| Evansville Courier & Press
EVANSVILLE — It was the day the earth stood still. Or at least a day in which basketballs floating toward imaginary hoops across the state never found the rim.
The Indiana High School Athletic Association boys’ basketball state tournament was officially canceled on Thursday, March 19, two days before the regional round was to start. COVID-19 did what two World Wars and the flu pandemic of 1918 could not.
For the first time since the IHSAA state tournament series began in 1911, the boys’ basketball season prematurely ended. Normally unthinkable, the stoppage of the postseason basketball tournament was named the top sports story of the year by the Courier & Press staff.
The IHSAA’s announcement came after Gov. Eric Holcomb said that all Indiana schools would be closed until May 1. The entire spring sports season was also wiped out.
“It is with great sadness and disappointment that we inform Hoosiers of the cancellation of the remaining games of the 2020 IHSAA boys basketball tournament series,” then-IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox said in a statement. “While the Association maintained every hope of continuance, it is now evident those hopes are now unreachable. Albeit there will not be regional, semistate and state champions crowned across our four classifications, the health and safety of our public remains paramount and our primary focus.”
As a result, No. 2 Heritage Hills’ matchup with No. 1 Silver Creek in the Class 3A regional and scores of other games never materialized. Several months later, Patriots coach Nate Hawkins was asked to pause and reflect on the game that wasn’t.
“It was really tough missing out on the rest of the postseason after winning the sectional,” Hawkins said.
Heritage Hills’ previous sectional title came in 2003.
“The group that we had last season was special and deserved the opportunity to show what they could do,” Hawkins said. “Obviously getting another shot at Silver Creek is what our kids were looking forward to. We had a great battle with them in December and thought we had a shot to get them in March.”
Silver Creek and Purdue-bound Trey Kaufman outlasted the Patriots 82-78 in overtime in the Hall of Fame Classic on Dec. 28, 2019 at New Castle.
“This pandemic was out of our hands and we all understood that it was way bigger than basketball but it just hurt not being able to finish the tournament with such a special group,” Hawkins said.
“We cherish the memories we had with this group and are so glad they were able to celebrate that sectional championship together. I think a lot of people will always wonder what could have been with that group.”
2. Walter McCarty fired at UE
What began as the most promising season in years, including one of the biggest victories in school history, came to a crashing halt all soon thereafter.
Hometown hero Walter McCarty’s hire as University of Evansville men’s basketball coach was met with great fanfare. In his first year, the Aces posted their highest attendance in 10 years. Last season, McCarty led UE to arguably its biggest win in program history as the Aces shocked the nation, stunning Kentucky, his top-ranked alma mater, 67-64 on Nov. 12, 2019.
Two months later, McCarty was fired after spending three weeks on administrative leave. He was under investigation for conduct that allegedly violated Title IX laws.
“There is no place at UE for any behavior by any university employee or student that jeopardizes the safety and security of others,” a UE release stated.
The university issued McCarty warnings the previous year regarding inappropriate off-court behavior with members of the campus community. He also participated in training concerning acceptable behavior under Title IX.
McCarty, who signed five-year contract in March 2018, was placed on leave Dec. 27, 2019. Following his dismissal, the Aces lost a program-record 22 games in a row until finally defeating Eastern Illinois, 68-65, on Dec. 9.
3. Playing prep football in a pandemic
Last summer, the idea of playing high school football in a pandemic seemed implausible, or at least improbable.
Neighboring Illinois punted its prep football season until spring. Despite numerous cancellations and teams such as Washington being forced to drop out of postseason before a sectional championship game because of COVID-19, Indiana teams battled onward, completing the state finals at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on schedule.
In fact, area teams Castle and Mater Dei fell just one game short of Lucas Oil. Castle lost 32-7 to nationally ranked Indianapolis Cathedral in the Class 5A semistate. Mater Dei lost at Western Boone 42-7 in the 2A semistate.
“To say that the 2020 season was unusual would be the greatest understatement,” said Mater Dei coach Mike Goebel. “But, to actually pull off the season, to play games under the circumstances, to have young athletes, coaches, the entire community to do everything possible to make the season happen, well, looking back, that feat is truly remarkable.”
From the preseason and summer Zoom meetings with coaches and Zoom meetings with players, there were lingering doubts lingering if there would even be a season.
“We had a rocky start,” Goebel said. “When we were given permission by the IHSAA to actually meet and have limited practices, the quarantines hit immediately and delayed the start of our practices by a week. Many felt that, with such a young team overall, we were falling further behind our opponents. Perhaps it was a good lesson in the long run. Players, coaches, officials all learned the seriousness of the pandemic.”
