sports blog by andy shenk

Kingsmen Trip Up Crimson Chargers

In At The Game, Elkhart Basketball on January 8, 2013 at 3:05 PM

It’s hard to describe a world you’ve only just met. When I met my wife over six years ago at the cross-country table in our college dining hall, I didn’t know anything about her except her appearance and the sound of her voice. We talked a couple of times in the next two years, before becoming friends, then marrying a year after graduation.

I may know quite a bit about her now, 16 months into marriage, but I can still think back on our first memories, when I knew so little. I couldn’t have described her then without embarrassing myself.

The North Side Gym is old and it recalls the history of its town, Elkhart. In writing about this place, I’m aware first of the people who have passed through, most of whom I’ll never know, and the memories they created.

“Of the people, by the people, for the people,” proclaimed the facility’s 1954 dedication booklet. The pride in building what at the time was the largest high school gymnasium in the world must have been significant for a mid-sized town in northern Indiana.

“Children who are using it today will also see their children enjoy its facilities” – the community intended the structure to be a legacy, a gift from their post-war generation for decades of Elkhart citizens to come. When high school teams step on to the original 1954 parquet, they’re recipients of that gift, linked to the impulse that drove a town to build a gigantic community-centered sports facility.

When I look around at the 500 fans gathered at North Side Gym for Saturday night’s Penn-Elkhart Memorial non-conference tilt, I think mostly of the contrasts from the years before. Stories of packed gyms for sectionals, a Harlem Globetrotters-College All-Stars game in the 1955, even the recent International Basketball League’s Elkhart Express, who called North Side home from 2006-2009.

Indiana basketball is changing along with the small towns across the state that once made the sport their number one obsession. Industrial towns in decline, a four-class system in the playoffs, and an ever-expanding array of entertainment options are realities. History’s tide shifts and the exuberance 60 years ago that accompanied an 8,200-seat arena for high school basketball is now difficult to comprehend.

Still, the folks who come here on weekday and weekend evenings make a choice to come. My brother Jonny and I have come this Saturday, too. He’s here for the first time, while I’m on my second visit. We arrive at halftime of the junior varsity game, which concludes in a rout for the visitors. As they leave the floor, alumni stand for the school fight song and the Elkhart Memorial Crimson Chargers varsity team trots onto the court. A number of them remain standing to watch the teams warm up. Meanwhile, students gather on opposite ends of the court – the Penn students drove half an hour or more to support their team, along with the many parents and fans seated behind the Kingsmen bench.

A little before tip-off, the Central student section pulls out a Markese “Quest to 1000” sign. Illinois-Chicago-bound senior Markese McGuire, judging by the 12 points still to be crossed off beneath the “1000,” is just a dozen from the achievement. Penn’s biggest talent, meanwhile, is 6-7 senior forward Austin Torres, committed to next-door Notre Dame. He’s likely nonplussed by the several Alabama shirts visible in the crowd in anticipation of Monday’s night BCS National Championship game.

The crowd stands for the national anthem, played by the Crimson Charger band. When the music dies out and the cheering stops, a third of the fans stay on their feet, perhaps for the starting lineup introductions, but a few seconds later we all sit down. Jonny and I briefly lament the lack of devotion before turning back to the court. To our shock, the teams are already on the court, gathered at the timeline for the tip. Who forgot to introduce the teams?!

I’m bitter, but forget quickly as McGuire quickly collects five points to draw closer to his goal and keep Memorial in the game against their favored opponent. Central students sit early, but midway through the first quarter, as McGuire gets closer to 1000, they stand up in unison.

Both coaches, Memorial’s Mark Barnhizer and Penn’s Al Rhodes, are dressed impeccably in suits: White shirts, jackets, and ties. Rhodes, who hit 500 career wins with Penn’s first victory this season, also won a state title back in 1984 and once coached in the McDonald’s All-American game. His intensity is still high in his 34th year of coaching. Coach Barnhizer matches him, yelling at senior point guard James Hershberger after a turnover, “What are you doing?”

Barnhizer’s team is struggling early. After knotting the game at 10 all, Memorial gives up 16 points in the last four minutes of the first quarter and trails 26-16 through one period. McGuire needs only three more points for 1000.

Though McGuire has nine points, it’s come on roughly 25% shooting. It’s really Torres who has dominated the game thus far. He’s got big shoulders and an explosive presence down low. Time and again Markese drives past the first line of Kingsmen, intent on a layup, only for Torres to rise above and swat his shot off the court.

After a quick three to open the second quarter, Penn goes cold. The Chargers pull within nine on a Dimitri Giger ‘3’ and McGuire assist. On the next possession McGuire hits a tough layup and gets fouled. He swishes the free throw for 1000, the students throw their confetti in the air, and the hosts look like they’re back in the game. When Memorial gets the ball back and goes for a fast break, Jonny and I stand, along with many around us, but a Conner Sowders steal and layup deflates us. We sit again to watch Sowders complete traditional three-point play and put Penn up, 33-24. When Giger throws the ball away on the next possession, Barnhizer doesn’t hide his frustration. The team stumbles into halftime, trailing 42-29.

Jonny leaves at halftime and my attention quickly moves from the 3-point contest on the court to Elkhart Central senior J.J. Stahl, whom I’ve just noticed talking to some friends under the basket nearest me. After the game on Friday night, he’s my favorite Blue Blazer and I like the fact that he’s hanging out at another basketball game on Saturday night. His friends in the bleachers soon get a kick out of him, too, when a group of middle-school girls walk up and ask for a picture. He obliges, despite the snickers behind him.

Penn gets a few practice shots in before the second half starts, while Elkhart Memorial only comes back to the court with a few seconds left. I wonder what Barnhizer shared with his men. They went 24-2 last season, but are in danger tonight of losing their fifth in six games.

The Chargers do play much more energetic defense, stopping Penn on the first possession, but the Kingsmen offense is just too slick for raw effort to help. They score six straight off excellent ball movement, while Markese picks up his third foul on a charge. A glance at the Memorial student section reveals general apathy toward the game and the rest of the crowd, if not as direct, has quieted down to a murmur. The third quarter, a romp for Penn, is punctuated at the 2:45 mark, when Torres, unexpectedly defending Memorial sophomore Cameron Maxwell, strips the 5-10 guard at mid-court and barrels the other way for a one-handed slam. The Penn crowds goes wild, as does Torres. Penn leads 58-35.

With Penn up by more than 30 points in the fourth quarter, some folks start to filter out. The coaches, however, and their teams, continue to play hard, with substitutions and shouted instructions frequent from the sideline. Markese McGuire leaves the game for the first time with 3:04 left to applause from the crowd. Austin Torres, also out of the game, stands often to cheer his team on from the bench. After the game ends, 85-50 to the Kingsmen, Torres gives McGuire a hug at the front of the line, before going on to slap hands with the rest of the Chargers. He had the better of the Chargers, and of McGuire personally, on numerous occasions, but they appear to have respect for one another, perhaps from the summer camps and tournaments they’ve played in together over the years. Next year at this time they’ll be long gone from their perch atop Northern Indiana high school basketball and in the midst of adjusting to the much bigger world of Division I basketball.

Memorial falls to 4-6 (0-2 in NLC play), Penn improves to 7-3 (2-0 in NIC play).

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