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 '09 Panthers Brought Program Back to Winning Ways - Boys Basketball Back on Track at KHS Just Years Removed From 1-21 Season

March 25, 2009 -  The Knightstown Panther basketball team had an emotional rollercoaster season in 2008-09, suffering through a streak that saw the team lose eight of nine games and then follow that up with a seven-game winning streak. It was truly a tale of two seasons packed into one.

Under the direction of second-year coach John Howell, Knightstown turned in a record of 13-9, playing against a schedule that offered up some very stiff competition, especially early in the season.

After getting off to a 4-1 start, the Panthers ran into a slate that included three ranked teams, Class 4A New Castle, and three squads that would eventually claim sectional titles.

That stretch run ended with a span in which Knightstown lost seven of eight games and had fallen to 5-8 on the season. Then it all turned around as the team won seven straight games and started playing its best basketball near the end of the season.

The late surge came to an unsatisfying and sudden halt in the sectional when the Panthers lost to a Centerville team they had beaten just three weeks earlier.

“It was definitely a disappointing loss because we had already beaten them on their court,” Howell said. “We played well at times in the game and we got off to that early lead. But by halftime the boys had become pretty frustrated with how the game had been going and we were in a lot of foul trouble. It just took us too long to get our minds back into the game.

“We made a good run at them but came up short. By getting into foul trouble and not taking care of the ball we cost ourselves the game.”

Coming into the season one of the biggest shadows towering over on this year’s squad was a lack of team chemistry. Prior to the season Howell expressed concerns as to whether the players would be able to come together as a unit and work as one. Although the team got off to a 4-1 start, the lack of cohesiveness became apparent as soon as the schedule toughened up.

Knightstown lost games to seventh-ranked Class 2A Lapel, Eastern Hancock, Class 4A New Castle, Class 1A third-ranked Rockville, Shenandoah and Class 3A seventh-ranked Mt. Vernon.

A team that had won four of its first five games was suddenly spiraling out of control with a losing streak and a 5-7 record.

Then the schedule eased up some and the team started to jell. Players began to work together more and a more cohesive unit emerged.

“That stretch of the schedule had been really tough on us and we had to find more intensity and better execution,” Howell said. “When we lost to New Castle, Mt. Vernon and Rockville we had played against some very good teams. I felt like that’s when the boys came together and started to play as a team.

“We had lost a lot of tough games and we were 5-7. The boys talked about it and as a team set a goal of winning out the last eight games. They would have done that had they not run out of gas in the fourth quarter against Rushville.”

During that turnaround, Knightstown clobbered hapless Morristown on the road, and then returned home to beat a very good Blue River team by 13 points, 77-64. A tough road win at North Decatur was followed up by a home-court victory over Class 4A Greenfield-Central, putting Knightstown over the .500 mark at 9-7 on the season.

A huge 61-55 win at Centerville was probably the team’s best game of the season and established the Panthers as one of the favorites in the upcoming Hagerstown Sectional.

Knightstown won against Hagerstown and Waldron to extend their winning streak to seven games before losing the season finale at Class 3A Rushville, finishing with a 12-8 regular season mark

Knightstown advanced to the semifinals of the sectional for the second straight year by defeating Union County for the second time this season, 51-47. But the team was outscored 21-5 from the free throw line by Centerville and lost, 60-54, to the same team they had just beaten three weeks earlier by a near-identical score of 61-55.

It was a bitter end to a season that began with so much promise after that 4-1 start and the preseason expectations of so many. But it was still a successful campaign considering how far the program has come during the last two years.

While Knightstown fans were getting used to the success of the Chad Ballenger years, in which the Panthers won three straight sectionals and one regional title, the program suffered through its worst season in school history during Ballenger’s last campaign. That season Knightstown went 1-21, setting an all-time school record for losses in one season.

Two years into the Howell tenure, Knightstown has recorded seasons of 9-14 and 13-9. That’s a steep climb in the right direction from what the coach inherited when he came here from New Washington nearly three years ago.

This year’s team had its ups and downs, but also had several players contribute with brilliant individual performances. Five different players scored at least 20 points in a game this season. Unfortunately for the Panthers, seldom did multiple players put together such outings during the same game.

Zach Apollos scored a career-high 38 points against Hagerstown, while senior Kelton Lane scored his career-high 25 points against North Decatur in a game in which the Panthers scored just 45 as a team.

Senior Brice Biehl had a 21-point outing against Centerville in the sectional, and also hit for 20 markers against Hagerstown. Senior Anthony Hibbert knocked down 21 points against Blue River, and sophomore Seth Apollos scored a season-high 20 points at Elwood.

Senior Jordan Back’s best game came against Wapahani in which he had seven points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots.

The four seniors on the team this year were some of the biggest reasons the Panthers reversed the spin and closed out the year winning eight of their last 10 games.

“I give a lot of credit to those four seniors because I thought we had some pretty good leadership out of those kids,” Howell said. “When we were 5-7 the seniors stepped up, not just on the floor but in the locker room. Brice (Biehl) and Kelton (Lane) both began shooting better and showing the floor leadership that we needed.

“Anthony (Hibbert) was solid all season long on defense and had some games where he shot really well. Jordan (Back) always contributed and played within his role.

“The seniors found a way to mesh this group together and they became a pretty good team.”

With the program now returning to the winnings ways of the past, Howell will have his work cut out for him next season. First, he will have to replace the four seniors, and second, he’ll be charged with determining roster positions in what will surely be a crowded and competitive battle among a collection of talent coming up.

The Panther “C” team put together a 12-3 season and the junior varsity boys finished 16-4. Add to that eight players on the sectional varsity roster and there simply won’t be enough uniforms to go around next season.

The Apollos brothers, Travis Titus, Anthony Forshey, Drew Martin and Jordan Hauk all saw varsity minutes this year. Likely filling out two more varsity rosters next season will be Lane Fields and Jacob Taylor, who were on the roster for the sectional. That leaves just four spots open on the varsity for next season, and at least three times that many people competing for a spot.

“We’ll be meeting with the boys soon to tell each of them what they need to do to improve their games,” Howell said. “This summer will be crucial for all of these kids because we need to be a better shooting team. Outside shooting was probably our biggest weakness this season.

“There should be a very competitive situation for a varsity roster next year and the smart ones won’t be taking a position on roster for granted. They all need to work hard in the weight room and on the basketball court.”



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