Mater Dei had issues like every team but the Wildcats soldiered on.
“By the end of the season, we were playing much improved ball when we lost 19 players for the last two games to quarantine,” Goebel said. “We dressed more freshmen for varsity and still competed. We were fortunate. Our situation was much like so many teams. But we were able to play. Some teams were not so lucky.”
Although Mater Dei overcame a slow start and made a postseason push, Goebel admitted it was indeed a crazy season. For example, playing Reitz for the West Side Nut Club Trophy before a smattering of spectators at the Reitz Bowl because of COVID-19 crowd restrictions.
“Not having the crowds and our student section did have an impact and we missed the energy that our crowds can generate,” Goebel said. “Playing in the Reitz Bowl for the Nut Club Trophy before a stadium that was nearly empty, that was tough. But we did play, molded more closely I think, and had such a great time together. Every day on the practice field as well as every Friday night game, well, they were cherished. Things seemed to be closer to normal for us and for our school community. To add solid improvement and an eight-game win streak, that was icing.
“In the end looking back, as was stated prior to the season’s beginning, the greatest victories of this season were won by just being able to practice and to play the games.”
4. Khristian Lander leaves early for IU
Khristian Lander was a 5-star recruit who would’ve been a top Mr. Basketball candidate this winter. But he was coaxed by Indiana University coach Archie Miller to graduate early from Reitz High School and forego his senior season on The Hill or at a prep school.
While some thought he should’ve been more cautious, Lander proved he was ready for the Big Ten through his early-season play with the Hoosiers. Keith Lander, Khristian’s father, takes us through his son’s thought process last spring.
After narrowing down his list of schools to four – IU, Louisville, Memphis and Michigan – Khristian continued to build relationships with those schools. He averaged 21 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists in leading Reitz to a Class 4A sectional championship and a 17-7 record in earning all-state honors as a junior.
“Most in-depth conversations about reclassification came from IU,” Keith said. “Those conversations brought to light the advantages of reclassifying versus prep school.
“Prep was the next chapter. Once he decided on where he wanted to go, it was really a no-brainer to reclass. What other way to prepare for college than going to college?”
At worst, you redshirt, they reasoned.
“He would have still been able to benefit physically and mentally,” Keith said. “But, all of this was/is a very difficult situation. Trying to mentally prepare to go to college a year early (within six months of decision). Completing four courses on top of his regular junior year courses at the beginning. Already being behind a year, arriving late; not participating in summer workouts. But again how could better prepare? And then there is COVID-19.
“That is an obstacle by itself without all the other things. It’s been a challenge but it’s a good challenge for his growth as a player and better yet as a young man.”
5. Stan Gouard returns to USI
Welcome home, “Superman.” Regarded as one of the University of Southern Indiana’s best players ever, Stan Gouard came back to the far West Side as Eagles coach following Rodney Watson’s retirement.
Gouard was an integral figure in the most glorious era in Eagles’ men’s basketball history, when they seemingly knew no bounds. Nicknamed “Superman” for his high-flying antics, he lifted the Eagles to the 1995 NCAA Division II championship and a second-place finish in ’94 under Bruce Pearl. Gouard played professionally in Sweden, Colombia and Mexico and with the Des Moines Dragons of the International Basketball Association.
After his playing days were over, he made his mark as head coach at the University of Indianapolis, USI’s Great Lakes Valley Conference rival. He guided the Greyhounds to eight NCAA tournament appearances in 12 seasons. Gouard was named GLVC Coach of the Year in 2014.
Of course, several other stories in this crazy year deserve mention. Most prominently are Don Mattingly being named National League Manager of the Year and Evansville’s pro sports teams, the Otters and Thunderbolts, losing their seasons.
Mattingly guided the Miami Marlins to a 31-29 record and their first playoff berth since 2003 despite a COVID outbreak at the beginning of the season and making 174 roster moves in a 60-game season. He showed a steady hand at the wheel after finishing 57-105 the year before.
Bosse Field underwent a $5 million renovation in the offseason, but the Otters were unable to show off the grand old ballpark. Evansville and its Frontier League counterp did not play last summer.
Five of the 10 teams in the Southern Professional Hockey League did play, but the Thunderbolts were among those who sat out a shortened 42-game regular season.
Contact Gordon Engelhardt at email@example.com or on Twitter @EngGordon