Raiders eager for chance at back-to-back titlesFebruary 24, 2019
By JONATHAN SAXON
It’s quite amazing the way things can change over the course of a year.
Last season, the Southridge boys basketball team went into sectional on the heels of a losing stretch that saw them drop four of their last five games. Despite that, the Raiders were able to draw a first round bye in the tournament and went on to defeat Sullivan and Vincennes Lincoln in double overtime to win their first sectional title since 2007 and their 13th overall in the program’s history.
But this year the story is a bit different as the Raiders (18-5) have won 15 of their last 16 games, including nine straight to finish the season.
They will also go into this year’s sectional tournament as the hunted instead of the hunters as they will look to retain their title when they open up play against the Golden Arrows (12-12) on Tuesday. For their part, the boys don’t seem intimidated by the prospect of facing everyone’s best shot.
“It’s sectional basketball in Indiana, everyone is going to be giving it their all no matter what,” said senior center Jaden Hayes. “Everyone is going to be playing like it’s their last game of the season. We have a target on our back, but as long as we keep that tunnel vision and keep playing hard I don’t think there’s anything that can stop us. I’m really excited for my last tournament.”
Continuity has also been a major game changer for the Raiders. The team has the pleasure of returning most of its core group that were featured heavily during last year’s title run, but during that season they struggled to find that high performance area that leads to consistent wins.
Two of the Raiders’ major offensive options, senior guard Joe LaGrange and sophomore guard Colson Montgomery, were new to the team, and it took them a full season of play to work out how they fit in with the other guys on the floor as they worked to win ball games.
But this season they, along with the rest of the players, had the benefit of building on the prior year and have turned that sense of continuity into a season that saw two different win streaks of at least six games.
“Now we all know where we’re going to be on the court,” said Montgomery. “We know each other’s moves, we know what we’re going to do. We’re two steps ahead of everyone else, it’s an experience level that we didn’t have last year with all of us new comers.”
“There was obviously some pressure coming in, it was a lot of new things” said LaGrange. “You want to do well and show how you can play. Now I’m a lot more comfortable. I’ve played in front of the community for two years now, so I’m a lot more comfortable and looking forward to sectional.”
Another major change has been the addition of Mark Rohrer, the new face at the helm for the Raiders after Ted O’Brien stepped down from the role last season.
Rohrer said it was process for both him and the players to get to know each other and figure out what worked best for the Raiders from a technical standpoint, especially early in the season. But the team never lost faith in what they were doing from a basketball perspective, and the wins came naturally once everyone settled in after the first month of the season.
“I’ve been impressed and pleased with the growth our guys have had,” he said. “These guys have had the right mindset throughout the season, it’s been a blast to coach them. They’ve learned from me just as much as I’ve learned from them.”
Even though it’s been great to ride the wave of wins that the Raiders have racked up going into postseason, Rohrer reiterated that the team isn’t coasting and still operate with a sense of purpose as they look to earn second sectional championship.
Rohrer won two in a row in his last two seasons as the coach of South Knox, so he is in the process of pushing the right buttons to keep the boys motivated. And that involves taking a page out of Alabama football head coach Nick Saban’s playbook.
“When any reporter asks him about how do you go from being so good one season to still being so good the next, he talks about not getting complacent,” he said. “That is the number one (thing), not getting complacent with thinking ‘We are where we need to be right now,’ and not getting any better. I think that motivating factor for us is we’re the defending sectional champs, and we don’t feel like we’re getting the respect that we should be. I think 17, 18 year-old kids really can thrive in that, so we’ll try to use that a little bit.”
Rohrer said the biggest evolutions the Raiders have experienced have been in the areas of taking care of the ball, sharing the ball, and making better decisions in terms of shots, and he believes all of those things will only become more valuable when sectional games start. Rohrer honed in on turnovers as a factor that allows teams to stay in games possibly steal wins if things are close late.
But in addition to that, he also looks to rebounding as a way of denying opponents extra looks at the rim and when the ball is in the Raiders’ hands they have to maximize every opportunity they get to make shots.
The keys are clear for the Raiders as they move toward their repeat act on Tuesday. With continuity, trust in their coaches, and regular season success to back them up everyone is ready to do their part and bring a second straight banner back to Memorial Gym.
“I love these guys, it’s my last go around so let’s go get one done,” said Hayes.
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