Denning held Pats’ scoring mark for 2 decadesMay 18, 2020
By COREY STOLZENBACH
The 19th Century philosopher Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is credited with coining the adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” and Karr’s observation could certainly apply to Tim Denning.
A lot has changed since Denning graduated from Heritage Hills in 1998. He scored 1,320 points in his career, setting an all-time boys basketball record. Denning knows that records are meant to be broken, and it wasn’t a surprise when Murray Becher broke his record in December.
In fact, Denning himself knew the record’s days were numbered, as he claimed Becher would break the record back — when the latter was just in sixth grade.
“I actually said then that their class would be one of the best classes to play at Heritage Hills,” Denning said. “They were just amazing already in the sixth grade. I mean, they would beat teams by 40 points and not even hardly work at it. They were just that good back then already.”
Yet, not everything has changed in 22 years for the former record holder for the Patriots. Denning prided himself on a desire to win more than anything else in his day, and that competitive fire persists within him two decades later.
“If I lose, it’s not something I enjoy,” he said with a laugh. “Just about everything that I do — whether it’s cards, playing basketball with my fiancée’s son (Logan Kerstiens) or golf, I’m not good at it, but I still get frustrated if I’m not playing well.”
Perhaps the one aspect in which Karr’s writing rings most true is that Denning wore No. 44 in high school — the same number Becher wore when he played for the Pats. But there is one stark difference between the two. Becher came off the bench in his first high school game and became a permanent starter afterwards.
It might’ve been more difficult, however, to telegraph that Denning would do what he did based on his freshman year numbers.
Denning started off high school on the junior varsity squad before his promotion to varsity. He didn’t see a lot of playing time, having scored 22 points in eight regular-season games for an average 2.8 per game. The Pats had other solid players during the 1994-95 season in Nathan Schorr, who averaged 21.7 points per game in the regular season, and Peter Jochim, who averaged 12.1.
The Pats that year had a tale of two halves. They lost eight of their first 10 games that season, only for them to win nine of their final 10 and finish with an 11-9 record.
“The biggest thing that probably happened was I think we learned how to play together as a team as the season went on,” Denning said. “I think we got more comfortable, a little more confident in each other. I think that really helped us. It was the main reason why the second half was better than the first half.”
The future scoring king at Heritage Hills gave people a small taste of what was to come when he came off the bench in the Boonville sectional semifinal against Tecumseh. Denning found himself in the game upon Aaron Hill leaving due to an ankle injury. He dropped 11 points to help the Pats to a 59-47 win against the Braves.
There weren’t any nerves for him that night. After all, he’d already been playing the game years before that. He fell in love with the sport when he was in elementary school. Denning was also no stranger to tough competition. He played for Keith Boerste’s sixth-grade team when he was only in third grade due to Boerste’s team being shorthanded.
“The coach told me back then that I was one of the few people that could dribble with my head up,” he said with a chuckle. “So, he needed somebody to bring the ball up the court at that time.”
A sectional championship wouldn’t come that season, however, with Kent Ayer and South Spencer denying the Pats, 64-52. They met host Boonville the next year, and in what was considered an upset, the host Pioneers handed the Pats a 69-63 loss in the sectional opener to end their season at 14-7. Denning notched a game-high 24 points, and had the Pats on the verge of taking the lead multiple times in the second half, despite the loss.
Some great players never got to experience the joy of winning that sectional, but Denning’s time was coming his junior year. The Pats let everybody know they meant business that year when they took the court in 1996-97. Denning significantly increased his regular-season scoring numbers from his sophomore year. He went from 295 points and 14.8 points per game in 20 games in 1995-96 to 407 points and an average of 20.1 per game as a junior.
One notable game that season came Jan. 17, 1997, when No. 12 Pike Central paid a visit to No. 19 Heritage Hills in front of a standing-room-only crowd of about 3,600 people. Both teams were undefeated. Denning and the Pats were tested by a Chargers team that featured Andy Seitz, who was averaging 25.8 points per game up to that point.
The Pats held him to 10. They led by 13 at one point before Pike Central came all the way back for a 49-48 lead. Heritage Hills took the lead for good off a 3-pointer from Beau Pund, 51-49, and held tight for a 55-53 triumph, with Denning scoring a game-high 23 points.
