By any measuring standard, in a state that still places high school basketball on an altar of prominence and importance, the New Albany-Jeffersonville rivalry is one of the best in the history of Hoosier Hysteria.
Want to start an argument? Open a discussion about religion, politics or basketball. This week, with the regular-season renewal of this ancient series looming, that order is probably shuffled. New Jeffersonville coach Joe Luce heard stories about it during his years in central Indiana. Now he will be baptized in the flames when his Red Devils visit Class 4-A No. 3 New Albany on Friday night.
“It’s a known fact,” Luce said, “this is one of the biggest in Indiana.”
New Albany’s Jim Shannon can tell him a few of the tales. Now in his 18th season with the Bulldogs, he has lived through 27 meetings, including postseason games, in this 155-game series. The schools don’t even agree on the historical count (with a disputed final from way back in the archives), although New Albany’s 79-76 lead is considered accurate.
That doesn’t really matter, although bragging rights are certainly part of the war of words. But that also helps frame the way this series – between neighbors that are also now Hoosier Hills Conference and sectional combatants – is viewed and appreciated.
“The way I define rivalries in being close in proximity, playing each other a long time, and one of the key factors is how has the series gone,” Shannon said. “When you’ve got 155 games and it’s almost 50-50, that’s a rivalry. That’s a good rivalry.”
Shannon is 16-11 against the Devils, after starting 0-4, and he will shake hands with his seventh different Jeffersonville coach. He will also guide the favorite in this one. New Albany, which was ranked No. 1 for a couple of weeks, is 7-1 while the Devils are 7-5 in the transition to Luce and another new style.
“I’m blessed,” Shannon said. “When you think about how great this rivalry has been for decades, you have to feel blessed to get to do it. It’s stressful, but it’s also a lot of fun. You can’t find that kind of intensity in every-day life.
“We’ve had continuity, and it’s good to have that, as long as we remember each and every year we have to come in believing it’s our first year. There’s no question you have to reenergize, refocus, and not get complacent. That’s dangerous.”
Both programs have a long list of greats in their histories, and New Albany is adding another. Sophomore star Romeo Langford, already the recruiting target of several Division I college programs, leads the Bulldogs in scoring (26 points per game) and rebounding (8.5 per game).
Langford will be, if he’s not already, a household name. What makes New Albany difficult to conquer is the other weapons – junior Isaac Hibbard (15.8 ppg) and senior Josh Jefferson (13.8 ppg) – around him.
“When you start watching them in depth, they’re a very good team that’s much more than just Romeo,” Luce said. “He is a great player, but Hibbard is a huge key. He has a toughness and competitiveness that he brings night in and night out. Romeo will be a handful, and he’s fun to watch as a fan, but that team is much more than him.”
Jeffersonville doesn’t have any individual stars, but the balanced Devils have four players averaging in the 10-point range, which makes preparation a problem. Any of the Devils – seniors Tommy Luce (the son of the coach averages 10.8 ppg) or Demarre Sims (11.3), or sophomores Gerrin Moore and Bailey Falkenstein – could break loose.
“Jeffersonville is worthy opponent, and improving,” Shannon said. “They run a lot of kids in and out, and I’m not sure who it will be on a given night. They’re trying to find their identity, and I think they’re getting close to finding that.”
The HHC lead is also at stake. Both teams are 2-0 in the league, currently tied with Jennings County at the top. New Albany is the two-time defending champion, and either New Albany or Jeffersonville has won 11 of the last 12 conference titles.
“We do want to win the conference,” Shannon said. “We always have and always will. It’s huge. You can’t lose home games.”
New Albany crushed the Devils 78-36 last season, a rare and historic blowout in the series. Most of these Devils, including the coach, were not a part of that. They are only concerned about pulling off an upset.
“One of the things about a rivalry game is making sure your kids are prepared and confident, so they can compete at their highest level,” Luce said. “We have to begin by taking care of ourselves. We have a chance to be part of history.”
Luce is already 0-1 against a Shannon team. New Albany conquered Marion (guided by Luce) in the semifinals of the 2007 Hall of Fame Classic in New Castle.
Justin Sokeland can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org