County bragging rights and the top spot in the West Division of the Hoosier Heartland Conference will be on the line tonight when the Class 1A No. 8 Clinton Prairie Gophers take the short bus ride north to Rossville for their 7:30 p.m. boys’ basketball game against the Hornets.
The Gophers and Hornets stand alone atop the HHC West with 3-0 conference records. Rossville comes into the game 6-3 overall after dropping the last two games to Class 1A No. 7 Lafayette Central Catholic and Pioneer, while a familiar face brings a Prairie team that is coming off a Clinton Central Holiday Tournament championship and has won seven straight games after opening the season with an 81-69 loss to Class 4A Frankfort.
Jeff Henley led Rossville to a state championship during the Hornets’ 2001-02 season. When he stepped aside in 2005 after 16 seasons leading the Hornets, he would have never imagined he would be back on the opposing bench more than a decade later.
“Once I gave up coaching the boys in Rossville, I never thought I would be anywhere else,” Henley said. “I certainly never thought I would be bringing a good team in against them. But we are looking forward to it and we are excited.”
Henley had his 200th career win as a head coach on Dec. 30 when his Gophers won the CC Holiday Tournament.
“I have known him since my playing days,” second-year Rossville head coach Cory Dunn said. “He was the Rossville coach when I played at Tri-Central. He was still teaching last year at Rossville, and I got to talk to him some. I didn’t get to talk to him as much as I would have liked because we teach totally different subjects.
“He has something I sure don’t have,” Dunn added. “He has a state championship ring. He obviously knows basketball and how to get the job done.”
Dunn has spent the week preparing his players for Gophers, and all involved are supremely aware of the stakes.
“We have the No. 1 seed in the West on the line,” Dunn said. “Obviously, for us that is enormous. But, having said that, our kids want to win the conference tournament, but our kids want to beat their county rival. This game means a lot to them. At the end of the day, they just want to beat Prairie.”
There will be a packed house in Rossville tonight, and Henley is familiar with the type of atmosphere the Gophers will be walking into.
“We have to keep calm and play with composure on the floor,” Henley said. “I was in the gym for 16 years and it is quite an environment. Our kids have to be prepared for the noise and excitement. We have to play with composure and communicate. It’s going to be loud. We have to execute.
“Rossville is a really good team with kids that have high basketball IQs,” Henley added. “They are like our team. They have played a lot of basketball. Number one is keeping our poise and playing well. We have to keep Rossville off the offensive glass. They really do a nice job getting the offensive glass. And we have to find their shooters. We have to find them and get a hand up.”
One of the toughest assignments for the Gophers will be guarding dynamic Rossville senior guard Enrique Rangel, who leads the Hornets with 17.7 points, 3.8 assists and 4.7 steals per game.
“I know Enrique. I had him as a student,” Henley said. “He is very quick. He has quick feet and quick hands. He gets a lot of steals He is very active and dangerous in the open court. He gets them out on their break. He can take the ball to the hole and finish. He can also hit the 3.
“We have to be careful on the defensive end that we are not carless with our passes,” he added. “Then we have to contain him. We have to make sure we don’t let him drive.”
The deep Rossville roster has no shortage of players who can score. Junior Blake Miller averages 12.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, while senior Christian Howard is good for 10.8 points per game.
“Blake is an excellent shooter,” Henley said. “We have to know where he is on the floor at all times. He is really smart. He knows what to do. We can’t have lapses and lose him on the floor. He is a good shooter and we know that.”
With the Hornets’ Nest and nearly the entire population of Rossville supporting them, the Hornets will have to find a way to snap the Gophers’ seven-game winning streak.
“For us it’s going to come down to three major keys – rebounding, because we have been awful at it, controlling the tempo and then the defensive end,” Dunn said. “They have shooters. They have the leading scorer in the county. They poise a lot of threats on the offensive end. We will have to control the tempo and execute our defensive game plan.”
Clinton Prairie senior forward Kale Morris comes into the contest averaging 20.8 points, 2.8 assists and 7.4 rebounds per game.
“He is a really good player. We were showing more film on him today,” Dunn said. “He knows how to play outside of the box, so to speak. It’s really hard to teach players. He has been playing for four years on the varsity level. The way he shoots the ball – he is a tough matchup.”
The floor general for the Gophers is junior point guard Jared Stillwell, who has averaged 12 points and 3.8 assists per game this season.
“He is doing well this year,” Dunn said. “He stepped into a role that he hasn’t really played at the varsity level. He has done a nice job controlling the team and getting the ball where it needs to go. You definitely can’t leave him open. He will knock them down.”
Dunn’s Hornets are hungry for a win. Rossville was 6-1 until losing its last two. The Hornets last win came against the Carroll Cougars on Dec. 18 in Rossville.
“Hopefully, from a coaching standpoint, you help that drives your players to dig deep and find what they are not doing,” Dunn said. “You never really know. You don’t really know if it has sunk in until the lights go on and it’s a real game. Hopefully, we learned from those losses.”
Familiarity is the driving force of most rivalries, and there will be plenty of that in Rossville tonight. After all, the two head coaches spent the entire school year under the same roof last year.
“We are friends and we talk occasionally,” Henley said. “When I first got this job, we started talking about this game. We are both looking forward to it. He is a good coach. His kids are always well prepared and they play hard.”
Something has to give and, at the end of the night, only one of the teams in the West will have a 4-0 conference record.
Tipoff in Rossville will follow the 6 p.m. junior varsity game.