It has taken Jim Shannon 32 years — most of his life — to reach the state championship game, and it’s something he intends to relish.
Shannon and his top-ranked New Albany boys basketball team, riding a 23-game winning streak and a sparkling 26-1 record, will take on McCutcheon (28-3) in the IHSAA Class 4-A title game Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis.
During those 32 years as a head coach, Shannon has won 495 games. He’s 330-97 at New Albany, winning more than 77 percent of his games.
When he came to New Albany 18 years ago, Shannon said he knew it was the right place for him.
“I came here with the idea it was a lot like the high school I came from — Anderson High School,” said Shannon, who played at Anderson. “Our team was a lot like them in terms of basketball and the athletes we have. … You have speed, athleticism, guards, that sort of stuff. For me, it was a dream job.”
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Over the 18 seasons at the helm, Shannon and the Bulldogs have found consistency in success, though there were a couple of bumps along the way.
In Shannon’s first year, the Bulldogs went 7-14. It turned out to be his only losing season.
Since then, they’ve won 10 sectional titles, two regional titles, and finally a semi-state title.
“It’s been a tremendous ride, a great journey,” he said. “I’ve said that long before we got to the state championship game. They (the high school’s administration) have been great. They’ve been patient with me.”
When he started, Shannon replaced Don Unruh, who is still the school’s athletic director.
Two years before Shannon took over, Unruh took New Albany to the state championship game, where they fell to Indianapolis Ben Davis 57-54 in two overtimes. So Unruh knew quite a lot about the terrain, expectations and challenges for Shannon as he began his stint at the Bulldogs’ coach.
Leading up to the state title game, Unruh has given Shannon just a tiny bit of advice.
“He told me to enjoy it,” Shannon said. “He knows I’m going to work at it and I’m not going to sleep. He knows all that.
“He’s just been reassuring. He says (we) have the best team and just go out there and take it (the title). Everybody’s going to say that about their own team. But he really believes we have the best team. We believe we have the best team but we have to go out and prove it.”
When the Bulldogs take the floor Saturday night, Shannon will have just about his entire family watching along at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. He has family coming from Texas, Florida and a few places in between.
“It’s a very big deal,” Shannon said. “When it comes to a state championship, people want to be there for their loved ones and I really appreciate that everyone wants to be there.”
Shannon said he has a responsibility that he doesn’t take lightly.
“I’m going to relish this week and that moment,” he said. “We will be focused, like we have been. We’re not going to get all caught up in the media attention and the hoopla.”
It’s no accident that the Bulldogs are favorites to win the Class 4-A title. The team, led by 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Romeo Langford, has blown teams away all season and seems to be peaking at the right time. Against one of the top teams in the state in the semi-state, Southport, the Bulldogs seemingly scored at will, as evidenced by Langford’s 46 points in a little more than three quarters of action. Langford and the Bulldogs outperformed a team featuring 6-foot-10 Butler signee Joey Brunk and 6-foot-3 junior Paul Scruggs, who is receiving plenty of Division 1 basketball interest.
As such, the Bulldogs are confident heading into their final game of the season.
“We believed we’ve had the best team 27 times,” he said. “We were right 26 times but wrong one day (a loss to Pike early in the season). We want to make sure we’re not wrong this time.”
Coaching at a school like New Albany comes with the pressure of living up to the banners on the wall, such as the 1973 winning New Albany side or the 1980 and 1996 squads that made it to the state finals at the old Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Shannon admitted. “It’s surreal to me. I close my eyes and start thinking about it. I’m not intimidated by it. I’m ready for it.
“It’s my 32nd try.”
As he finished up a practice this week in New Albany, Shannon remarked that it was the team’s 80th practice of the season.
He tried to do the math in his head — that’s as many as 80 practices a year for more than three decades. “That’s a lot of practices,” Shannon mused
“I’ve been waiting a long time to have this opportunity,” he added.
SATURDAY’S TITLE GAMES
Games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
TV: FOX Sports Indiana Online: IHSAAtv.org
Class A: Bloomfield vs. Liberty Christian, 10:30 a.m.
Class 2-A: Lapel vsl Indianapolis Howe, 12:45 p.m.
Class 3-A: Marion vs. Evansville Bosse, 6 p.m.
Class 4-A: McCutheon vs. New Albany, 8:15 p.m. (Radio: WNAS-88.1)