By BRYAN GASKINS and JOSH SIGLER Kokomo Tribune
---- — Kokomo boys basketball player Tayler Persons was relegated to a spectator role for the Wildkats’ first 12 games of the season after tearing an ACL in a football game on Aug. 30 and having surgery on Sept. 17.
The Northern Kentucky recruit made an immediate impact upon his sooner-than-expected return.
Persons is the 2014 Kokomo Tribune All-Area Player of the Year after averaging a team-high 18.2 points per game for the Class 4A Sectional 7 champion Wildkats. He also averaged 6.1 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
The 6-foot-2 senior guard returned to game action on Jan. 31 — just 4 1/2 months after a surgery that often requires 6-12 months of rehabilitation. The Kats were 6-6 when he was out and 10-2 with him in the lineup. He earned a spot on the Indiana All-Stars with his strong play.
“For Tayler to injure his knee in the second week of the football season and then to come back in 4 1/2 months and not just play, but play at an Indiana All-Star level, it just says a lot for his work ethic, determination, mental toughness and physical toughness and also the support he received from his family,” Kokomo coach Brian McCauley said.
Persons was at his absolute best against Marion in a sectional semifinal game that had Memorial Gym buzzing with energy. Persons erupted for a career-high 30 points and nine rebounds to lead the Kats to a 74-69 victory. He outshined Marion star and IU recruit James Blackmon Jr.
“He opposed his will on the game,” McCauley said. “He refused to let our team lose that game.”
Kokomo beat McCutcheon 54-52 in overtime the next night for a sectional four-peat — a first for the Kats in the class tournament era.
Persons was a part of all four of those teams. As a freshman, he scored 6.3 points per game in a backup role on the Kats’ Class 4A state runner-up squad. As a sophomore, he was the team’s No. 2 scorer (12.6 ppg) and top rebounder. As a junior, he topped the team in scoring (17.4 ppg) and assists and was the second-leading rebounder.
Persons scored 1,131 career points — the eighth-best total in Kokomo’s long and rich history.
Persons is the 19th boys player from a Kokomo school to cap his high school career with an Indiana All-Star selection — and just the fourth in the last 40 years.
“He is one of the all-time greats at Kokomo High School,” McCauley said. “We’ve had so many good players, but he’s right up there. What I really like is it meant a lot for him to play for the Kokomo Wildkats. He played at a high skill level and he played with so much passion and pride. It’s what made him fun to watch.”
Persons played in 88 games and the Kats were 75-13 in those games. He is a three-time All-Area player. He made the first team in 2012 and again in ‘13.
The following are capsule looks at the other All-Area players. They are listed in alphabetical order within their respective teams.
Des Balentine, Western
Balentine emerged as one of the area’s best with a breakout junior campaign. He finished second in the area in scoring with a 21.1 average, nearly 10 points per game more than he averaged as a sophomore. The 6-foot guard also cemented himself among the elite all-around players in the area by leading the area in assists at 5.4 per game while adding 4.2 rebounds a night.
“Des is an outstanding player and outstanding young man,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “He led us in scoring but led [the area] in assists, which shows how unselfish a player he is. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to win and help out his teammates. It was unfortunate that he did have the injury there in the sectional, but even when he was out, he was rooting with the team, fighting, and giving us everything he could while he was out as far as information and helping his teammates.”
Balentine tore an ACL in Western’s sectional opener against West Lafayette, but expects to be back up to full strength by the start of his senior season. Miller credited Balentine’s work ethic for his continued improvement as a player and leader on the floor, which should only further fuel his rehabilitation during the offseason.
“I see his decision-making evolving more and more each year,” Miller added. “He’s not just a scorer. He knows when to kick it out and hit the open guy. Being able to finish — he’s really worked hard on developing his outside shot over the last season, and that really helped us out this year. He shot 51 percent from the field — and those aren’t right around the basket, those are 3-pointers and 2-pointers. He has a great pull-up game from 15 feet. He’s improved dramatically in all phases of the game.”
Balentine is a two-time All-Area player. He made the third team last season.
Erik Bowen, Kokomo
Bowen was a rock in the middle for the Wildkats. The 6-6, 215-pound senior averaged 15 points and a team-high 8 rebounds per game. He shot a team-best 58.6 percent from the field.
“He had a great senior season. Averaging 15 points and 8 rebounds at the [Class] 4A level says a lot,” McCauley said. “The second half of the season, he averaged close to a double-double. He had three double-doubles in a row at one point and had big games against Bowman Academy and against Homestead in the regional. He was so consistent for us.”
