Next step for Smith Academy for Excellence: Its first IHSAA basketball tournament game

Smith Academy for Excellence guard Jay-ar Langston, right, drives to the basket past assistant coach Chad Ginder during practice Feb. 20 at the school. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of
Coach Gary Merrell, middle right, talks with his Smith Academy for Excellence team during practice Feb. 20 at the school. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of
Justin Booker
Smith Academy coach Gary Merrell, back, works with guard Caden Higgins during a Feb. 20 practice at the school. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of
Smith Academy's Devin Clarke works on his inside moves against assistant coach Cory Hooley during practice Feb. 20 at the school. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of
Smith Academy for Excellence point guard Justin Booker, center, works on a move during a Feb. 20 practice at the school. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of

Thirty-nine years into his boys basketball coaching career, Gary Merrell tries not to dwell too much on the peripheral details. He has a much bigger picture to focus on.

Merrell is in his fourth year with Fort Wayne’s Smith Academy for Excellence (SAFE), a boys-only school aimed at developing leaders, regardless of whether they are high achievers or at-risk students.

For the first time, Smith Academy will be part of the IHSAA boys basketball tournament, a landmark step forward.

“Here, we’re talking about helping kids survive, not just win a basketball game, and that’s a different perspective,” Merrell said. “It makes me reevaluate what’s really important.”

For example, Merrell kept 17 players on the team’s roster (about half the high school enrollment) when practice opened but he is down to nine eligible players entering the tournament. Some have slipped because of academics, some for other reasons. But the school’s strict rules for athletic eligibility is one thing that sets it apart.

“A lot of our decisions are made on, long-term, what’s best for the kids,” Merrell said. “It’s been different that way. It’s very rewarding at times, frustrating at times. A kid can be doing really well, have a bad weekend and things go downhill. The success stories, I’m really glad to see how they develop.”

Merrell, 71, ranks 11th in wins among active boys coaches, with 492 in a career that has taken him to DeKalb, Heritage and Blackhawk Christian, where he led the team to a 2004 state runnerup finish.

His first season at Smith Academy, the school fielded only a ninth grade team. He has found many of his players aren’t tied to organized basketball, so some fundamental teaching has been required.

“I used to worry whether we’d be on the floor during the National Anthem or not, and all kinds of details,” he said. “Stuff like that is not nearly as important as making sure we’re all on the court and properly dressed.”

Merrell remembers losing a game during his first Smith Academy season due to his players not understanding the one-and-one free throw rule.

“It’s unusual to have high school ability, but fourth-grade knowledge of the rules,” Merrell said. “There was a lot of learning. They’ve come a ways that way.”

Smith Academy point guard Justin Booker, who has been with the program since its infancy, says the players are excited about their first chance at the IHSAA tournament. Smith Academy will play Lakeland Christian at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in a first-round game at Hamilton.

This season, 18 of 22 Smith Academy opponents were IHSAA member schools. The first season, only one opponent was an IHSAA member school. Smith Academy finished 8-14 in the regular season.

“I feel like we’ve made good progress building it up,” Booker said. “Each year, our record has gone up and we’ve played better teams.”

Booker would have attended South Side High School if he had stayed in the public school system. He enrolled at Smith Academy in the seventh grade. He leads Smith Academy with 21.7 points and 3.4 assists per game.

“It’s a small school and I always put academics first,” Booker said. “I get a lot of one-on-one time with teachers to get help, and being such a small school, you get to know everybody more.”

The only gym at the Smith Academy, located at the site of St. John’s Lutheran Church, 725 W. Washington Blvd., has middle-school dimensions. It’s antiquated, which is a nice way of saying old and worn, with baskets at each end and backboards on the side walls. It can feel like playing in a shoe box. The team’s six “home games” are played at Blackhawk Christian, where Merrell continues to teach a course.

Merrell credits his assistant coaches Cory Hooley (who played for Merrell at Heritage High School) and Chad Ginder (who played for Merrell at DeKalb) with being essential to the growth of the program.

In addition to Booker, the other eight players on the current roster are Devin Clarke, Jay-ar Langston, Jajuan Gordon, Adrian Thomas, Jaiden Noorthoek, Tristin Meadows, Mason Prader and Caden Higgins.

“A lot of teams might look down on us because we’re a small school,” Booker said. “But we put up just as much fight as they do.”