Inside Henryville’s Furnish Gymnasium on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-January, coach Jared Hill looks on as his boys basketball team begins pre-practice layup drills. It’s a familiar sight for the Hornets’ third-year coach, a 2001 graduate and former point guard.
Hill has walked the walk many times. Down the long, narrow hallway and onto the hardwood – surrounded by history along the way, from class memorabilia to athletic accolades. Hanging from the gym’s inside wall above the team’s practice are reminders of notable program achievements: team photos from two one-loss campaigns in the 40s and another from 2003-04, a 21-5 season that yielded the program’s first sectional title.
The wall also serves as an unpleasant reminder for the team and community. On March 2, 2012, an EF-4 tornado ripped through the area, causing damages estimated at more than $1 billion. The school was hit head-on with roughly 50 staffers and children still inside. The gym walls, as seen on security footage, were demolished.
Nevertheless, by way of concerted efforts in and around Southern Indiana, the school reopened in six months, and less than five years later, Hill may have a team good enough to make it on the wall. His 2016-17 Hornets are 12-2 – one win away from last year’s total, which was the highest since Perry Hunter’s 15-8 team in 2008-09. It’s the best start for Henryville in more than 70 years.
Hill is now 34-26 in two-plus seasons at the helm. Prior to his arrival, the Hornets were 3-38 in two years after the storm, which included an 0-20 mark in 2012-13.
“They’ve been really coachable,” Hill said. “They’ve been focused. They’re just doing things winning teams do. … We’ve started to win, and it’s just snowballed in a good way.
“When we started out, we were mostly freshman and sophomores. Now we’re juniors and seniors. That’s a big part of it. We’ve got five or six really nice players.”
Junior Nick Walker heads Henryville’s list of talent. Through 14 games, the 6-foot-3 guard boasts averages of 20.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. A crafty perimeter threat, Walker poured in a career-high 42 points in a win over Southern on Dec. 28, 2016.
Walker, whose home was hit by a school bus during the storm in 2012, said his teammates have paved the way for his success this season.
“(I give credit to) my teammates being out there and feeding me the ball,” Walker said. “When I’m getting double-teamed, I can just pass out to them, trust them to make a shot.
“When I first got here, we were an average team.”
Senior guard Braxton Robertson is the team’s “vocal leader,” per Hill. Robertson averages 15.2 points per game to go along with 4.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He has averaged more than 10 points per game in each of his four seasons with the Hornets and will become the program’s fourth 1,000-point scorer later this year. Robertson is garnering interest from several small colleges in the area.
“(Braxton is) the first to get on somebody,” Hill said, “but yet he’s also the first one that, when he screws up, to get his hand up and (say), ‘That’s on me. I have to do better. I have to do it right,’ so they see him as one of our leaders. He’s going to be a 1,000-point scorer here in a couple of weeks, so they believe in what he’s saying. As far as Nick, his leadership is with his play. Nick doesn’t hardly ever say a word. It’s hard to even get a smile out of Nick. He just plays.”
Robertson paced Henryville to a historic win over Silver Creek to open the season. The senior scored 25 points and helped snap a 14-game losing streak to the Dragons – in overtime, fittingly. That win, coupled with the Hornets’ sense of swagger, has lifted Henryville to a successful start to the season, according to senior guard Andrew House, who averages 10.3 points off the bench.
“Extreme confidence,” House said. “It’s culminated throughout (this season). The Silver Creek win kicked it off. We knew we were going to have a good year.”
After the Hornets’ season-opening win, Hill acknowledged the program’s suffering. The coach is no stranger to the struggle, either. During the storm, Hill and his family took cover in their basement as baseball-sized hail ripped its way inside his home. As a player, he endured three foot surgeries in an 18-month span. The Hornets advanced to the sectional final in 1999 and 2001 but came up short on both occasions, leaving him to wonder what could have been.
Much like the school and community, though, the 34-year-old Hill is back, building on the program’s historic foundation.
“I’ve grown up here, I played ball here,” Hill said. “I had a lot of injuries in high school, and I wanted to come back and coach. I kind of had that feeling that I didn’t do enough as a player. Part of that was injuries. Part of that was I was doing things I shouldn’t have been doing. That’s why I wanted to come back.”