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KOKOMO WINS 17TH NORTH CENTRAL CONFERENCE HOOPS TITLE; ONLY SECOND WITH PERFECT RUN

Kokomo head coach Brian McCauley is all smiles as he celebrates a North Central Conference championship with Tayler Persons. (Photo: William Gibson)

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

KOKOMO, Ind. – Kokomo High School has a rich history of boys basketball. From Mr. Basketball’s Tom Schwartz and Jimmy Rayl to the 1961 state champions to the 2011 state runners-up, Red and Blue Nation has seen just about everything on the hardwood. But on Friday night, 3,000-plus fans in historic Memorial Gymnasium witnessed something only one other Kokomo team had accomplished – a clean slate through the North Central Conference. Following a hard fought, blood drawing, classic NCC tussle with the Red Devils of Richmond, Kokomo fans celebrated a 59-50 victory, and with it, an outright NCC championship.

“This was a great game, just great,” said Kokomo’s hero for the night, junior Tayler Persons. “Playing with this team and these guys… it’s just the greatest.”

This contest was not for the faint of heart. From a lackluster 9-9 first quarter draw – which resembled two prize fighters feeling each other out – to an eight point third quarter Richmond lead, to Class 4A No. 9 Kokomo calling a timeout to wipe the blood off junior Tayler Persons face so he could shoot free throws, this game had fans sitting on the edge of their seats before jumping to their feet in excitement.

After a near first half draw – Richmond led 18-16 – the Red Devils made a move and led 30-22 midway through the third stanza. But Persons told McCauley that he wanted the ball in his hands, and he drained a couple of 3-pointer, drawing the Kats to a 30-30 tie after three.

“That kid, wow,” was all McCauley could say of Persons attitude and game.

Two minutes into the fourth quarter, Richmond ended a Kokomo 10-0 run, and at the four minute mark the Kats held a slim 36-35 advantage. But Persons came up big once again, draining a long 3-pointer, and after losing his dribble and getting trapped in front of the scorer’s table, he leapt and rifled one of the best passes of the season to a streaking LaBradford Sebree who laid the ball up for a 41-35 lead. Kokomo then hit 7 of 10 freebies in the final minutes to secure the coveted title.

“I wanted the ball in the fourth quarter,” said Persons. “I didn’t necessarily have to score, but I knew I could do something good with the ball.”

Persons said this was the best high school game he has ever played, and the final statistics tend to agree as he finished with a double-double. The 2014 Indiana Mr. Basketball candidate hit 6 of 9 shots (3 of 4 from beyond the arc) for a game-high 21 points and grabbed another game-high 10 rebounds (six offensive). He also had three assists and six steals.

“It is one of the best games I have played in my life,” said Persons, who was cut below the eye in the fourth quarter but still played all 32 minutes thanks to a series of timeouts which allowed Wildkat trainer Brett Patterson time to patch him up. “It was a battle – I thought I was playing football out there. There whole team is athletic and physical and our team didn’t back down. Man, I love my team.

Kokomo’s victory is the 17th NCC boys basketball title and 11th outright championship for the program. The only other Kokomo team to run the table on the conference was Basil Mawbey’s 1995-1996 squad – the same Kokomo team that a young Brian McCauley starred on as a senior.

“Only one team (from Kokomo) has gone 7-0 in the conference; that is how hard it is,” said an elated McCauley. “It is hard to win on the road in the NCC. We won four games on the road this year. It is just hard to go 7-0. Wow!”

Persons would be the first to point out it takes a team to win a title, and he was not alone on the court. Erik Bowen turned in another solid performance with nine points and five rebounds, while LaBradford Sebree scored eight and Mykal Cox had a game-high four assists. For Richmond (14-7, 5-2), Charles Hampton scored 17 points and Joel Okafor added 12.

“I can’t describe this feeling,” said Bowen after the championship. “I didn’t shoot well, but I did what the team needed me to do. This means a lot to the team, but we have a little bigger goal to accomplish now.”

Kokomo (18-2) has no time to rest as they host to a very talented Fort Wayne Northrop (15-5) squad next Friday night. And the following week, it is IHSAA tourney time at the Lafayette Jefferson Sectional. But for now, this group of Kats will savor something that only two of Kokomo’s 110 boys basketball teams have accomplished – a perfect season in the prestigious North Central Conference.

KATS HOMECOMING WIN MARRED BY FIGHT, EJECTIONS

With quarterback Tayler Persons blocking, Kokomo's Armon Bridgeforth runs for one of his three rushing touchdowns. (SJ Photo: DOUGLAS HOCKNEY)

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

Homecoming Week at Kokomo High School started on a bad note and ended on a horrible one. Just days after school administrators cancelled the annual powderpuff game due to property damage vandalism and for the safety of students (see editorial in the next issue of Sports Journal on Sep. 27), the varsity football game ended in a near bench clearing fight seconds before Kokomo posted a 48-27 North Central Conference victory over Richmond.

With 1:41 left in the game and Kokomo leading by 21 points, Kokomo quarterback Tayler Persons took the traditional knee after the snap in an effort to run the clock out. But for reasons unknown, Richmond head coach Eric Gillespie called a timeout, forcing Kokomo to make a decision – kneel again or run a play and try for a first down. A first down would ensure Kokomo could take successive kneels and end the game even if Richmond called another timeout. Kat coach Brett Colby decided on the latter and Gordon Jenkins ran over the left tackle 12 yards before fumbling – and that is when the melee started.

