 junior forward Trenton Brazel (4.4 ppg) and 6-7 junior Chase Johnson.
“Trenton is a very unique player – he reminds me of a Cameron Richardson who played for us in the past,” said Gish. “He is a very versatile player and I look forward to seeing him get some miss-matches. There is no question he is the hardest working young man I have coached in 17 years of coaching. He puts the time in during the off-season. I have a son myself and I tell him he has to do what Trenton is doing to have success.”
With nine seniors and a solid junior class, this will be an exciting year for the Purple Pride.
FIRST COACHING CHANGE IN 20 YEARS AT TAYLOR
The Taylor sidelines will look vastly different this year. For the first time in 20 seasons, Jeff Fisher is not the head coach of the Titans after retiring in March. The void of filling the shoes of a coach with 186 career wins and the 2000 regional title will fall to rookie head coach Andy Lewman.
Lewman has been a teacher at Taylor Middle School while serving as assistant coach at his alma mater Delta High School. He also coached for one season at Anderson High School with recently retired head coach Ron Hecklinski.
“I was fortunate to work with Paul Keller for several years, and last year with Stan Daughterty,” said Lewman. “So, I have some experience on the bench and now look forward to getting my own program established.
“I think we have a really good group of young men who are willing to work hard,” said Lewman. “It is good getting to know them and it is good to see them improve. We just need a little time with them.”
Lewman inherited a Titan squad that lost a senior class that included all-area center Tyler Simmons and scorer Matt Brankle. Seniors Dale Ray Washington, Cameron Clark and Justin Wheeler will need to fill those holes and lead Taylor to success.
"Dale Ray is a great young man and he’s got some nice tools,” said Lewman. “He is extremely quick and strong and has characteristics on the floor you just can’t teach. And we will have Justin Wheeler, Cameron Clark and (junior) Drew Hansen who will form our core – we have some good returning players and have a good mixture of juniors and seniors. We just need to be consistent throughout the year.”
Lewman said he takes each team and determines what style he will coach – this year will focus on quickness.
“We should have some very good team quickness,” he said. “It really depends on personality. It is high school and you have to take the hand you are dealt. We want to get after it defensively and push the ball and run some motion on offense. But we are going to take advantage of the quickness.”
Lewman said he has made the right choice in leaving the Delta program and taking over the Titans – and he appreciates the legacy left by Fisher.
“They have treated me well from day one,” he said. “It is just a good place to be and I am looking forward to getting down the road with the squad. Jeff did a great job, and my goal is to go to the next level. I hope I can build on what he has already established and form my own reputation as a coach.”
FIELDS, WARDEN LOOK TO LEAD RETURN TRIP TO ELITE EIGHT
With the departure of Jeff Fisher at Taylor, Western’s Andy Weaver is the new dean of boys basketball coaches in Howard County. And with five contributing players returning from last year’s Mid-Indiana Conference and Class 3A Frankfort Sectional champion team, he is ready to get back on the floor for another run.
“We had three senior starters last year, including the Larrick twins who were our leading scorers,” said Weaver, who is in his 15th season on the Panther sideline. “And two of those seniors were our leading scorers, so they were leaders on our team. Now we have to find the next leaders in our great group of returning guys.”
He said he had an eight-man rotation last year, so with the loss of three seniors, he has five solid players returning from last year’s Elite Eight squad. He points to a pair of returning guards as a solid starting point for the Panthers.
“Quin Fields (8.2 points per game) is an intelligent four-year player for us,” said Weaver of his returning 6-foot-2 point guard. “He has over 250 career assists and he makes good decisions. We are going to rely on his experience and his basketball intelligence. We are going to ask Quin to do more things this year, like rebounding the ball on both ends. We can play him at the point or off. He is a big asset for us.”
Sophomore guard Evan Warden (5.5 ppg) caught a lot of opponents by surprise last year. This year, he is an integral part of the Panther rotation.
“Evan is a competitor and Evan is a winner,” said Weaver. “He works hard and is stronger this year. There is no doubt he will be a marked man this year. He has put in a lot of extra shooting and extra ball-handling. He really came on in the regional for us. In our last 12 games, he shot over 40-percent from 3-point land.”
Joining Fields and Warden will be 6-4 senior forward John Capps (7.3 ppg), 6-4 senior forward Matt Orr (4.8 ppg), and 6-6 senior forward (4.2 ppg). Coming off the bench is 6-7 junior Ronnie Smith.
The veteran coach does not want to look into a crystal ball and make any predictions, but he says hard work pays off in the end - and that is something this team will need to pay attention to.
“I am a firm believer that it is a work in progress and if you really commit to working hard and staying together, that you will progress and get better every day,” said Weaver. “Is there potential there for this group? Absolutely! But basketball is not a sport where you can walk out on the floor and it automatically happens just because you have returning guys.”