Jeff Howard didn’t plan the moment. But looking back, it seemed fitting.
The Southside boys basketball coach concluded his Nov. 18 practice and knew he had news to report to his team. So the coach gathered his players and told them as a group in the locker room. Muncie Community Schools would be consolidating to one high school at Central next year, so this squad would be the last Southside High boys basketball team before the building is converted into a middle school.
Howard, the Rebels’ second-year coach, stresses team unity. When he arrived at Southside last year, he established a culture in which players wore the same style shoes, went to study hall together, and otherwise stressed being like a family. He even required players to stay after practice and shower in the team locker room, a move he says is for hygienic reasons but to also have his players spend ample time together.
It only made sense that they would take in the news about their school’s future together. Senior Jai’rese Simpson said there was tension in the room, some of it fueled by the knowledge that their second-year coach’s future was uncertain.
“I just flat out told them, there’s (four) things I wanted them to be concerned about,” Howard said. “One is ‘sometimes things happen that are beyond your control, you have to deal with them.’ That was one of them.
“The second one was, ‘Just know that your future’s going to be just fine. Regardless of whether you to go to the school there, or you go somewhere else, you’re going to be fine.’ And then the third thing I put was, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose.’ I have nothing to lose as a coach, they have nothing to lose. And the fourth thing was our seniors. This is their last year either way it goes.”
Southside will begin its season today, with a game against rival Central in Muncie Fieldhouse. It will be one of the last meetings in the rivalry series before MCS’ consolidation brings the two combatants together. The teams will meet again on Jan. 24, also in the Fieldhouse, and a meeting in sectionals is also a possibility.
Senior guard Shemar Isom said he expects a big turnout tonight, and looks forward to playing in front of a large crowd.
“We’re just hungry, we just want to go out there and win,” Isom said. “We haven’t beat them in what, eight, 10 years, somewhere in there. So we’re just hungry, we want to win, just want to play, have fun.”
The Rebels’ last win in the series was on Jan. 23, 2004. This year’s team is coming off a 7-14 season last year that ended with a loss to Hamilton Heights at sectionals.
Despite his short history with Southside, Howard said he has enjoyed his tenure there. He’s worked with a supportive administration, he said. He said he’s also received support from the student body, and has developed an even closer relationship with his players. And he’s not planning on ditching his unity-based approach now.
“That’s going to be vital this year with the news of the schools,” Howard said. “Because this is the last year that there will be a varsity, junior varsity, freshman teams. And a lot of these kids have been together for a while. Some of them may go to the same school, and some of them may start going their separate ways. So this year is important.”
Even though it was a difficult conversation, Simpson appreciated that the Rebels learned of the school consolidation together, saying it was a bonding experience.
“(Howard) wants us to be a team, and go through things together,” Simpson said. “And just have that bond with each other, and not be afraid to talk with each other about things. So it was pretty good.”