“It was by far the most favorite game I ever played,” Denning said. “I played a lot of ball against Adam Seitz, and with Adam, actually, in our younger years, and their team was definitely a good team. I think we knew going into the year that we could do something special.
“To get that under your belt, it really makes you think, ‘Okay, now the next accomplishment, what do we want to get to next?’” he later said. “Although we did go game by game, of course, you’re thinking sectional first.”
Heritage Hills engaged in an unorthodox game against Pocket Athletic Conference rival Gibson Southern in the first sectional game. The Titans stalled, trying to slow everything down in an effort to keep it competitive with the Pats. They primarily played man-to-man defense, with some zone thrown in. Denning couldn’t believe how much time the Titans were chewing off the clock, but Gibson Southern saw that as its lone strategy to win the game. It wasn’t a barrage of scoring, but in the end, more points belonged to the Pats, 32-22.
They made sure to get their payback in 1997. Denning’s 15 points helped the team to a 59-46 win against South Spencer, avenging the loss from his freshman year. Who else but the junior guard finished with a game-high 19 points? The Pats then rolled to a 63-46 win against the Pioneers to claim their first sectional championship since 1989.
“It was unbelievable,” Denning said. “After all the years of winning games and winning games, but you never really accomplished that goal. We had won the PAC before and stuff, but we hadn’t gotten to that point, and to get it really meant a lot.”
The Pats have never won a regional championship, however. They were matched with Vincennes Lincoln in the regional semifinals that year. Heritage Hills led nearly the entire way, even after Vincennes Lincoln went on a 9-0 run to the game at the start of the second half, but the Alices went on a 9-1 run to end the game. The Pats missed three consecutive free throws at one point, and going 3 of 13 on field goals in the fourth quarter contributed to a 60-56 loss, exiting with a 21-3 record.
“We actually had the lead, so we were still there — we were there,” Denning said. “We just did not execute and finish the job. We still played our same ball. It just didn’t work out for us that day.”
Heritage Hills seemingly looked like it was headed for promising things again the next year, starting the 1997-98 season 7-0, only to lose its next five games in a row. Denning wonders if that team got complacent from the previous year’s success, as well as the 7-0 start, though he insists he himself did not get complacent.
One of those games in which the Pats lost five in a row came Jan. 16, 1998, when they dropped a 70-54 loss to Pike Central in Petersburg, but Denning notched 21 points that night. That was enough to become the team’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing the previous record of 1,052 points that was previously set by 1993 graduate Ben Lambeck. Denning finished the night with 1,072 career points and scored another 248 in his prep career before it was all said and done.
Heritage Hills held its ground, though, finishing 5-3 for a regular-season 12-8 record, which Denning credited to getting refocused. The Pats dropped an 80-63 score on Mount Vernon in the sectional opener, but they’d be tested against Evansville Memorial and Clint Keown, who played for a bit at the University of Evansville. The Pats still kept it close, but could not return to the championship in a 68-62 loss. Keown made his presence known that night by making it rain with 33 points.
Denning said, though, that there wasn’t a way to stop Keown.
“Clint was an amazing player,” he said. “I played my AAU basketball with him also, but, yes, he was a great player. He can shoot, he can drive — you weren’t going to stop him. You try to contain him, but you pretty well knew it wasn’t going to happen.”
Denning finished his high school career with 15 points, but had a rough stretch, shooting that night, going 4 of 21 for the Pats.
He wasn’t sure why his record stood for two decades, noting that many good players went through the program after he did. Denning congratulated Becher after he surpassed him. He was the one who presented Becher the game ball Dec. 21 against Mount Vernon in commemoration of the feat after he previously asked Pats coach Nate Hawkins if he could be there to congratulate Becher. Denning told Becher to just keep going.
Becher, like Denning, finally broke through this year with a sectional championship after previous years of frustration, and like Denning, he could not help Heritage Hills to a regional title, but unlike Denning, it was out of his control.
“I feel sorry for this class with everything that’s going on,” Denning said about the premature end to the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic that canceled postseason play after the sectional tournament. “They had a chance to do something real special for Heritage, and it’s really disappointing for them; and I’ve been very proud of every one of them the way that they played, the way they conducted themselves.”
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