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MARION – Teams always strive to be playing their best basketball at the end of the season when postseason championships are on the line.
It sounds quite simple, really. Only it isn't.
That is what makes what Homestead has done over the past few weeks so remarkable. Everyone shoots to be peaking at the right time, yet few teams actually do.
As the Spartans (20-7) celebrated their first-ever regional championship Saturday night on the floor of Bill Green Athletic Arena at Marion following a 59-57 victory over Hamilton Southeastern, the common theme from Coach Chris Johnson on down to his players was how Homestead had come together to overcome challenge after challenge this season to achieve what no other Spartan team in history had done.
“They are getting it figured out, they understand it,” said Johnson about his team.
It has been a long process. The season began with off-the-court disciplinary issues as well as identifying viable options in the backcourt, particularly a player or players to replace the graduated Nick Gamble.
A season-opening loss to Huntington North had Johnson wondering what the rest of the season would consist of. Not that the defeat to the Vikings was a bad one, but because the Spartans looked so lost.
Compare that to Saturday night, where Homestead looked like a well-oiled machine on both ends of the court.
Sophomore Caleb Swanigan had another huge game with 26 points and 13 rebounds, but while 'Biggie' is the star that steals the headlines, the Spartans in the Class 4A Final Four due to the other four players on the court.
Senior Joe Ault has become the emotional leader of the team that overall is quite young. He dropped 16 points on Hamilton Southeastern in the regional final and hit some big free throws down the stretch.
Dana Batt has been a perfect complementary player to Swanigan inside. The junior was huge when Swanigan was on the bench with four fouls by being a commanding presence in the paint when the Royals thought the lane would open with the big man on the bench.
Ryan Cotter has played within himself throughout the postseason at point guard, playing it safe and not hesitating to call a timeout when he feels he gets into a tough spot instead of trying to force a pass or shot.
Not bad for a squad that sports just two seniors.
“Being young at this point in the season doesn't matter,” Swanigan said. “It's just who is playing together.”
Homestead's defensive scheme this season has been the definition of playing together.
With so much length, the Spartans have primarily utilized a zone defense which focuses on each player defending a certain part of the court. It can only succeed if every person on the floor is on the same page.
It worked against Hamilton Southeastern (23-4) on Saturday, with the usual hot-shooting Royals having to settle from deep too much as Homestead extended that zone close to the three-point arc.
Hamilton Southeastern shot just 10-of-29 from three.
“We have just been paying attention to all the intricate details that the coaches have been throwing at us in the locker room,” Swanigan said. “It is really what has pushed us to the next level.”
Playing your best basketball in March. It is a good idea, but rarely comes to fruition.
Homestead is defying the odds.
“I think we started off (the season) a little up and down,” Ault said. “But I think that has been building blocks for tournament time when we get into these close games.
“It has helped us come the tournament and we're performing.”
Homestead will take on Lake Central (21-3) on Saturday at the Lafayette Jeff Semi-State at approximately 3:15 p.m.