Bowen scored a career-high 28 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a victory over Class 3A state runner-up Bowman Academy. He had 17 points on perfect shooting against regional champion Homestead.
McCauley noted Bowen took pride in playing for the Kats.
“He is the most coachable player I’ve coached in my eight years,” McCauley said. “He is such a great leader for us, through his actions both on and off the court. He has such high character and a lot of integrity. We’re really proud of him — he has represented our program well from his freshman year to his senior year. He is one of those guys you wonder, ‘How are we going to replace him?’”
Bowen is a two-time All-Area player. He made the second team last season.
Mason Degenkolb, Tipton
The Blue Devils needed to find a new go-to scorer following the graduation of two-time KT All-Area MVP and 2013 Indiana All-Star Mike Crawford, who scored an area-best 27.7 points per game in his senior season.
Degenkolb proved up to the challenge. The 6-0 sophomore guard scored an area-best 23.7 ppg in leading the Blue Devils to a 15-9 record and their fourth straight Class 2A sectional championship. He also averaged 4.5 rebounds and a team-high 2.5 assists.
“He prepared himself really well and came into the season as an aggressive scorer and then developed throughout the year, trying to be a more rounded player,” Tipton coach Brad Dickey said.
Degenkolb had a 39-point game against Tri-Central, a 38-point game against Rensselaer and 35-point games against Western and Alexandria.
“He has good leaping ability and a soft shot. If you don’t press out far enough to guard him, he’ll make it,” Dickey said. “As teams extended their defense, he showed a great knack for getting fouled and making dribble drives and finishing in different ways.”
Degenkolb ranked No. 1 in the area in free throw makes (183) and attempts (222) and No. 2 in percentage (82.4).
Austin Keisling, Cass
Keisling led the way as the go-go Kings raced to a 22-3 record and Class 2A sectional and regional titles. The Kings scored an area-best 73.2 points per game.
Keisling scored a team-high 18.4 points per game. The 5-11 senior also averaged 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals.
“He put hours and hours of individual time in to make himself better and probably the biggest difference in his game this year is what he did in the weightroom from the time the [2012-13] season was over all the way through this season,” Cass coach Jon Kitchel said. “He was so strong and determined — he could get to the basket and that led to a lot of free throws. He was able to beat guys off the dribble last year, but he wasn’t able to finish like he could this year.”
Keisling ranked No. 2 in the area in free throw makes (150) and attempts (198). He shot a team-high 75.8 percent from the charity stripe and a solid 46.9 percent from the field.
“He was a big-game guy,” Kitchel added. “When the game was on the line, that was when he was at his best. That was the case when we played Western and Logansport [in the regular season] and then in the tournament.”
Keisling’s big season included a career milestone. He surpassed 1,000 career points in a sectional victory over Manchester. He is the 10th member of Cass’ 1,000-point club.
Keisling is a two-time All-Area player. He was a second-team pick last season.
Ryan Bixler, Cass
Bixler was a key to the Kings’ high-scoring attack. The 6-0 sophomore ran the point and offered an impressive line of 13.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2 assists per game. He was the team’s leading rebounder and assist man.
“With Bix running the point, it allowed us to put [Blake] Hadley and Keisling out on the wings and freed them up,” Kitchel said.
“The part that is incredible to me is he shot 40 percent from the 3-point line, 56 percent from 2-point, right around 73 percent from the free throw line and then led us in rebounding and assists. His stats tell all the story about him.”
Bixler had the ability to take over games with his scoring as evidenced by a 27-point game against Oak Hill in the Manchester Sectional final. But he picked his spots, averaging only six field-goal attempts per game.
“He always was ready to do whatever the team needed,” Kitchel said. “If we needed him just to run the point and distribute the ball, he was fine with that. He wasn’t a guy who watched his stats or determined his value to our team by how many points he scored.”
Mykal Cox, Kokomo
Cox had a strong senior season for the Kats. The 6-1 point guard averaged 11.2 points, 5.3 assists and 2.7 steals per game. He ranked No. 2 in the area in assists and No. 1 in steals.
“We went a lot of times as Mykal Cox went,” McCauley said. “He is the best passer I’ve ever coached, I think one of the best passers Kokomo has seen in awhile. He was exciting to watch. He made his teammates better, which is a mark of a very good player. Not only did he make great passes, he understood passing angles and timing so he’d deliver the pass right in the perfect shooting spot. He really has a knack for passing. It’s a gift he has developed.”
