Wide-open setting for Ranger-Wolfpack sequel

Tegan Johnston/The Herald
Forest Park’s Collin Hochgesang, left, and Trever Zink anxiously watched as teammate Daniel Lusk shot free throws late in the Rangers’ one-point win over Evansville Mater Dei in last weekend’s sectional championship. The next stop for the Rangers is Saturday’s regional at Paoli, where they’ll tangle with Crawford County at approximately noon in the first postseason clash between the schools since 2003.


Jeff Litherland was just on a mission to return a basketball, but he ended up in a conversation much more prescient than that.   

After a 57-55 win at Crawford County in November, the Forest Park coach found himself back in Marengo returning a game ball to Crawford County coach Levi Carmichael after the Rangers accidentally brought the basketball home to Ferdinand with them. That’s when the pair started chatting about their recent game on Thanksgiving eve and how it didn’t really seem like a season opener. The gym was packed. The fans were rowdy. The teams were polished. It seemed more like, dare we say, postseason basketball?

“We stood outside and talked, ‘Yeah it was the first game of the year, but it almost felt like a sectional championship atmosphere just because it felt so intense and the crowd was into it,” Litherland said.

“First game of the year, it was really kind of surprising because it was like a tournament game. It was a back-and-forth battle,” Carmichael added about Forest Park’s 57-55 victory that night. “I think it was one of those games, where whoever had the ball last felt good about winning.”

Fast-forward 3 1⁄2 months, and Forest Park (18-9) and Crawford County (19-6) are bracing for Round 2 at approximately noon in the second semifinal of Saturday’s Class 2A regional at Paoli. In the first semifinal at 10 a.m., South Knox (19-7) faces South Ripley (15-11). Those four teams compose somewhat of an unlikely regional field since Crawford County and South Knox had a trio of top-five teams in their sectionals. South Knox upended No. 2 Barr-Reeve in the sectional final while also avoiding No. 5 Linton, which Barr-Reeve eliminated in the opening round. Crawford County knocked off No. 1 Providence 33-32 on a shot in the final seconds of its sectional championship.

“It’s wide open now,” Litherland said of the regional. “All the teams who are there are pretty good, but when the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the state both get beat, it kind of opens things up. There’s no 22-2 team there, but there are a lot of good teams who are playing good basketball. We’re playing well. Crawford County has won 10 straight and South Knox won that sectional that had Barr-Reeve and Linton.”

Carmichael likened this year’s regional to last season’s incarnation when South Spencer, North Decatur, Providence and Linton completed a competitive field.

“It’s similar to last year when you have a lot of teams that are just kind of right there,” Carmichael said. “I know Forest Park is playing really well. They’re kind of like us. They’re playing the best basketball when it counts. South Knox obviously, they’re legit. They’ve won 17 (or more games four) years in a row. South Ripley has caught on late. The last four or five years, they’ve been one of the best teams on that side of the state.”

The Rangers have won 11 of their last 13. Crawford County has won 10 straight, a streak that began with a six-point road win at Tell City, the team Forest Park edged by four in the sectional semifinals.

Litherland and Carmichael credited their teams’ turnarounds to increased toughness and improved defense. Crawford County started the season 4-4. Forest Park began 3-5 and was 7-7 in late January before launching its late-season ascent.

“Just the overall makeup of our team (has changed),” Litherland said. “We’ve got an identity now and back then you didn’t know what to expect at the first game of the year. We’ve just gotten tougher. We’ve been through everything. We’ve been through injuries and sicknesses and our defense is totally different than it was at the beginning of the season. We’ve been able to lock people down and our rebounding has improved.”

Forest Park held opponents to an average of 38 points on 39 percent shooting in sectional, and Ranger junior forward Collin Hochgesang attributed the defensive uptick to better communication and a higher sense of urgency and attention to detail with scouting reports. In turn, the Rangers now feel more comfortable playing in a slower, half-court game instead of their preferred fast tempo.  

“Playing sectional in a slow atmosphere, that will help us with zone,” Hochgesang said. “That will help us with slowing ball the ball down and being patient with the offense. It definitely made us more aware that we have to be patient and shoot the right shot because every possession counts.”

Litherland figures his team should be prepared for any defense by now, considering the variety the Rangers encountered in the sectional. They faced a 2-3 zone against Perry Central, a box-and-one against Tell City with a chaser on Trever Zink, and a sagging defense against Mater Dei that dared Noah Fleck and Daniel Lusk to shoot, and Lusk delivered with a team-best 13 points in the sectional final.

Crawford County began rising late in the season since “kids have just decided defense is a little more important than offense and we’ve just been able to do those things better,” said Carmichael, whose team has held its last 13 opponents below 50 points; the Wolfpack are limiting foes to 40.8 ppg in that span after surrendering 49.5 ppg in the season’s first 12 games. When the Wolfpack and Rangers played in November, senior guard Adam Beasley paced Crawford County with 20 points and Sam Englert scored a team-high 19 points for Forest Park, with Elliott Rothgerber adding a career-high 16 points.

“No matter what the numbers say, I think it’s going to be who wants to continue fighting and who wants to get to another week,” Carmichael said. “It will be an exciting weekend of basketball, for sure.”

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