By BRYAN GASKINS Kokomo Tribune
---- — The Class 2A boys basketball final four is power packed. No. 7-ranked Lewis Cass (22-2) and Westview (22-4) are in the northern semistate while No. 1 Park Tudor (22-4) and No. 2 Clarksville (23-2) are in the southern semistate.
Westview, Park Tudor and Clarksville laid the foundations for their big seasons with strong showings in the 2012-13 campaign. They finished with 18 or more wins. Cass, on the other hand, sputtered to a 10-11 record.
Senior guard Blake Hadley and the Kings put in countless hours in the offseason to turn things around.
“It actually started right after our [postseason] banquet was over because Blake had come up to me and said, ‘Coach, we’d like to have open gyms.’ I said, ‘We’ll have open gyms,’ and he said, ‘No, immediately,’” third-year Cass coach Jon Kitchel recalled. “I said, ‘If we have guys wanting to start working for next year, we’ll make sure we have a gym available.’ So it started immediately and it’s paid off. They’ve increased [team] 3-point, 2-point and free throw percentages 10 points or better across the board.
“It was nothing more than these guys just deciding they wanted to leave this year as winners. They put in the work to make that happen.”
The Kings are shooting 49.4 percent from 2-point range, 34.8 percent from 3-land and 71.3 percent from the charity stripe. They are scoring 73.8 points per game — a whopping 16 points more per game than last season.
“Everybody bought in,” senior guard Austin Keisling said. “Blake was the first one who really wanted to get into it and he was totally right, we needed to get our shooting up. Last year, our shooting percentage wasn’t good. Now this year, it’s really good. If we can keep it up, we’ll have a good shot.”
Hadley noted he saw the hard work begin to pay off over the summer.
“We went to a tournament, I believe it was the Purdue tournament, and we played two really tough teams and we kind of came together then. That’s when I knew we had something special coming along,” he said. “We had a couple losses at the beginning of the season, but we probably needed those to learn from and they took a little pressure off. We just built from there.”
Cass opened 2-2 with losses to Logansport (77-68) and Hamilton Heights (73-70 in overtime). The Kings have followed with 20 straight wins with a payback victory over Logansport (86-68) in late January.
Last week, Cass beat No. 3 Wapahani (63-62) and Tipton (55-47) to win its first regional title since the 2003 squad won the Class 2A state title and finished 26-0.
“It hit me at the end of the Tipton game that we were the second team all-time in Lewis Cass history to be a regional champion. That says a lot and that means a lot to me,” Keisling said. “Winning that regional championship, I wanted to celebrate so much but I was so tired. That first game took a lot out of me and the Tipton game just topped it off. But it was a great moment. I’m really proud of my team. Hopefully we can get this semistate.”
The Kings’ success starts with a six-player senior class. Keisling, Hadley and forward Victor DeJesus work as starters and guards Jake Martin and Destin Irwin and forward Drew McRae are regular contributors off the bench.
“In seventh and eighth grade, I think we lost two games and we played this exact same offense, exact same defense, so I knew we had something,” Hadley said. “We were just very poor shooters last year, including myself. I knew I needed to step up and everyone else has as well.”
Keisling (18.4 points per game) and Hadley (14.9) are returning starters. They team with sophomore Ryan Bixler (13.3) to form a terrific three-guard setup. DeJesus, Martin, Irwin and McRae stepped into varsity roles as seniors.
The Kings rely on their depth to fuel their full-court defense and go-go offense.
“We’re deep. We play nine guys and we have complete confidence in all nine,” Kitchel said. “Last year, Austin and Blake were varsity players and the [other seniors] were JV players and they were kind of unknowns. We didn’t know what to expect. After we came through the summer, we knew they were going to be productive for us.
“With the way we play, we need depth. For them to provide depth and to produce on top of that, it’s been a big bonus for us.”
Junior guard Owen Ohman (7 ppg) also starts for the Kings and freshman forward Evan Ohman (5.9) is one of the top reserves.
Cass’ 10-11 finish last season marked its fifth straight sub.-500 season. Hadley, Keisling and the other seniors have put the proud program back on the track.
“It feels good because the last time we had it was when [coach Basil] Mawbey was here,” Keisling said. “His final season he still had a good record [14-8 in 2007-08]. Since then, we had struggled to keep it above .500. Now we really have strong support from our elementary all the way up. It’s really a Hoosier Hysteria area. It feels great all this [success] is happening here at Lewis Cass.”
Like Cass, Westview is a former state champion. The Warriors won the Class 2A state title in 1999 and again in 2000. They beat Taylor in a semistate game in 2000.
The current Warriors are led by 5-foot-11 senior guard Jordyn Bontrager, who averages 17.2 points and 4.4 assists per game. Inside, 6-3 junior forward Chandler Aspy offers 15.7 points and 6 rebounds per game. The other primary scorers are 5-11 senior guard Jamar Weaver (9.5) and 6-4 senior forward Judah Zickafoose (9.3). Weaver shoots 43.3 percent from 3-point range and Bontrager shoots 40.6.
“Bontrager is a really good guard — quick, athletic,” Kitchel said. “They have two kids inside 6-3 or a little bigger. One is a true post player who has nice post moves. They have an athletic wing and an off guard who is a good shooter. We’ll need to bring our A game.”
Westview is enjoying its fourth straight 20-win season. The Warriors are making their first semistate appearance since 2008.
The Warriors score 60.4 ppg and allow 48.9. Like the Kings, they are a good shooting team — 52.4 percent from 2-point range, 38.3 percent from 3-land and 70.7 from the charity stripe.
Class 2A Semistates Saturday Northern Huntington North H.S. 4 p.m.: Westview (22-4) vs. No. 7 Cass (22-2) Southern Seymour H.S. 3:15 p.m.: No. 1 Park Tudor (22-4) vs. No. 2 Clarksville (23-2)