Unfinished business

After a sudden ending to last season, the boys basketball team is ready to get back to where they were

Unfinished+business

Matthew Kretler, Sports editor

In the trophy case by door 11, there is one sectional trophy that stands out. A gold plaque is fused to a wooden shape of Indiana and it states, “2020 Boys Basketball 4A Sectional 10 Champions.” It may seem like yet another sectional championship filling the hallway length cabinet, but it’s more than just a plaque attached to a trophy. In order to understand the weight that this trophy carries, you have to travel several months back in time to March, which seems like so long ago.
March 7, 2020. Lawrence North versus Warren Central in the boys basketball sectional championship. Fans packed the lower and upper stands at Lawrence Central in what was regarded one of the most highly anticipated sectional championship games of the night. LN had barely inched out a 76-73 win against Crispus Attucks the night before, and they already played a tough game against the hard-nosed Warren Central team. In that regular season matchup, it was a nail biting 59-55 double overtime victory, so there was a lot of hype around this sectional championship game, and it lived up to it.
0.7 seconds left in the game, LN 60 – WC 59. Then junior Donaven McCulley was at the free throw for a one and one. The first free throw went in, LN 61 – WC 59. McCulley prepped for his second free throw, pounding the ball into the ground a couple of times. The shot eventually went up and the ball rattled in and out of the rim. The ball made its descent, and Warren Central’s Malik Stanley corralled the rebound, yet couldn’t get a shot off in time. The game’s concluding buzzer sounded and the court erupted into a frenzy of excitement: coaches joyfully embraced each other and players were running around animatedly.
“It just felt good because most of the season everyone was doubting us about how we would play in sectionals. A lot of people going into it thought LC was going to win. It felt good to prove everybody wrong,” senior center DJ Hughes said.
That championship was the first sectional title for the boys basketball team since 2015. The momentum was building for the 25-2 Wildcats, and they instantaneously became one of the favorites to win the state championship. Not only did the fans and media possess this belief, but there was also a contagious belief in the locker room.
“It was really a loaded sectional, and we felt like we were ready, after winning that, to get our fifth state championship,” head coach Jack Keefer said.
Little did they know that there was something else that was contagious, COVID-19. The threat of COVID-19 seemed too distant to even think about. Indiana had only one case at that point and the United States only had 30 cases, or so they thought.
The Wildcats were supposed to play New Palestine on March 14. Leading up to that game, the COVID-19 dominos began to fall. Regionals were moved from Southport to LC, attendance was reduced to only 70 family members for each team, and then the tournament was eventually postponed indefinitely on March 13. The momentum that had been building was suddenly stopped.
“You almost want to say devastating because we were at the top of our peak. To see everything get stopped and cancelled, it was just kind of heartbreaking,” senior point guard Shamar Avance said.
Less than a month passed after the indefinite postponement, there were 486 COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 delivered yet another gut punch to the boys basketball team. On April 1, assistant coach Jim DeSalle passed away from COVID-19 complications.
“The whole team and the whole coaching staff misses him dearly. One thing that I will remember about him is that he always had a smile on his face coming into practice. He always tried to encourage us to make us better, not only on the court but off the court as well,” junior guard C.J. Gunn said.
DeSalle was not only an assistant coach, he was part of the heart and soul of the boys basketball program for almost 15 years.
“For about 15 years he was the backbone for everything. He got us ready for trips, he got meals ready for us, when we had a team bonding situation, he got the cabins for us. He just had so many duties that his plate was always very full,” Keefer said.
Later that summer, IHSAA determined that the 2019-2020 boys basketball state tournament would not be played at all. Another gut punch. Through all of the downs COVID-19 has presented to the boys basketball program, there seemed to be some light at the end of the dark tunnel. In early July, the boys basketball team was eventually allowed to practice again, but along with other things in 2020, they had to adapt to their new so-called “normal.”
“It was weird. We had to have a certain number of people in the gym, and we had to wear masks going into the gym before we started practice,” Avance said.
Throughout all of the things that have happened to them, the plaque on the 2020 boys basketball sectional trophy bears a greater weight than just being attached to a wooden shape of Indiana. It represents all of the different challenges that this team has overcome to get to this point.
Now as they approach their first game against Marion on Dec. 4, there is some hope to play a season after only getting a sample size of the state tournament last season. They have to learn how to build up their own type of momentum and swagger to continue their success from last season.
“It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of chemistry. Our team played well together, and we all like each other. If we have that same feeling towards each other and we have that same energy that we had last year, then there is no way that we’ll lose,” Hughes said.
The momentum might get there, yet COVID-19 still calls the shots . On Nov. 12, the Marion County Health Department changed the setup for what the boys basketball season will look like over the first month of the season. Only guardians, parents, and support personnel are allowed to attend games. The threat of COVID-19 is still prevalent.
“Our scrimmage against Zionsville was cancelled because someone over there has it. So COVID will affect us along the way. Who knows? We just have to try to keep COVID out of our own little world,” Keefer said.
COVID-19 has begun to tighten its grip on the world again and the impact that COVID-19 will have on boys basketball is still unknown at this point. Despite all of the unknowns, the joy of being able to play basketball is present among this team.
“I never know when this season could get cancelled at any point, so I’ve got to go out there and play every game like it’s my last, and just give 110% whenever I’m out there and do whatever the team needs me to do in order to win,” Gunn said.
While they can’t control COVID-19 as of right now, the goals for the upcoming season are still the same as any other season. The drive to add to that hallway length trophy case and the walls plastered with trophies is one of things that remains constant in this world of unknowns.
“ We want to win the state (championship), that’s our goal. We want to make up for last year because we felt like we could’ve won state,” Keefer said.