Boys prep hoops preseason countdown: #3 HOMESTEAD SPARTANS
For most coaches, graduating three athletes that went on to play at the college level, as well as combine for nearly 50 points per game, would be enough to possibly have them contemplating retirement. However, for veteran Homestead High School boy’s basketball coach Chris Johnson, it is just another season for his Spartan program.
“Now it is the next guys,” Johnson told News-Sentinel.com recently, “being able to step up, being able to step up and say ‘Now it’s my turn.'”
The Spartans won 23 games and an IHSAA Class 4A Sectional title last season with seniors Parker Manges, Jack Ferguson and Brandon Durnell leading the way, but they are all gone. Such losses are an annual event for Homestead, which has had to endure the losses of Caleb Swanigan, Jordan Geist, Dana Batt, Tahj Curry, and now the latest talented trio.
Through all of those graduations, however, the one constant has remained success.
Homestead has strung together five 20-win seasons in the past six years and Johnson hasn’t had a losing season in over a decade.
“It takes hard-nosed kids,” Johnson said of sustaining success. “It takes kids that want to put in the time to be successful, and it takes kids that are willing to sacrifice their individual glory for what’s best for the team.”
As noted, Homestead lost a lot of production from last year, but when a program has been established on the foundation that the Spartans have been, reloading isn’t quite as troubling as it could be at some schools.
Yes, the Spartans lost a lot. But yes, Johnson returns a lot of talent.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Johnson said, “that we’ve been able to get up to the 18-, 19-, 20-wins a year and that is because we had kids that were hard-nosed kids.”
Johnson doesn’t have a double-figure scorer returning this season, but he does return four players in guards Onye Ezeakudo, Grant Raber, and Jake Archbold, as well as forward Sam Buck that all gained a lot of experience in important games last winter.
This is a team that should be – and will be – a lot better in February than it is in November.
Homestead has had length (Batt) in year’s past in the paint and it has also had strength (Durnell). And it has also had both (Swanigan). However, this season, Johnson is curious as to what his team will look like offensively without a dominant player on the block.
“Last year,” Johnson said, “I loved that team. I felt like we had all of the pieces. But we relied on a lot from the outside.”
Homestead made over 200 3-pointers a year ago, but many of those came due to the threat of a post score, which Johnson said will be needed this year.
“I still think playing in 4A,” Johnson explained, “you need easy buckets. When you rely so much on the jump shot, sometimes that jump shot isn’t going to fall.”
The Spartans return junior forward Trevin Taylor, who brings the toughness of a Spartan football player, to the post, while Matt Podzielinski (6-foot-4) adds some experience after playing in eight games a year ago.
“That is going to be the key this year,” Johnson said, “is being able to find easy baskets.”
If there is an area in which the Spartans do have a wealth of experience, if not statistical production, it is in the backcourt.
Raber, Buck and Archbold each played in every single of the 27 games, while Ezeakudo played in 17 of them.
“We have the toughness on the outside with our guards,” Johnson said.
Raber averaged over four points per game, as did the 6-foot-1 Archbold, who is just a sophomore.
Ezeakudo averaged almost three assists per game, while the 6-foot-4 Buck drained 30 3-pointers, which is an area that Johnson said Archbold needs to continue to develop, after making just 5 of 25 attempts from long range.
Johnson started Archbold for all 27 games last year – as a freshman, which is stunning for a program of the stature of Homestead.
“Not many players,” Johnson said when speaking on Archbold, “can step up, and it wasn’t like we were a rebuilding team, we won 23 games. What I liked about him was his defense, his toughness, and that is what we used him for.”
THE BIG QUESTION: Will these unproven Spartans develop into productive scorers?
Without question, Buck and Archbold will become double-figure scores this season, while Raber and Ezeakudo have the potential to, as well.
In the case of Buck, he scored in double figures a dozen times last year and has the length and skill to score in a variety of ways.
Archbold is the son of former Norwell High and Butler University standout guard Darin Archbold. He wasn’t asked to score a lot last year, but will be needed to this year.
“If Jake can shoot it someday like his dad,” Johnson said, “then he’s going to be a darn good basketball player.”
More than likely, Homestead will evolve into a team this year in which it has four players averaging between eight and 13 points per game, and on a given night, any one of them could lead the team offensively.
BIG GAME: Dec. 1 at Warsaw
Historically, this game matches two of the better teams in northern Indiana and always is a tough battle for both teams.
There will be no better time for these young Spartans to show what they can do on a big stage than to perform, on the road, against the Tigers.