BY DEAN HOCKNEY
LAFAYETTE – In what remains as one of the longest rivalry games in Indiana high school sports, Kokomo and Lafayette Jefferson squared off for the 100th time in 100 years last Saturday evening at the Crawley Athletic Center. And for the 54th time, the Wildkats came out on top of the Bronchos 62-59. But the outcome was not the story as these two teams battled each other in a series that began in Kokomo’s ninth year of playing basketball – the 1911-1912 season.
“It is good to see this rivalry and there have been a lot of battles through the years between Lafayette Jeff and Kokomo,” said Kokomo head coach Brian McCauley after his Kats won on the road. “I remember when Richie Hammel played and led them to the state finals (1992). I know in 1996 we came over here and squeaked one out (54-47) and then they went on to the Final Four.”
McCauley said he was disappointed when the Bronchos chose to leave the North Central Conference and break up what was then a spirited conference rivalry. Jeff left the NCC in the spring of 2003 and joined the Hoosier Crossroads Conference in an effort to save travel expenses and travel time.
“I liked it when Jeff was in the conference – it is a school very similar to Kokomo and the conference demographics,” said McCauley, a former Wildkat player who competed against Jeff when it was still in the NCC. “It was tough to see them get out of the conference. They have a lot of tradition and it is a true rivalry – we are only up eight games. That is what a true rivalry is – when two teams are that close and battle on the floor every time.”
Lafayette Jeff had a strong tie to the North Central Conference, having won 10 basketball titles – its first coming in 1935. They shared the conference title in its final year of play with Kokomo and New Castle. But now, thanks to the end of single-class basketball in Indiana – the Kokomo versus Lafayette Jefferson rivalry has turned from a conference rivalry to a tournament rivalry. Since the start of multi-class basketball, Kokomo and Jeff have squared off six times, with each team winning three contests. The Kats knocked Jeff out of the sectional last year, 68-51.
“Lafayette Jeff is a big sectional rival and there is a very good chance we could face Jeff and Marion later on this year,” said McCauley, whose Kats are ranked No. 5 in Class 4A. “It is going to be tough. I think you can throw rankings out the door. They don’t give you any points when you walk in the gym. What it does do is add a target to your back, which you don’t need in this rivalry.”
As for the 100th meeting between the two teams, Jeff jumped out to an early eight point lead, but the Kats battled and grabbed an 18-16 lead after one quarter – a lead they would not relinquish. Indiana All-Star candidate D.J. Balentine led Kokomo with 24 points, 14 of which came in the first quarter after Jeff started hot. He also had a team-high six assists. LaBradford Sebree added 15 points and Tayler Persons tossed in 12 points – all in the second half.
Rashad Richardson had 23 points and 13 rebounds for Lafayette – and McCauley noted that they will have to play better defense on the Jefferson star if they meet again in March. Until then, McCauley is happy with the way the rivalry series is progressing as the Kats have won five out of the last six meetings after Lafayette had won nine out of 14.
“Since I have arrived at Kokomo, we have been able to turn the tide a little and get some wins after they won a few in a row,” he said. “That is a nice feeling.”