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JUSTIN KENNY: Why are northeast Indiana prep hoops teams struggling to advance to state?

Deshaun Thomas, left, helped lead Bishop Luers to back-to-back state championships in 2008 and 2009. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)

The first dozen years of class basketball were kind to northeast Indiana.

From when Indiana adopted a multi-class format for the postseason in 1998 to 2009, 17 boys basketball teams made appearances in state championship games, with five bringing home titles.

But in the last nine years, the trend has flipped.

This weekend in Indianapolis, eight teams across four classes will play for state championships – none from northeast Indiana. It is the second time in three years that the state’s second-biggest metropolitan area will go unrepresented on Indiana’s biggest prep hoops stage.

It gets worse. Since 2010, only five teams have advanced all the way to Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. Of those five, only Homestead in 2015 has claimed a championship.

Homestead's Dana Batt holds up the net after the Spartans won the Class 4A state title in 2015. It is the only boys hoops championship won by a northeast Indiana team since 2010. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)

Conversely, area girls basketball has been steady, with 14 appearances each from 1998-2009 and 2010-2018.

What are the reasons for this downturn in area boys basketball? Is there even a reason? Is it simply a natural drought that will eventually even out, or is there some more tangible explanation?

After reaching out to some area coaches, it’s plain there is not a single explanation. Some, in fact, believe there is no explanation needed, and it’s purely a dry spell for the area.

But the potential reasons for the shortcomings are compelling.

INFLUX OF INDY

North Side's Keion Brooks Jr. is introduced before the 2017 Class 4A state championship game against Ben Davis in Indianapolis. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)

Since 2010, just a pair of area Class 4A schools have advanced to the state championship — Homestead in 2015 and North Side in 2017. Part of that is tournament alignment.

Beginning in the 2011-12 athletic season, the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) alignments started sending the Indianapolis northern suburb sectional winner – comprised of programs such as Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern – north for the regional. This put local teams in the crosshairs of some of Marion County’s more dominant teams.

“Every team from Fort Wayne comes from the north, whereas Indianapolis and its surroundings are split between north and south,” said Carroll coach Marty Beasley. “Therefore, that gives Indy and its surroundings a greater chance to get to the state finals and then win it.”

Beasley is correct, with a pair of Metropolitan Conference teams separated by 18 miles — Carmel and Warren Central — playing Saturday for the 4A state title.

The change has definitely had an effect locally, with Hamilton Southeastern dispatching of North Side in the 2014 regional, and Carmel eliminating Homestead in 2012, New Haven in 2013 and North Side this year.

Coach Al Gooden led Harding to five state title game appearances from 2001-08, winning the Class 2A championship in 2001. (News-Sentinel file photo)

Carmel has not been untouchable, with Homestead beating the Greyhounds in 2015 and North Side doing the same in 2017.

TALENT IMPATIENCE

When North Side fell two weeks ago to Carmel in the regional championship, junior Andrew Owens was big for the Greyhounds, scoring a team-high 13 points in the victory. North Side coach Shabaz Khaliq admited he had no idea who Owens was until he started researching Carmel as regionals loomed.

“You didn’t hear anything about this Owens kid, he didn’t play last year for them on varsity (against us),” Khaliq said. “Those kids in those areas who are good enough to play don’t leave.”

That’s where impatience comes in. Rarely in northeast Indiana — particularly in the SAC — do you see a kid (and his parent or parents) play on freshman and JV teams for a few years before moving up to varsity. In this instant gratification era, playing time and performance at the varsity level trumps everything.

The trio of, from, left, Doug Sheckler, Marcus Moore and Scott Moore helped lead Columbia City to the Class 4A state championship game in 2004. Only two NHC/NE8 teams have gotten to state since. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)

The transfer game is rampant in Fort Wayne, tearing apart groups of kids who have played together since they were younger. Sure, super-talented rosters can be built through transfers, but at the expense of familiarity with teammates.

Communities with single high schools can sometimes benefit with close-knit teams potentially having an edge over squads with admittedly more talent but less camaraderie.

“When you look at some of these other programs and areas, there is something about knowing you who are going to get from Day 1,” Khaliq said. “Building a feeder program is a huge role in success, and building trust and relationships is the biggest thing.”

School closures have also likely had an impact. From 2001-08, coach Al Gooden and the Harding Hawks went to five state championship games — three times in Class 2A and twice in Class 3A. When Harding closed in 2011, the districts were redrawn within East Allen County Schools, separating talented players between several high schools.

WHERE IS THE RURAL POWER?

The talent separation is not as much an issue in areas outside of Fort Wayne. Mostly, the players feeding into schools such as Huntington North, Columbia City, and Norwell are known commodities for years before reaching the high school level.

For a time in the mid-2000s, rural northeast Indiana programs routinely advanced to play for state titles.

From 2002-06, Bluffton (2002), DeKalb (2003), Columbia City (2004), Bellmont (2004) and Jay County (2006) all reached the championship game, although none won titles. Since then, only Norwell in 2012 and Homestead in 2015 have advanced to state from the ACAC and NHC/NE8.

Why? Has there been a decline in talent? Is it coaching? Are athletes specializing in other sports in those schools?

The answers are unclear.

There are other potential reasons for the decline over the last decade. Homestead coach Chris Johnson pointed out the importance of big-time players in a team’s run, referencing Caleb Swanigan with the Spartans in 2015 and Deshaun Thomas at Bishop Luers in 2008-09. Those teams not only reached the state championship, they won.

But other coaches think it’s just a natural drought that will surely bounce back. While the Indiana high school basketball has changed greatly over the last 20-plus years, many are certain that the amount of talented players and coaches in northeast Indiana will eventually see the numbers even out.

“I can share this…it’s not easy,” said Johnson about getting to state. “Not only do you need the talent…you need luck.”

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