By BRYAN GASKINS Kokomo Tribune
---- — Tayler Persons has scripted one of the best stories of the boys basketball season with his sooner-than-expected return from knee surgery and with strong play upon his return.
The Kokomo Wildkat standout and Indiana All-Star candidate has surprised many with his comeback — and has surprised himself a little, too. He is averaging 18.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists in a heavy workload of 27 minutes per game.
“It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “Honestly, I knew I could get back, but I thought I’d be able to come back and play 15, 20 minutes a game — not be able to come back and play the way I’ve been playing. I think I’m just blessed by God. I’m thankful for everyone that is believing in me and my great doctors and therapists. But it’s just unbelievable being able to come back and making the contributions that I’m making right now.”
Persons tore an ACL in a football game on Aug. 30 and had surgery on Sept. 17. Rehabilitation from that type of surgery often takes 6-12 months, but Persons returned to game action in 4 1/2 months. He made his season debut against Anderson on Jan. 31. He had 16 rebounds, seven rebounds and three assists in a 68-48 victory.
The Northern Kentucky recruit followed with several more strong performances including a 27-point game against Logansport and a 25-point game in a 51-50 victory over Fort Wayne Northrop.
“Everywhere I go, someone is telling me that I got back fast and that they can’t believe I came back this early,” Persons said. “I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent yet, but I’m pretty close. I just have to get certain things back like jumping. I think everything else is there.”
Kokomo coach Brian McCauley deeply appreciates Persons’ commitment to the Kats.
“It’s just an outstanding story,” McCauley said. “The work ethic and dedication he had coming back ... and then to come back and not only play, but play at the level that he’s playing at is really a testament to his toughness and what type of person he is. He could have easily decided to rehab and just prepare for his freshman year at Northern Kentucky, but that is not what he wanted. He is a true Wildkat player and he wanted success for his team and our community. To come back and help our team improve, I’m thankful for him and his teammates.”
Fort Wayne-based Dr. Jeffrey Hartzell performed Persons’ surgery. Coincidentally, Hartzell is McCauley’s brother-in-law.
Kokomo (14-7) is 7-2 with Persons in the lineup. Last week, the Wildkats took down one of the state’s top teams, Bowman Academy, and then beat Northrop to gather some momentum for the sectional. Kokomo faces long-time rival Marion on Friday in a Class 4A Kokomo Sectional semifinal.
“I’m just really proud of the guys. We’re playing with great team chemistry,” Persons said. “We had a rough one against Northrop, but we pulled out a win and we needed that. I feel like we’re going on a high note into playing the biggest game of our whole season [against Marion]. But I feel like we’re clicking at the right time and we’re really prepared for this week.
“I think we have a really good group of guys who refuse to lose. We know we’re capable of going far in the tournament. We’re just ready to prove it to everyone else.”
Kokomo is the three-time defending sectional champion, but Marion is the team to beat this year. The Giants thumped Logansport 77-51 in Tuesday’s opener.
The Giants throttled the Kats 75-51 in a North Central Conference game on Dec. 20 at Memorial Gym with Persons out of action.
After that game, Marion coach James Blackmon Sr. noted Persons’ absence and his appreciation for Persons’ game. Carmel coach Scott Heady did likewise after the Greyhounds smacked the Kats 62-36 on Jan. 18.
Persons has earned opposing coaches’ respect with his play over his career. As a freshman, he worked off the bench and scored 6.3 ppg, helping the Kats roar to a 23-3 record and a Class 4A state runner-up finish. As a sophomore, he moved into a starting role and was the team’s No. 2 scorer (12.6 ppg) and No. 1 rebounder (5.5). The Kats went 20-5.
As a junior, Persons became a stat-sheet stuffer. He averaged team highs of 17.4 points, 4 assists and 2.9 steals per game and also averaged 5.7 rebounds per game. The Kats went 22-3 and won their second North Central Conference title in three years.
Persons’ senior plans hit a bump in the road with the football injury, but he quickly settled into his spot in the lineup and he reached a milestone along the way. Persons scored the 1,000th point of his career against Logansport on Feb. 13 at Memorial Gym.
Persons is the 12th boys player from the city of Kokomo to reach 1,000 career points in 111 years of basketball.
“There are so many great players in [Kokomo’s 1,000-point club]. To be a part of that, it feels awesome,” he said. “I think it shows all the hard work I’ve put in. Coming back from this injury, I knew I had to push myself and work hard, but that’s how I’ve always approached things, working as hard as I can.
“I’m so proud to be a Kokomo Wildkat. It’s something I’ll always remember. It’s just amazing to be able to play for your home city and your hometown and be able to see all the fans who support me. I know my family loves coming to watch. I think of all the good players I’ve played with and my coaches all through the years. Hopefully we can make another run deep in the tournament and go out on top. That’s my plan.”
McCauley said Persons has left his mark on the program.
“He is one of the best players to ever play for Kokomo High School, but he’s been fortunate to be on outstanding teams and that’s been huge for him,” McCauley said. “You couple the fact that he’s an outstanding player and he’s had great teammates and that’s why we’ve had so much team success during his four-year career.”
1,000-POINT CLUB The 12 boys basketball players from the city of Kokomo who scored 1,000 career points: Player Points Class Jim Ligon 1,900 1962 Jimmy Rayl 1,632 1959 D.J. Balentine 1,280 2012 Tim McFarland 1,270 1976 Brad McNulty 1,199 1972 Charlie Hall 1,163 1974 Ron Hughes 1,134 1961 Bruce Rose + 1,124 1970 Brandon Wood 1,114 2007 Tayler Persons 1,079 2014 Brad Sebree ++ 1,076 1990 Geoff Shuck +++ 1,055 1971 Note: The 3-point line was added in the 1987-88 season. + Played at Kokomo and Haworth. ++ Played at Taylor and Kokomo. +++ Played at Haworth.