Center Grove’s boys basketball game at Terre Haute South on Dec. 7 is significant for a reason that has nothing to do with the teams being part of the same conference.
That’s the night Cliff Hawkins celebrates his 700th.
Not birthday, but game. The Trojan coach’s career is now in its 32nd season as Hawkins previously — and successfully — led the programs at Caston, Tri-Central, Greenfield-Central and DeKalb.
What direction Hawkins’ ninth Center Grove squad moves his .624 career win percentage remains to be seen as the Trojans bid for a fourth-consecutive winning season.
“Every team has its own set of strengths and its own list of things to improve on,” said Hawkins, who is 107-68 at Center Grove. “The strength of this team is that we have a lot of interchangeable parts.
“This team loves to play together, loves to play hard and loves to make things difficult for the opponent.”
No reading between the lines necessary.
Without a Division I-caliber
senior player on the roster for the first time in three years, the Trojans must embrace the brand of defensive harassment that not only keeps them in games, but wins games.
There’s also the not-so-little matter of erasing the sour taste of last season’s swoon.
After winning nine of its first 12 games, the 2011-12 team sputtered to a 2-7 mark down the stretch, closing with five consecutive losses by an average margin of 20.4 points. The Trojans finished 11-10.
Hawkins and his assistant coaches continue to sample player combinations in practice, so no set starting lineup has been established. But they know seniors Troy Vorhies and Brady Brown will be in there somewhere.
A hard-nosed 6-foot-3 forward, Vorhies is the Trojans’ top returning scorer (8.4), rebounder (5.3) and assist man (3.5). Brown, who at 6-foot can play either guard position, is back after averaging 6.5 points, 2.8 boards and 2.3 assists.
Future program cornerstone Michael Benkert, a versatile 6-foot-4 sophomore, will also be part of the mix. Benkert as a ninth-grader demonstrated occasional glimpses of what will be while producing averages of 8.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
Tyler Bryant, a 6-3 junior (3.8 ppg), can play either the ‘2’ or ‘3’ spot for the Trojans. As a role player off the bench last season, he showed consistency, scoring between three and nine points on 10 different occasions. His role becomes greatly expanded beginning with Wednesday’s season-opener against visiting Franklin.
Vying for court time at either guard position is 5-10 junior Ryan Pendygraft. Also anticipate DeMarcus Nathan (2.6 ppg) and James Wilson, senior forwards standing 6-4 and 6-3, respectively, to add to Center Grove’s interior game.
By averaging 59.5 points last season, the Trojans finished below the 60 plateau for only the third time in Hawkins’ first eight years with the program. He nonetheless remains confident in this group’s ability to run the floor and get the ball in the basket.
“We feel our depth will develop as it’s able to,” said Hawkins, who has other younger players looking to contribute at the varsity level. “This team really realizes how hard they have to play every time out.
“We’ll push the ball consistently, and we have enough senior leadership to know when we have to go into tempo mode.”