DAN VANCE: Thought process of new Heritage coach Adam Gray is perfect to guide the program, ACAC

Adam Gray, Heritage boys basketball coach

When you talk to a new head coach at a school, you never know what you are going to get. Sometimes they know the program and sometimes they are seemingly clueless as to the situation they are about to embark on.

New Heritage High School boys basketball coach Adam Gray seems to fit somewhere right in the middle.

He has a clue about the Patriots, enough so that he actually began learning about them and studying them during the downtime between getting the job and it being officially approved at Tuesday’s East Allen County Schools board meeting.

Then he stopped himself. Too much knowledge can be a curse. So when he met around 15 of the players on Wednesday morning for their first get together of any kind, Gray was in the right head space: have a clue, but not an opinion about the young men who will be suiting up for him this winter.

“They were open, receptive to what we wanted to do. It was a really good first impression that they made on me,” Gray said.

What Gray does have is a vision, and a pretty specific one, built on lessons he has learned as an assistant along the way from Whitko to Bluffton, Huntington North, Saint Francis and most recently, under Marty Beasley at Carroll.

Beasley’s way, as anyone who follows local prep hoops knows, is a winning way. Gray has done his best to learn that way and it could position him in a way that few have been able to do in the area. Former Northrop coach Barak Coolman left for Valparaiso in 2015 in part for his ability to build a program from the ground up, from the first year of school until graduation day. It’s a small-town mentality, have your own farm system of sorts. When Shabaz Khaliq left North Side this spring for Richmond High School, he noted the same type of opportunity.

Small community opportunities are not rare if you stay in this area, but having the right person to build a program from kindergarten up is. Enter Gray, just four years removed from college graduation, and add in experience under Beasley, arguably the best in the area at forming his own farm system, and the tools are in place for Heritage to take the lead in the Allen County Athletic Conference basketball ranks from day one.

“The way that Coach Beasley built the program here from kindergarten all the way through high school is something I’ll take,” Gray said. “The way that he thinks the game, the way he adjusts in game is something that I have been really fortunate to be around for these past two years. He adapts to his personnel. before I was with him, I was more rigid on the way I thought the game. I’ve learned to adapt being around him more.”

While the Patriots have had their share of success; under then-coach Barry Singrey, there was often one speed. It worked in the ACAC with the Patriots winning the ACAC tournament last year and coming a hair or two away from taking the regular season title away from Jay County. But Heritage has not averaged 50 or more points per game in five seasons and has not averaged 60 or more since Gary Merrell coached the program to that mark three straight times from 1998-2001.

The book on Heritage has been plain to read: no matter the opponent, they will slow it down, run half court sets and avoid getting on the break much.

Gray could change that. And it could change the attitude and tempo of the entire ACAC.

“I like to think that we are going to try and control the tempo. If we have the athletes and the skill level to run and it is going to be something that is to our advantage, it is going to be something that we will do,” Gray said. “If we are inferior athletically and we need to make it a possession value game, that is something I am comfortable with as well. Whatever fits our personnel and whatever fits as far as our opponent.”

Last season, Heritage averaged 43 points per game. They have only eclipsed 60 points on three occasions in the past three seasons and just once in 2017-2018, beating Bluffton 61-43 in the ACAC Tournament.

And low scoring, low tempo has worked. Until the postseason. And while Gray does not have delusions of grandeur, he knows that ultimately keeping the Heritage program going in the right direction involves winning, which drives fan, student and player interest. Postseason success is even more vital and Heritage has not won a Sectional title since 1998.

They last won a Sectional game in 2013.

“Our conference, they aren’t Marion, they aren’t on that athleticism level. So to get there, we are going to have to work on our skill level from very early on, our ability to handle the basketball first and our ability to handle pressure. When we do beat that pressure, when we do get an open shot, we are going to need to be able to knock that down,” Gray said.

The standards at Heritage are set. And it is July. That doesn’t happen for new coaches in new programs often enough. Few coaches plan enough, others aren’t afforded the opportunity to get ahead. Things are different at Heritage with principal Matt Widenhoefer, athletic director Tim Burton and now Gray.

So forge ahead I say, and let others in the ACAC play catch up.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Dan Vance at dvance@news-sentinel.com.