Playing in the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference prepared the Center Grove boys basketball team for the level of competition it faced Saturday morning.
When you get this deep into the state tournament in Indiana, though, the other team isn’t the only thing you’re facing.
Regional crowds are always big in this state, but even more so when Romeo Langford is involved. I arrived at Seymour High School roughly half an hour before tipoff and wound up with a pretty hefty walk to the gym. By the time the game started at 10 a.m, the third-largest high school gymnasium in America was full.
Just 8,000 or so people. No big deal.
That sort of atmosphere could rattle almost anyone, never mind a team with three sophomore starters that hadn’t sniffed a game this big at any point in their lives.
And yet Center Grove didn’t fold. It held Langford in check about as much as any team can, holding him to 21 points — for comparison’s sake, the New Albany junior scored 44 later Saturday in a loss to Castle. The Trojans did nearly everything they needed to do in order to shock the Indiana basketball world, save for making a few more open shots.
It was a bittersweet ending to a breakthrough season for the program. Bitter because, well, almost all losses are. Sweet because it’s highly likely that this taste of postseason success was just the beginning for the Center Grove program.
Ben Nicoson was guarding JV players earlier this winter. On Saturday he was shadowing a future NBA lottery pick. Nicoson figures to be a rock at the point for the next two years. His classmate, fellow guard Spencer Piercefield, was held scoreless against a New Albany defense that clearly wanted to keep him quiet, but Piercefield doesn’t figure to be quiet too often in the future with a shooting stroke that sweet.
Add to that mix seniors-to-be Nate McLain and Joey Klaasen, both of whom made big contributions Saturday, and you’ve got a pretty solid quartet around Trayce Jackson-Davis, who continued to add to the intrigue and anticipation that has surrounded him throughout his adolescence.
Jackson-Davis is still far from a finished product — there are still a few hiccups mixed in with those “whoa” moments — but that’s what makes him such a tantalizing prospect. There’s no telling how dangerous he might become once he grows into his body and figures it all out.
Especially when he’s surrounded by as many good shooters as he’ll have at his side going forward.
Center Grove wasn’t expected to get to this point this quickly, but it has. Now, it’s going to be on some other area team to make a big leap forward and get in the Trojans’ way, and that’ll be far easier said than done considering that every other team in the area (with the probable exception of Greenwood) is suffering heavier graduation losses.
At least right now, it seems likely that Center Grove will be back on a similar stage a year from now, perhaps even against Langford and New Albany again. My guess is that next time, these kids will again be up to the challenge.