“It (the game) was over, and then they call a timeout,” said a furious Colby after the game. “We aren’t going to punt; we are going to run a play. It was very unfortunate what happened and I am embarrassed by it.”

During the fight, which occurred in front of the Kokomo sideline at around midfield, several players threw punches, pushed and shoved each other. Persons, a sophomore who is also the Kats starting safety, appeared to throw several punches during the skirmish (it is unknown if a Richmond player instigated the situation or threw punches first). At least one Kokomo player, senior inside linebacker Isiah Young, came off the sideline to assist his teammates. Both Persons and Young were ejected, and according to IHSAA By-Laws, they are suspended from the next varsity game. Richmond junior defensive back Jimmy Bailey was also ejected.

“There is only one guy to blame in my opinion, and it ain’t anybody on our sidelines,” said Colby of Gillespie calling a timeout with the outcome already decided. “And then he comes over and taunts me on the sideline – I am surprised he didn’t get kicked out. I am not sure what is going to happen, we might lose more players. We will have to wait for the IHSAA’s decision next week.”

The head referee at the game said he wanted a copy of the game tapes and will submit those for the IHSAA to review. There is a chance officials will determine more players were warranted an ejection – something game officials could not see without the use of video replay.

“Now we are two starters down on defense, and one on offense,” said Colby. “I have never had a kid ejected and I am not very proud of it.”

The fight overshadowed an entertaining football game. Kokomo jumped out to a 7-0 lead after a seven-yard run by Austin D’Agostino, and enjoyed a 14 point cushion after Armon Bridgeforth scored his first of four touchdowns, this one from eight-yards out. Richmond (2-4) then controlled the ball for more than five minutes, cutting the lead to 14-7 after a four-yard run from Taylor Kidd with four minutes left in the second quarter. Five plays later, Bridgeforth would send Kokomo into the locker room with a 21-7 lead after scampering 38 yards for a touchdown.

Richmond, who has beaten Kokomo in 34 of the 52 meetings, owned the third quarter. After Kokomo’s first possession stalled, the Red Devils mounted a six play, 60-yard drive capped by a nine-yard Jacob Flood touchdown on a reverse. After a second Kat punt of the quarter, the Devils marched 57-yards on six plays, scoring on a Justyn Curtis to Flood 35-yard pass to tie the game at 21.

Kokomo returned to form in the fourth stanza, scoring 21 points in eight minutes to put the game out of reach. The scoring started on a Will Haynes five-yard romp to cap a 47-yard drive. Kokomo’s defense forced a three-and-out, and three plays later Michael Copeland ran over the left tackle for an 11-yard score. Five plays after the score, Bridgeforth intercepted a Curtis pass and ran the pigskin back 80-yards for his third touchdown of the night. The 80-yard interception return is the fourth longest in Wildkat history (Bruce Liggin holds the record with a 99-yard return against Richmond in 1971).

“That was a big play,” Colby said of the Bridgeforth interception. “We dropped maybe four or five picks tonight. But that was a big one.”

Bridgeforth would add a 53-yard run with three minutes left, capping his 192 yard rushing performance. Jenkins added another 51 yards as Kokomo racked up 348 rushing yards for the night.

Bridgeforth continues to climb the Kokomo all-time record board. With 2,290 rushing yards, Bridgeforth passed former Kokomo runner Darrian Story (1996-1998) for fifth on the Kats all-time rushing chart. He eclipsed the 3,000 all-purpose yard mark, passing Justin Patterson (2004-2007) for fourth all-time. He also passed Dondre Johnson (1994-1996) for third all-time in total touchdowns with 44 and he currently stands third on the career rushing touchdown list with 34.

Kokomo (4-2, 4-0 in NCC play) returns to action Friday night against Logansport for Senior Night, and Coach Colby knows his team will have to make some adjustments in practice this week if it wants to run its NCC winning-streak to 34. Junior Dylan Orbaugh is listed as the Kats backup signal-caller.

“We have to have the ‘next man up’ motto,” said Colby. “When it is your turn, you have to go in and take advantage of the opportunity. We will look for a big week out of Dylan Orbaugh.”

Eastern 21, vs Lewis Cass 14

Coming off a tough loss to Hamilton Heights, the Eastern Comets escaped a stubborn Lewis Cass squad 21-14. Knotted at zero at the half, both teams put points on in the third stanza. But just as it looked as though this one would go to overtime tied at 14, Eastern All-State candidate Josiah Price blocked a punt, and Blake Thomas ran it back for the deciding score with 1:23 left in the game. Eastern improves to 5-1 and still has an outside shot at the Mid-Indiana Conference title. Lewis Cass falls to 1-5.

Western 64, at Peru 0

There was no surprise in this contest as Western’s Quin Fields threw for three touchdowns and the Panthers ran over the winless Bengal Tigers. Western is now 5-1 and 4-0 in Mid-Indiana Conference play as they travel to Greentown Friday night for a huge contest against the soaring Comets.

Northwestern 49, vs Maconaquah 6

The Purple Tigers kept its MIC hopes alive with an easy win over the winless Braves of Maconaquah. Northwestern improves to 5-1, 3-1 in conference play, and will host undefeated Hamilton Heights Friday night.

Taylor 0, at Hamilton Heights 56

Taylor ran into a buzz saw in the form of the fourth ranked team in Class 3A, and Heights cruised to an easy shutout win. Taylor stands at 1-5 on the season, while the undefeated Huskies play Northwestern Friday night.