Echoes of players’ voices, squeaking shoes and a basketball against hardwood rang throughout New Washington’s James Matthews Gymnasium Tuesday afternoon. Like a well-oiled machine, the team’s starting unit orchestrated its full-court press break over and again despite six defenders.
Senior guard Caleb Ellison commanded the offense. The 5-foot-9 floor general maneuvered through traffic before assisting fellow fourth-year standout Zach Moore at the elbow. Remaining starters Stevie Mack, Brandon Horton and Hunter Lind – also members of the Mustangs’ graduating class – were quick to get back up the court, communicating with one another almost constantly along the way. Their voices echoed as senior reserve players Brandon Gill and Noah Franklin applauded a defensive stop from the sideline.
Tuesday’s practice was a recurring theme for New Washington’s seven seniors. Of the seven, six have played together since sixth grade, and four players have developed on- and off-court chemistry dating back to early childhood. That experience, New Washington coach Jonathan May said, has yielded the seniors a shot at history. The Mustangs will vie for the program’s first semi-state championship in just the second appearance on Saturday.
“Our goal was to try to play at our peak and to be playing at the highest level we can at the right time,” May said. “It was a goal for me with this group. If we were going to do it – if we were going to be able to make a run, it would be with these guys.”
The veterans, now 20-9 ahead of their semi-state appearance versus No. 3 Indianapolis Tindley (22-5) at 4 p.m. Saturday in Richmond, went 6-16 as freshmen and 10-15 as sophomores before winning 15 games a year ago. New Washington’s 20 wins this year are its most since 2000-01 – the Mustangs’ first regional title season and its most recent sectional championship campaign.
“They’ve played a lot of minutes together,” May said. “When you’re a senior, you get to that last month of the season, and you kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. You can see the end, and some urgency gets to you. I think they’ve had that. Especially when we got to the sectional. You can see it in their faces after the games – they want it. You can see it at practice. They know when they lose that they don’t get second chances. I think that’s been a big part of how hard they’ve played and the sacrifices they’ve made.”
The Mustangs fell to 8-7 after a loss at Henryville on Jan. 13 but have since rattled off 12 wins in 14 games, which includes the five straight postseason victories by an average 4.8-point margin.
Horton nailed an eventual game-winner in the Mustangs’ postseason-opening win over Rock Creek. New Washington trailed by three with less than 20 seconds left in a six-point overtime victory over Christian Academy in the Sectional 62 title. And with a slim lead late in its regional semifinal matchup versus West Washington, Moore got his own rebound off a missed free throw to put the game away.
“We just play with heart,” Moore said. “We’re always playing with each other. We always have second chances. That’s one of our big things is we always have second-chance opportunities on the offensive end.”
Moore (14.7 points per game), Mack (11.1), Lind (11), Horton (9.3) and Ellison (5.8) account for more than 96 percent of New Washington’s offense, and they combine for 13 assists per outing.
Moore and the 6-foot-8 Mack, who together post more than 13 rebounds per game, are the focal point for New Washington’s offense on the blocks, but the Mustangs are more than capable from beyond the arc, too. Lind nailed five 3-pointers to complement Moore’s 19-point, 10-rebound double-double and Mack’s 11-point, 16-rebound effort in the regional final.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Lind said, “because you have all your teachers and the whole community around. They’re all (supporting) you all day, telling you how good of a job you’ve done. It’s a blessing that we’ve come this far.”
New Washington and its cohesive group of senior leaders aren’t done just yet. A win Saturday would mark the boys basketball program’s first semi-state crown. The Class 1A school owns one other semi-state title, via the 1998-99 girls basketball team – just two years behind the boys’ lone regional win. Mack said he hopes to spur more generations of New Washington success with this season’s run.
“The community really stands behind us,” Mack said. “They push us forward. Every time we go out somewhere, they say we really show the passion of this school – the old-school passion that used to be here a long time ago. Winning the semi-state would be a statement to all the younger kids that they can do this too. Any small school can do this.”