In the 14 previous years of his time as a head basketball coach, Mark Detweiler always had at least one returning starter.
That changed in Year 15.
But for Union County, it didn’t matter. The Patriots embraced their underdog role and fed off it from their opening game all the way to their second straight sectional championship.
They had a point to prove, and they did so. Emphatically.
With a new cast, Union County did the same trick, returning to the top of the mountain in Sectional 41 and earning a spot in another Class 2A regional this Saturday at Connersville.
“In comparison to last year, this year is a little sweeter,” Detweiler said earlier this week, his team preparing to face Indianapolis Broad Ripple at noon in the Spartan Bowl. “Last year, when you’re expected to do it, it’s nice. It was the first time (since 1979). Last year, on paper, we had a good team expected to come out of there.
“This year, being the team under the radar and the underdog, it’s just a lot different. It’s just a different feeling.”
It’s one the Patriots thoroughly enjoy.
They forged an identity early on as a team that works hard, plays tough and wins close games.
That carried over to the sectional at Hagerstown, with UC edging Knightstown 49-45 on opening night, then getting past Northeastern 52-50 in a semifinal.
The Patriots saved their best for last. After a close three-and-a-half quarters with the host team and this year’s Tri-Eastern Conference champion, Union County pulled away, halting Hagerstown 61-46 for back-to-back titles.
“This is an all-new five starters,” said point guard Kory Finch, a move-in this season from Columbus, Ohio. “Everybody fits in together like a puzzle.
“We’re all really good friends. We just play well together.”
Junior Braden Norris had the most returning experience, and he didn’t disappoint. He leads the Patriots in scoring with 14.8 points per game. Senior Trey Hannebaum adds 10.4.
Everyone had a role to play.
“When it comes together like this, you can’t be more proud of a group, just how all the pieces fit together,” Detweiler said.
Finch and Brandon Himes also give the lineup some scoring pop with 9.1 points per game for Finch and 9 even for Himes.
Senior Jake Goecke completes the starting lineup, doing, as Detweiler puts it, “all the dirty work.”
“Most people don’t realize just how good he was in the middle of our zone, and how important he was to what we did defensively Saturday night to Hagerstown,” Detweiler said.
“That’s what’s made this season, not only this past week, but this season so special. What a neat group to watch. Undersized, and they’re still young.”
Freshman Dillon Miller is fourth on the team in 3-pointers, with sophomore Bryce Fields also seeing significant minutes.
Seniors Hannebaum, Goecke and Brandon Scott have taken on a leadership role for the Patriots.
“We didn’t want to go out without proving everybody wrong,” Hannebaum said. “We wanted everybody to know we can play basketball.”
Added Goecke: “It’s really, it’s a whole different team. You have five new starters. Only one of them had a whole lot of experience in the postseason. Our team … kind of accepted the challenge.”
Union County is one of two repeat teams at this regional. Speedway, the other, meets Indianapolis Scecina at 10 a.m.
The semifinal winners face off at 8 p.m. There will be a new regional champion, as defending champion Park Tudor — also last year’s Class 2A state champion — was bumped from the sectional round by Broad Ripple.
“Our coach keeps telling us to rebound, rebound, rebound. That’s what we’ve been doing every game, and it’s got us this far,” Himes said.
So has a dogged determination that’s led to 18 wins, second place in the TEC and the program’s fifth overall sectional championship.
“We embrace it a lot,” Norris said of the underdog image. “I think it’s good for us. It motivates us.
“It’s huge not only for us, but for the community. It’s just a goal for teams coming up the next couple of years.”
It’s a community that’s expected to turn out to support the Patriots once again at the Spartan Bowl.
Union County neighbors Fayette County. Connersville is about 15 minutes from Liberty.
“It can probably give us an extra little boost,” Finch said.
Added Detweiler: “Our kids know that our community cares and they love to follow them. This community loves their basketball, and they love their basketball team.
” … There is a sense our guys have done things the right way. There is also the mentality that everybody likes to root for the underdog. We’ll go in there as the underdog again with the same mentality and the same approach. They kind of thrive with that. … They’re still playing.”