CULVER — Culver Military players huddled around their coach Monday at Fleet Gymnasium, going over the lessons of the day.
They concluded their practice, as they always do, with their team motto: “Together we work! Together we work! Together we win!”
It’s that togetherness, that team chemistry, players and coaches say, that is responsible for the Eagles’ impressive run to state this season.
CMA (19-6) will play No. 1-ranked and reigning 3A state champion Washington (23-4) at the Class 3A finals at Conseco Fieldhouse Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. EST.
“The star of the team is the team. We try and say that a lot as coaches,” said CMA head coach Mark Galloway. “So there’s no one star. You get any kind of individual accolades by being a good team, and everything else will take care of itself… They know that we’re trying to work together, we’re trying to win together, and everyone gets credit for that from the guy at the end of the bench on because it starts at practice.”
“In practice, in the game our coaches always tell us that team chemistry is the most important thing,” echoed senior center Chier Ajou. “Playing together, expecting teammates to be good teammates and playing as one team. Since we started this season, we all respect each other, we all like each other, we all play as one team, and that’s one of the most important things. I like the way we are. We need to keep it up this week.”
CMA was initiated into the IHSAA in 1974-75 after three years in the State Associate Member Tournament, but until this year, the school had failed to capture a single sectional championship. Indeed, it had been 10 years since the Eagles had even won a sectional game, let alone a championship, before they handed Mishawaka Marian a 55-51 defeat at the Sectional 19 semifinals on March 4.
That dry spell was baffling to many onlookers given the kind of talent the Academies have attracted.
Of this year’s starting five players, four were with the 2009-10 squad, including its top three scorers in point guard Jermaine Myers — who recently broke the 1,000-point career mark as a junior — 6-foot-5 power forward Juwan Brescacin and 7-1 center Ajou, as well as 6-5 junior Willie Strong, and team sixth man Alex Dodane was a member of last year’s squad as well.
No doubt this season’s remarkable run is the result of some simple physical and mental maturation, but it’s the Eagles’ focus on team chemistry and unselfishness on the court that has really lent itself to their semistate championship campaign.
“All year when we’ve hit tough patches and things don’t go well on the court, Coach has talked about how we just need to pull together,” said Dodane.
“It’s all about knowing your role. Everybody on our team knows their role and when they get the opportunity to step up, everybody has done that.”
As a private school, CMA’s basketball program faces some unique challenges to team-building.
Breaks are longer than at public schools and in the summer, players return home to locales as far-removed from one another as Ontario, Canada to Mexico City and beyond, making it hard to stay in touch and all but impossible to play together.
But the program also has its unique advantages as well, making up for that lost time during the season, as players live together at the scenic 117-year-old campus.
“I think every place has its advantages and disadvantages, and we definitely try and focus on our advantages,” said Galloway. “We have talked about some of the things that we have to overcome. Kids growing up down in Washington, Indiana, they have been playing together since maybe second or third grade… Here, you’ve got to teach them a system in a very short period of time, but the nice thing is, yes, they live here, you have them every day so you get to talk to them maybe at lunch and dinner, you get to talk to them on campus, so there’s a lot of opportunity to focus on those things.”
“We’re all just close; it’s really a family atmosphere,” Brescacin said. “We all live together, we see each other almost every second of the day, and it never gets boring and we never get tired of each other.”
While teamwork has been the special ingredient this year, the Eagles’ historic run may also have been abetted by a little serendipity.
The last time the Eagles sustained a loss this year was to Mishawaka Marian at home back on February 4. In that regular-season game, CMA squandered a 20-point lead to fall by just one point, 67-66. The Eagles entered state tournament play with a rematch against Marian, and after they nipped the Knights in that Sectional 19 semifinal, they began to see just how good they could be.
“After that loss (to Marian) it was tough,” said Myers. “I reacted negatively, a couple of my teammates reacted pretty negatively in the locker room, but it was a good wake-up call. The next week we came in and we really stressed defense. Defense has really been a focal point since then… Drawing Mishawaka Marian, that was big. That’s the team I wanted to play, that’s the team most of the guys wanted to play so when we saw that draw, we got pretty excited.”