BY DEAN HOCKNEY
TIPTON, Ind. – To build a great basketball program, a coach needs several ingredients to fit the complicated puzzle – scorers, rebounders, ball handlers, floor leaders and players with winning attitudes. For Indiana University Kokomo women’s basketball head coach Whitney Farris, who will guide the Cougars in its inaugural season this fall, signing Tipton senior Lela Crawford may fit every bill.
“When I watched her semi-state game, I could just see that ‘don’t die’ attitude and ‘never give up’ style of play,” said Farris. “She rebounds; she defends; she brings the ball up the court; she scores when she needs to – she just has that team mentality, and that is something I really need to build this program. She is definitely a kid who will come in and do that for us.”
Crawford will bring her basketball skills to IUK after a four-year varsity high school career that included three Class 2A sectional championships, a Final Four appearance last season and a career record of 70-25 (.736). While those team numbers are impressive, her individual stats are equally impressive: 862 career points, 547 rebounds, 130 assists and 145 steals. She averaged 13.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game last season and 12.9 points and 8.95 rebounds per game her junior year. Consider the fact she played with the Juday sisters – a pair of NCAA Division I players who are the top two scorers in Lady Blue Devils history – and that equals a very solid high school career.
“She is one of two members of a senior class that is the all-time winningest class in school history,” said Tipton head coach Nick Comer. “She has been a cornerstone. I took the job when she was in eighth grade, and she has been with me all along. She has been instrumental to our success and a great leader throughout the course of her four years.”
Crawford said one of the reasons she chose Kokomo was the proximity to Tipton and her family.
“I knew I wanted something close so my family could watch me play,” she said. “That was a big part of my decision. I like the campus and the school – it was a good fit for me.”
Comer said Crawford, whose brother plays NCAA Division I basketball at the University of St. Louis, will be instrumental in the start of the Cougars program. Prior to Comer, Crawford and the Juday sister’s arrival, the Lady Blue Devils only had one winning season in the previous seven campaigns. Since then, they have won three of the schools 10 sectional titles. Now, much like at Tipton, she can be part of building a winning tradition at IU Kokomo.
“She has been fun to watch evolve as a player over the last four years, but even more, evolve as a person,” said Comer. “She has grown into a leadership position and is a joy to be around. She will always be a meaningful part of our program and I am excited for her. She will help build a tradition at IUK much like she did here. It was a great decision for her and for (Coach Farris).”
Crawford agreed with Comer, saying that was another draw.
“I was really excited to be asked to play for them because I do get to help build this program just like Kacie (Juday) and I helped Coach Comer build Tipton’s,” said Crawford. “And now I get to start a four year career all over again.”
Looking back at three sectional titles and a Final Four appearance, Crawford said she has no regrets.
“I had a great four years and loved playing for Coach Comer,” she said. “I mean, I set my standards high and last year, we did just that. While we fell short of playing for the state title, I am happy with my four years. But it is sad to see it over, although that means opening the door for greater things.”
Greater things will include helping to launch the IU Kokomo women’s basketball program. She will enter as a competitor for a starting position, but more importantly, she will be bring her winning attitude and leadership skills to the Cougars – and who knows what will happen over the next four years in the Cougar Gym.