March 23, 2014

Seniors help put Kings back on winning track

HUNTINGTON — On Friday, Lewis Cass’ boys basketball team spent a major bulk of the day at its at the corporation’s elementary schools, spending time with wide-eyed youngsters shooting hoops and signing autographs.

It was an eye-opening experience, especially for the squad’s six seniors. They’d experienced a similar scenario as 6- and 7-year-olds in 2003, albeit in a reversed role, when the Basil Mawbey-led Kings went 26-0 and claimed a Class 2A state championship.

And although this Cass team fell one win short of getting back to that threshold, in the end, one major goal had already been attained: The Kings are back among the elite of Class 2A.

“We always looked up to those guys that Basil coached,” senior Blake Hadley said. “We wanted to be like them, and I think we brought it back. Now, everyone sees it and the younger kids are going to want to be like us. We hope this gives the program momentum for the future.”

Cass’ return to prominence was three years in the making. Athletic director Greg Marschand tabbed former Kings great Jon Kitchel, a member of Cass’ first sectional title team in 1978 who went on to play at Purdue, to help turn around a program in a funk by its standards since Mawbey semi-retired in 2008.

After 11-12 and 10-11 campaigns in Kitchel’s first two seasons, the Kings surged to a 22-3 mark and the No. 7 ranking this season, riding a 20-game win streak before a 65-58 loss to Westview in Saturday’s 2A northern semistate at Huntington North.

“That’s what our goal was — to get Lewis Cass basketball back,” Kitchel remarked. “That’s why they hired me. I’m in a stage of my life that I have enough going on that I probably didn’t want to do it. But, I love Lewis Cass. I’ve been a Lewis Cass guy forever, and we wanted to get it back.”

Kitchel was quick to defer the credit to his senior class, a group of gym rats who demanded to be on the court working to improve, even in the summertime, no less than five days a week. Their work ethic has had a trickle-down effect within the program, as far reaching as the early elementary levels of the corporation.

“What a great senior class this year, and they’ve made their mark,” Kitchel said. “We’ve only had two regional championships, and they can say they were part of one. And, our feeder program with our younger kids is really rolling right now. We’re starting in third grade now and have tremendous numbers. And, they’ve watched these kids, these seniors who represent Lewis Cass so well. This group did what it was supposed to do, and is a class act.

“I’m going to miss these seniors. That’s 48 points [per game] we’re losing.”

The Kings excelled this season despite a severe size disadvantage in nearly every game. They willed their way to victory with a slashing offense and trapping defense that helped the squad average 73.2 ppg this season, 14th-best in the state regardless of class. It’s 18.1 ppg scoring margin was 12th-best.

“We just wanted to win and that’s what we based everything off of,” Hadley said. “If you look at us when we walk into the gym, everyone looked at us like, ‘Where’s the Lewis Cass varsity team at?’ Whenever we go out there, we’re ready to play and we wanted to win more than any other team does.”

Leading the offensive charge was senior Austin Keisling. The youngest son of Western state-champion girls coach Chris Keisling, he averaged 18.4 ppg this season and went over the 1,000-point mark for his career late in the season. In true Kings fashion, he fought relentlessly until the end, scoring nine of his game-high 20 points Saturday before fouling in his final game in a Cass’ jersey.

“I believe that our team is really unique,” Austin concluded. “They’re brothers to me. I’m never going to forget this team. These guys are small, but we play like men and I’m so proud of these guys. The shots just weren’t falling [Saturday] like they normally do. It just wasn’t meant to be. But, jumping up from last year’s 10-11 record to 22-3 is a big accomplishment.”

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