Cox was No. 2 on the team in 3-point makes (19). He made 72.4 percent of his free throw attempts.
“He was definitely an improved player and a big part of our success,” McCauley said.
Cox was at his best in a victory over state power Bowman Academy, finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds, seven steals, six assists and two blocked shots.
Brandon Dillon, Carroll
Dillon was a force in the middle for the Cougars. The 6-5 junior offered 16.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. He took 3.3 offensive rebounds.
“He was the only returning starter on this year’s team and he was able to make all-conference last year so coming in, we knew he had to be a big factor,” Carroll coach Matt Weaver said. “He really stepped up and led us. He was the other’s team focal point every game and he still had multiple double-doubles.”
Dillon shot 56.3 percent from the field.
“He shot really well in the paint and also stepped out and shot the 3 a little,” Weaver noted. “He has a nice mix of athleticism and strength. He is not just a big kid who lives in the paint. He is a tough matchup for opponents.”
Dillon also excels in football. He earned All-Area and Class A junior all-state honors last fall.
Graham Ortmann, NW
Ortmann stepped into the Tigers’ go-to scorer role in his senior campaign. The 6-3 sharpshooter made an area-best 44 percent of his 3-point attempts (70 of 159) and scored 15.8 points per game. He also was impressive at the free throw line, knocking down 82.4 percent of his attempts. He tied for No. 2 in the area in free throw accuracy.
“I think Graham is another one of our student-athletes who has gotten the most out of his ability over the course of his four years of high school basketball,” Northwestern coach Jim Gish said. “This year, coming into his senior year, he put in a lot of time and effort outside of what we do as a team. He did a lot of things individually to make himself better. He had a great year with shooting the basketball and that came from putting up a lot of shots in the summer.”
Ortmann had several big games. He made seven 3-pointers and scored 27 points against Taylor. He made a school-record nine 3-pointers and scored 31 points against Sheridan. He had a 24-point game against Peru in the Twin Lakes Sectional.
Ortmann also excels in the classroom. He earned academic all-state honors from the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association, and he landed a prestigious Lilly Endowment scholarship. As a scholarship winner, he will receive full tuition to the Indiana college of his choice and a $900 yearly stipend for required books and equipment.
“Graham is not only a student of the game, but obviously a strong student in the classroom. We’re very proud of him. He has a strong work ethic in whatever he does,” Gish said.
Evan Warden, Western
Warden put the finishing touches on a stellar career by averaging 16.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals as a senior. He also became the fifth member of the Western’s 1,000-point club.
After Balentine went down with a knee injury in the Panthers’ sectional opener, Warden rose to the occasion with a 20-point effort in a 77-63 victory over Northwestern in the sectional semifinals before scoring 19 of his 29 points in the second half of 65-57 loss to Twin Lakes, a game where the Panthers came from 21 down in the third quarter to pull within two with two minutes to play.
Warden, who shot a team-best 81.3 percent from the free throw line, is a two-time All-Area pick. He was a second-team pick last season as well.
“Evan has meant a ton to the Western program over the past four years,” Miller said. “He’s an outstanding, highly competitive young man. He’s a great competitor, and you see that on the basketball court and on the baseball diamond. He’s a good young man off the court, as well, working hard to help others.”
Warden is a Morehead State baseball recruit. He helped the Panther baseball team win the 2012 Class 3A state title.
Seth Adelsperger, Peru
Adelsperger had a breakout season for the Bengal Tigers. The 6-11 junior averaged 14.7 points and an area-best 11.2 rebounds per game (4.1 offensive). He had a 22-rebound game against Maconaquah.
The Bengal Tiger big man also topped the area in blocked shots (46) and ranked No. 2 in field-goal shooting percentage (60.3).
“Seth had a great year for us,” Peru coach Jim Metcalfe said. “This was really only his third year of organized basketball. He has made tremendous strides since his freshman year, and this year he just kept getting better and better for us. We didn’t have a ton of varsity experience coming back so he was one of the guys we really relied on. When we were successful getting the ball inside to him, we usually played pretty well and had a chance to win.
“It was neat to see his confidence just keep building as the season progressed. I’m excited for his offseason with AAU and excited for his senior year.”
Metcalfe noted Adelsperger also excels in the classroom.
“He is a great student, great kid to coach — one of the more polite and respectful kids I’ve ever been around. As the season progressed, he got better at being a leader and more vocal.”
