LAFAYETTE — When the charter bus carrying the Griffith High School basketball team pulled up to Lafayette Jeff on Wednesday afternoon, senior Martin Schiele didn’t know if he’d be able to play.
Schiele, the team’s starting point guard, had banged his right knee hard when Griffith’s school bus was sideswiped and overturned into a ditch on I-65 on its way to the game Saturday. Somehow, considering the scope of the wreckage, none of the 27 passengers suffered life-threatening injuries.
Among the players, Schiele’s knee injury was among the worst. But there was nothing that was going to keep him from playing in Wednesday’s game. And nothing that was going to dampen his mood, even after a heartbreaking 60-58 loss to Marion. And even after he left the gym with his knee wrapped in ice, and he hobbled to the bus on crutches.
“Us losing, of course it hurts,” Schiele said. “We’re human. When we lose, we feel some type of way. But at the end of the day, I think we realize the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture, of course, is that Griffith had the chance. In the minutes and hours that followed the crash on Saturday outside of DeMotte, Griffith coach Gary Hayes had a feeling the season was over. But by Sunday, it became a realistic option for Griffith to play Wednesday.
Still, Hayes didn’t know how his team would respond. The 69-year-old coach suffered a back injury in the crash and a gash over his right eye. He only attended about 30 minutes of a walk-through practice Tuesday. Assistant coaches Dave Garrett and Al Williams were too injured to make the trip.
“We were very concerned, even six hours ago, what we were going to be able to put out on the court,” Hayes said after the game. “I wasn’t sure. We had a couple kids that just touched a ball (for the first time since Saturday). I’ve been in this game for 47 years, and I’ve never seen kids with heart like this. They just build off each other.”
It wasn’t meant to be. The Panthers lost a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter and Marion scored the winner on a putback by 6-10 Gage Pinkerton just before the buzzer. Marion (22-7) will play Evansville Bosse (19-10) on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the Class 3A championship.
It was Hoosier Hysteria heartbreak for Griffith. But there may be no team better equipped to handle it.
“We’ll be remembered as the ‘Fighting Panthers’,” said Griffith senior Tremell Murphy, who led Griffith with 20 points and eight rebounds. “We came back so hard. We’re blessed. Truly blessed.”
The Griffith community came out in strong numbers, both at the game and before the team left town Wednesday. There was a sendoff at the school that included a police escort that led the charter bus to the Lake-Newton County line.
Just four days after the accident, the Griffith coaches and administrators chose to send the team south on U.S. 41 instead of back down the same route on I-65. Griffith athletics director Stacy Adams drove separately and took the I-65 route.
“There was still a lot of (debris) at the scene,” Adams said. “It was probably a good thing that the players didn’t have to see that.”
John Ashenbaugh, Griffith’s scorekeeper for 20 years, said there was enough food donated for the bus ride to feed the team for several more bus trips. He laughed when one of the players told him getting on the charter bus was “like stepping onto an airplane.”
“It was a little bit different,” Ashenbaugh said.
There was an outpouring of support for Griffith both in the state and elsewhere. Adams shared a message from Rick Skeen, the boys basketball coach at King’s High School in Seattle, Wash. His team’s school bus overturned on Feb. 14, 2015, on I-5 outside of Seattle. Three weeks later, King’s won the Class 1A state championship.
“I am not sure what I can offer other than my prayer and support, but please know that I am willing to do anything to help your team during this time,” Skeen wrote in an email. “God Bless you and your community!”
It was a far different vibe than it had been a year ago, when Griffith’s basketball program was suspended after a fight in a game against Hammond. The Indiana High School Athletic Association barred both Griffith and Hammond from playing for the remainder of the season. That decision was later overturned by a local court, and Griffith made a run to the state finals, losing to Guerin Catholic.
Hayes and the players said at the time that the incident against Hammond was not reflective of the program. Hayes reiterated that thought after Wednesday’s game. The IHSAA could still strip Griffith of its runner-up tournament showing and impose other sanctions through the appeals process in court.
“If they want to punish me or take money from the school, we’re willing to do that,” Hayes said. “But please, do not take away what they achieved last year. I don’t see how anybody could do that to kids. We all make mistakes in life. You saw the heart of this team and how they matured after that situation.”
Griffith will be left with some regrets after Wednesday’s game. Doing a better job boxing out Pinkerton in the final seconds was right at the top of the list, Anthony Murphy said. But anyone who watched the game and knew what the team had been through just four days earlier had to be impressed.
Marion coach James Blackmon Sr. was among them.
“I think they are winners,” Blackmon Sr. said. “You don’t have to look at the scoreboard to see both teams are winners. Considering what those guys went through and to be able to come back and rally behind their crowd, my hat goes off to them.”
There were plenty of tears from fans, parents and players dressed in Griffith black after the buzzer. But there was also the realization that the result this week could have been much worse than a loss on the basketball court.
Athletes often talk about perspective. The Griffith teenagers lived it in that bus Saturday and the days that followed.
Schiele stood in front of the team in the locker room after the game and told them.
“The main thing I focused on was not the game itself but us being a family,” Schiele said. “Basketball was secondary. If there’s a teammate with his head down, pick him up. Because that’s all that really mattered is that we were family.”
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.
Marion vs. Evansville Bosse, 6 p.m. Saturday, FSI
Here it is. pic.twitter.com/ggCt0WrKjf— Kyle Neddenriep (@KyleNeddenriep) March 23, 2016