Rangers reach semistate in dominant fashion

Photos by Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Forest Park's Collin Hochgesang, left, Daniel Lusk and head coach Jeff Litherland celebrated on the sideline as the clock wound down during Saturday's Class 2A regional championship game in Paoli. The starters were subbed out of the game in the final minute of play. Forest Park defeated Austin 70-49. For more photos from the games, click here.


PAOLI — Thirty-two minutes.
That’s all that now separates the Forest Park boys basketball team from a trip to playing in the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s Class 2A state championship in two weeks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis after the team’s 70-49 victory in the regional championship over Austin in Paoli on Saturday night.

The reality of the Rangers’ first regional title since 2011 still hasn’t sunk in yet for many and it might not fully settle in until Saturday’s semistate meeting against Indianapolis Scecina.

“I’ve dreamed about this moment since I started playing AAU ball in the third grade,” said senior Sam Englert, who led the Rangers with 21 points in the regional championship game. “We always talked about it, but now it’s actually here. I think (going forward) it’s going to be hard to beat us, we’re going to come out and want it more than anyone.”

It’s been a special season for the Rangers — from two holiday tournament championship trophies, a share of the Pocket Athletic Conference title with Heritage Hills and their second-straight sectional championship were all goals for head coach Jeff Litherland and his team.

After securing the sectional title last week (Collin Hochgesang and Noah Fleck both hit buzzer-beaters to keep the Rangers’ postseason hopes alive), Forest Park isn’t going to play the “just happy to be here” card now.
“We struggled through the sectional and I thought a lot of that was due to the pressure they were under,” Litherland said. “Before (Saturday’s regional) games, I told them to just go out and have fun and whatever happens, happens. I didn’t want them to think, I just wanted them to play.”

On Saturday, the Rangers did more than just play — they played with a purpose. After defeating South Knox 55-41 in the regional semifinal game earlier in the day, Forest Park played with a very balanced offensive attack in the championship with four players scoring in double figures — Englert leading with 21, Curt Hopf adding 15, Collin Hochgesang finishing with 11 and Isaac Uebelhor finishing with 10 points after scoring a career-high 16 points in the earlier game against the Spartans.

“If we have four guys scoring in double figures then who are you going to guard? Who are you going to focus on?” Hopf said.     

Litherland has felt confident that Uebelhor could become the team’s X-factor late in the postseason and he’s beginning to see that materialize now with his performances throughout the sectional and the two regional games.

“I think Isaac (Uebelhor) became a man today,” Litherland said with a laugh. “He surprised me and I’m sure he surprised a lot of people in this gym. They basically didn’t guard him and we worked with him this week about stepping up and the upperclassmen have been hollering at him in practice telling him to shoot it and he’s just really starting to get confidence.”

Uebelhor admitted at the beginning of the sectional last week that he was a little nervous starting for the first time in a postseason game but now the nerves have gone away and he can focus more on what’s happening on the court.

“I’ve just been able to play my game,” the sophomore guard said. “As the season went on, I just became more comfortable and I was able to do my job.”

The Rangers gathered in a huddle together after all the team pictures were taken to celebrate with their pieces of the net. For more photos from the games, click here.

The offense is just the secondary weapon for the Rangers as they’ve prided themselves on their defense for the majority of the season.

Forest Park has yet to give up more than 50 points in a postseason game this season as opposing teams are averaging just 45.2 points through the first five games of the sectional and regional tournaments.

“It’s been one of our keys all season,” Hopf said about the Rangers’ intensity on the defensive side. “Every day, it’s written on the board to ‘get down on defense’ and that’s what we’ve been constantly trying to do.”

Early in the first game of the day on Saturday, it looked as if there was a chance that Hopf might have to miss the championship game.

After missing a free throw, Hopf went up after the rebound, but collided with a South Knox defender causing the Spartan to bang his chin on the back of Hopf’s head, leaving a big gash.

Hopf had to leave the game to go get stitched up, but came back in as soon as possible. While he admits his head was still not feeling 100 percent, seeing the regional championship trophy hoisted around made things better.

“It hurts a little bit but it’s oh so worth it. I can’t even tell you how good it feels (to win),” Hopf said.

The Rangers (24-4) will take on Indianapolis Scecina (19-9) at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Hatchet House in Washington with a chance to make their fourth Class 2A State Finals appearance in school history.

Growing up as a kid in Indiana, Hopf always imagined himself on a journey to a state championship, but now that’s it here, it’s so much better than what he could’ve imagined.

“This isn’t like anything I ever dreamed of,” Hopf said. “When I started playing basketball as a little kid, I always thought about this moment of working toward a state championship and now that it’s here, I just want to keep going.”

For Litherland, who’s in his sixth season coaching the Rangers, the most special parts of this journey are the connections he’s gained with the group of five seniors — Englert, Hochgesang, Fleck, Daniel Lusk, and Braydon Voegerl.

“When I had these seniors in their eighth-grade camp, I showed them pictures of the 2005 and 2006 state teams and I told them that if they worked their rear ends off, they had a shot to do that too,” Litherland said. “Now, we’ve got a shot. We’re 32 minutes away from being able to play for a state championship and what’s even better is that I get to spend one more week with these guys because that’s the most important thing for me.”

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