Adelsperger holds scholarship offers from Indiana State and Valparaiso.
Blake Hadley, Cass
Hadley teamed with fellow All-Area players Keisling and Bixler to form a terrific three-guard attack for the regional champion Kings.
Hadley was the Kings’ second-leading scorer (14.7). The 5-7 senior shot 47 percent from the field overall and 38 percent from 3-land.
“Blake is a guy who has unequaled work habits,” Kitchel said. “I remember my first year, he was a sophomore. He wasn’t happy with his shooting percentage. It was during the season so I told him we’d change his mechanics [in the offseason] and he was all right with that. I’ve never seen a guy change mechanics and improve his shooting in such a short period of time. It was a short period of time, but it was thousands of shots that he took.
“He is almost mechanical in what he does as far as working to improve his game and it paid huge dividends this year for him and for our team.”
Hadley, like his backcourt mates, complemented his outside shooting with an ability to beat defenders off the dribble, attack the lane and draw fouls. He averaged five free-throw attempts per game.
K.J. Walton, Maconaquah
Walton gave the Braves a little bit of everything. He topped the team in scoring (11.6 points per game), rebounding (9.5 average) and blocked shots (22) and was No. 2 on the team in assists (2.6 average) and steals (1.7 average). He ranked No. 2 in the area in both rebounding and blocked shots.
Walton shot a solid 55 percent from the field.
“It has been a pleasure to coach K.J. for the past four years. It has been a greater joy to watch him grow from an eighth grader to the man he is today,” Mac coach Andy Steele said. “He did a lot for the basketball team this season. He did a great job of guarding our opponent’s best player most of the time, as well as averaging 11.5 points and 9.5 rebounds a game.”
Walton is a three-sport standout. In the fall, he earned All-Area football honors after helping the Braves (6-4) post their first winning season since 2004. And last spring, he reached the track state finals where he competed in the 400 dash. He finished 15th.
“K.J. has given everything he has to Maconaquah and I wish him the best of luck in the future,” Steele said.
Demarius Warren, Kokomo
Warren played less than a minute of varsity action his junior season. The 6-5 forward was ready when his chance to play came this season.
Warren emerged as the Kats’ best 3-point shooter and a solid scoring option. The Kat senior made 42.9 percent of his 3-point attempts and scored 10.5 points per game. He had a 30-point game against Westfield.
“He had a great year,” McCauley said. “He was one of the most improved players in our program over the last eight years, right up there with [former Kat players] Huston Clark and Kylee Beheler. He did a good job of improving and gaining confidence throughout the summer and learning his role on our team, then taking advantage of the opportunity he had earned. He also did a good job of maturing both on the court and off the court. I’m really proud of him in that area.
“He was our best 3-point shooter — led us in number of makes  and led us in percentage. He was a solid defender and a solid rebounder. He was a big part of our success.”
Warren was the area’s top free throw shooter at 85.4 percent (41 of 48). He made 4 of 4 attempts in the final :22 of OT to seal Kokomo’s victory over McCutcheon in the sectional final.
Calvin Wheeler, Taylor
Wheeler made the Titans go. The 6-0 senior point guard topped the Titans in scoring (15.3), assists (2.6) and steals (2.3). He shot 51 percent from the field.
“He did a lot of things for us,” Taylor coach Andy Lewman said. “Not only was he expected to score a lot, we often had him playing against the best perimeter player defensively. He had a double duty of carrying a burden on both ends of the floor.
“He really started to flourish in the month of February, after we got back in after the weather had been as poor as it was in January.”
Wheeler enjoyed a hot stretch of play in games against Western (21 points, 12 rebounds), Elwood (24 points) and Clinton Central (25 points, six rebounds).
Lewman credited Wheeler with hitting the weight room in the offseason to prepare for his senior season.
“That put him in a situation where he was able to finish more plays on drives,” Lewman said.
KT ALL-AREA TEAMFIRST TEAM MVP: Tayler Persons, Kokomo Des Balentine, Western Erik Bowen, Kokomo Mason Degenkolb, Tipton Austin Keisling, Cass SECOND TEAM Ryan Bixler, Cass Mykal Cox, Kokomo Brandon Dillon, Carroll Graham Ortmann, Northwestern Evan Warden, Western THIRD TEAM Seth Adelsperger, Peru Blake Hadley, Cass K.J. Walton, Maconaquah Demarius Warren, Kokomo Calvin Wheeler, Taylor