sports blog by andy shenk

A Tale of One Quarter

In At The Game, Elkhart Basketball on January 27, 2013 at 8:31 AM

North Side Gym charged for parking at Friday night’s boys-girls doubleheader between the Elkhart Central Blue Blazers and Penn Kingsmen. Approximately 1000 fans sprawled inside the facility, when my wife and I, plus my parents, arrived near the end of the girls game. The Lady Blazers lost 74-34, but the seniors returned to the court with their parents after the final buzzer for recognition in the final home game of their high school careers.

The senior members of the pep band walked out to center court next. Central has a big ensemble that fills up most of the bleachers directly behind one of the baskets and several dozen seniors came out with their parents, a flower in each band member’s hand. For the rest of the intermission and through the first half of the game, the Blue Blazer pep band carried the gym.

For me, an Elkhart Central boys varsity game begins when the chords of the Blue Blazer fight song come pounding from the bleachers kitty-corner to our row behind the varsity bench. Scattered parents and alum stand to clap along and the team gathers in the corner of the gym. When the music ends, the PA man growls into the mic, “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!” and the boys come flying round the gym, their bright blue and white candy stripe pants ever superior to the dull warm-ups of their opponents.

Central boasts four seniors with significant playing time, Terell Street, John Stahl, Blake Brouwer and Brian Harter, with Street and Stahl are the visible leaders on the team. Terell, the starting point guard, may be mercurial, but represents the squad’s most explosive offensive threat; the only player who can consistently create his own shot. He breathes intensity, frustration chiseled in his face when he’s subbed out or whistled for a foul. John Stahl is the motor on the team and pure entertainment on the bench or the court. He provides the most explosive physical presence in the paint, slaps everyone’s hand during timeouts and jumps up and down on the bench. It’s impossible to discern team dynamics after watching a few home games, but of the Blue Blazers, Street and Stahl are most definitely the most alive at all times.

Their coach, Troy Noble, usually more than matches their intensity, which is why the first quarter Friday night left both me and Nikki bewildered. Central pushed an aggressive trapping defense from the start, double-teaming and triple-teaming Penn every opportunity they had, but midway through the first quarter the Kingsmen broke through in a rush. An 11-5 Penn lead with three minutes left ballooned to 22-5. Terell canned a last-second jumper to make it 22-7 after one, but Coach Noble’s calm demeanor during the break worried me more than the 15-point deficit. Starting with the team’s rather chaotic warm-ups and helter-skelter defense to start the game to John Stahl’s presence on the bench the entire first quarter, something didn’t add up.

There were several spurious travel calls early, but the refs went a step further in the second period. After missing Penn’s big man, Notre Dame-bound Austin Torres, commit blatant offensive goal tending, the officials whistled Street and an opponent for a double foul during an in-bounds play. Terell had some words for the refs, but play soon restarted. To Central’s credit, they used their frustration over the next few minutes to once again blitz Penn on defense. Penn’s offense ground to a halt, while Street and juniors Jaron Walters and Tra’vion Qualls combined to pull the Blazers back within four, 22-18. Coach Noble had come alive, too, in the period, working his men on defense as they kept Penn scoreless for the first three minutes of the period.

Central’s 13-0 run had to end somewhere and it did on a Conner Sowders 3-pointer. Penn’s response was expected, but would Central’s offense be able to continue scoring?

Terrell Street meant to. A slick jumper made it 25-20. On the other end, Torres stepped to the line for two free throws as the Blazer student section and pep band chanted “Overrated!” With miserable form, both attempts clanked off the iron. But Torres didn’t earn his Division I scholarship for free-throw shooting. The second effort bounced hard into the far corner and he dashed hard to the ball, forcing it off a surprised Blue Blazer’s hands and out-of-bounds. Twenty seconds later, Sowders struck again, this time a driving lay-up. 27-20.

After a failed Central possession, 6-9 senior Brian Harter fouled Torres hard at the basket, sending him back to the free throw line. Torres had to walk off some soreness in his knee and Harter looked to have a scratch on his hand, but when the Kingsman came to the line there was no pity…”Overrated!” He missed both to the delight of the crowd.

A minute later Street stole the ball near mid court and raced to the basket to make it 27-22. When Penn’s Andrew Kimm missed the front end of a one-and-one, the Blazers had a chance to make it a one possession game, but they could not capitalize. Penn scored five straight, the last point coming from Torres at the line, the second of two attempts. Penn fans cheered with relief and their boys had a 32-24 lead at halftime.

The Elkhart pep band rallied the crowd repeatedly in the second quarter, leading the “Overrated!” cheers and more, but per tradition, they left the gym at halftime and wouldn’t return until the end of the third quarter. The gym fell quiet without them, Austin Torres’s scream after a massive dunk at the start of the half the only exception. Eyes blazing, he stared down his defenders, before striding to the charity stripe to try to complete the three-point play. He couldn’t manage that, but his teammates pitched in over the next three minutes, blitzing the Blazers 13-0. Central looked broken, physically and emotionally.

Just as in the first quarter, Central’s coaches remained eerily quiet, appearing content for the 8-point lead to slip away. By the end of the period, Blake Brouwer, Brian Harter, Terrell Street and Tre Taylor all had a seat on the bench and Central’s second string finished out most of the game. Street came off steaming mad, while the rest of the team and crowd looked on glumly.

The game’s disconcerting start had faded after Central’s gutsy play in the second, but now Nikki and I were at a complete loss. John Stahl hadn’t played a lick and the team couldn’t buy a single stop or big bucket in the third quarter. The gym quiet without the band, Coach Noble gave his team little help or intensity, either. Through three quarters, Penn led 57-31, an horrific embarrassment to Central’s defense, but all the more perplexing given the team held Penn to 11 in the second quarter. The scoreline for each period read 22-7, 11-17, 25-7.

A few minutes before the final horn, John Stahl, seated near the coaches on one end of the bench all night, walked down to Tre Taylor and Terell Street by the water cooler. Sticking his hands on their hands, he leaned down to say something, then came back to his spot, tapping everyone else on the bench encouragingly on the head. Soon after the game ended, 68-40 to Penn, and the teams shook hands in front of the scorer’s table.

I’m still not sure what happened on Friday night. One ferocious quarter from Central sandwiched by two routs. For the first time since I’ve been attending, the Blazers were knocked out before the fourth quarter. Bad games happen, though, and Stahl’s absence certainly affected Central’s ability to counter Torres in the paint.

Despite the loss, this team has plenty of guys who want to compete and they still have one month left to together represent their school on the court. I’m excited for them to find the confidence and composure they so dearly need. After an 8-game losing streak by a combined 24 points earlier in the season, they surely cannot be faulted for frustration, but for their sake, I hope their play brings them pride and satisfaction in the final weeks before sectionals. I’ll be there at North Side Gym to cheer them on.

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