BOURBON — As the 2012-13 season opened, Triton found itself struggling to find a sense of identity.
It made for an up-and-down front end to the year as the Trojans dropped three of their first five games on their way to an 8-5 start, not bad by many teams’ standards, but still not nearly up to the level of expectations for a program that has become accustomed to championships and high rankings in the weekly AP polls.
Then it hit head coach Jason Groves — this year’s squad would make a name for itself on the defensive end.
“We kind of had to find our niche or identity I guess you could say throughout the season. I don’t think at the beginning of the year we really had one,” he said. “We weren’t really good defensively. Offensively we had Clay (Yeo), so it was like ‘What do we do well?’ I couldn’t think of anything in particular we did extremely well, so I thought, well, I guess we can get pretty good defensively, and that’s what we’ve been focusing on. We have some kids who are fairly long and athletic and strong, so it kind of fits us now. That’s kind of how we’ve been winning — play good defense and get enough offense to get a victory.”
It’s a recipe that’s proven pretty effective for the team.
The Trojans are on a 12-game win streak that’s included Triton’s sixth straight sectional championship and the team’s fourth regional and semistate titles within the same six-season span. They’ve held opponents to just a shade over 40 points during the streak — they’re rated eighth in the state in points allowed — and the scores just keep getting lower.
After clinching the Sectional 51 title with a 47-46 win over Marquette Catholic back on March 2, Triton held both Fort Wayne Canterbury and Pioneer to 41 points to get back on top at regional, and last weekend, the team allowed just 32 points in a blue collar victory over a physical Lafayette Central Catholic squad.
“It’s our mindset when we enter the game,” said junior forward Cody Shively. “We’re going to go in and we’re going to shut down our man, and if one of our teammates gets beat we’re going to step over and we’re going to help them out. It’s just a mindset out there.
“After we lost in the Bi-County game against LaVille, Coach said we could go one of two ways — we could either go uphill and see how far we could get and come together, or we could go the opposite way. We decided we want to see how good we are, and defense is the easiest way to do it. Anyone can play defense if you try and give it your all. After that game we just came together and stepped it up defensively.”
If recent history is any indication, this weekend’s Class A state championship game will likely be another low-scoring affair. And that’s just what Triton (20-5) is expecting against a Borden (23-3) team that players describe as fundamentally solid.
“It’s going to be about being efficient on the offensive end. We know they’re a very disciplined basketball club,” said Clay Yeo. “It’s not going to be a pretty game. It’s going to be low scoring, we’re both so good at defense. So if you’re looking for a high-scoring battle, you probably shouldn’t come to the game. We’re just going to do whatever it takes to win.”
Saturday’s game represents Triton’s fourth trip to the state finals in only six years, a resume as impressive as any in the state.
Players credit their coaches for the program’s success, and Groves puts the credit back on his players, both current and past.
“The last six years we’ve been in the state finals four times. We just try to live up to that. We’ve been playing really well the last couple games, and it’s nice to be back there,” said junior guard Tanner Shepherd.
“Coach Groves is so great,” added Shepherd, who transferred from Tippecanoe Valley in his sophomore season last year. “He spends so much time; he’s the best coach I’ve ever had, and he has so much knowledge of the game. It’s nice to be able to win over here like we are.”
“Credit Coach Groves for all of this,” echoed Yeo. “He started it with the ‘08 team that made it down there and won the state championship. And credit those guys on that team, I think they also had a lot to do with it. They gave us the confidence and said ‘Hey, you guys can do this if you put in the time like we did,’ and I think that’s what established Triton as sort of a powerhouse in the state in 1A. It’s just the mentality that we take into practice that the other guys passed on.
“There are new guys that come in every year and want to experience it for themselves. We do it for the new guys, and we do it for ourselves. We just want to win.”
“I can sum it up in about five words — Jake Everett, Troy McIntyre, Joel Meister, Colton Keel, Griffyn Carpenter, Clay Yeo. I guess six names,” said Groves with a laugh. “I’ve had some really good players throughout the years. It’s really been amazing to me the talent that has come through here over the years at a small 1A school in such a short amount of time. At the same time, they’re good kids. They bought into what I was preaching. Sometimes you can have good kids, and it still doesn’t work out, and fortunately for us that first group in ‘08, they were really good leaders, and it just carried over to the underclassmen and they bought in. That’s a credit to the kids, and that’s a credit to the parents to have kids like that because society is not like that today. “
While this weekend’s state championship is nothing new for Triton, it’s Borden’s first trip to the state finals in any IHSAA-sanctioned sport.
Five players on this year’s roster — Shively, Yeo, Bryson Mosier, Seth Glingle and Drew Mosson — dressed for the Trojans’ last trip to state in 2011, a foray that ended in a 55-59 loss to Indianapolis Metropolitan. Groves is hoping that past experience on the big stage at the Banker’s Life Fieldhouse helps ease his players into Saturday’s showdown.
“Just the familiarity I think is an advantage,” said the Triton boss. “The kids know what to expect, they know what it’s going to be like playing at Banker’s Life. I described it to somebody this week, it’s kind of like being in a movie. It’s just strange. The atmosphere is not quite the same as it is in a normal high school gym. The people are so far away, and there’s so much space. That’s just different than what we’re used to. Being used to that I think definitely helps. The kids have been there. Hopefully it’ll help ease their tension a little bit, but they’ve still got to show up and play the game.”
In one interesting wrinkle to Saturday’s game, Triton and Borden ended the regular season tied for the final spot in the AP’s Class A Polls, and three weeks later the co-No. 10s are set to battle it out for the top spot in the state.
Borden beat No. 3 Barr-Reeve 43-42 for the regional championship on March 9, while Triton has knocked off three state-ranked squads in the tournament, including No. 8 Marquette, No. 4 Pioneer and No. 6 Central Catholic.
“I just think it’s crazy. I don’t really know much about Borden, but we’ve come a long way from the turning point, our last loss at LaVille,” said Triton sophomore point guard Joey Corder. “It could have been a lot worse; our ranking is a lot better than it should be with the start of our season. We’ve gotten a lot better; we’ve worked hard in practice and it’s really paying off. Now we’re playing for a state championship.”