Cliff Hawkins views only positives when looking back at what was only the third losing season in his first nine as the Center Grove boys basketball coach.
Every experience, whether it’s seven of the Trojans’ 13 losses being by seven points or less, or the gut-twisting manner in which they came up short in the Class 4A sectional championship game, ensured growth.
Now the coach wants to see the desired benefits.
“I think the key thing is, you always want to get your kids in a position to win a championship, but the bottom line is our players last year gave everything they had,” said Hawkins, whose 444 career victories ranks him 17th among current boys coaches in Indiana.
“This year I think we have more veterans who have played and been tested in the fires,” Hawkins said. “Now we have a little less youth and a little more experience.”
Two primary reasons for Hawkins’ optimism is the return of his two leading scorers from a year ago — 6-foot-2 senior Tyler Bryant and 6-4 junior Michael Benkert.
Bryant delivered a team-high 58 3-pointers last season on his way to 14.5 points per game. An excellent leaper, Bryant was also Center Grove’s third-leading rebounder (3.4) and fifth in assists (1.3) and steals (0.8).
“When people think about Tyler it’s usually that he’s a really good shooter,” Hawkins said. “But he almost always makes the right pass. He’s driving the ball to the hole, and he’s rebounding very well.”
Bryant is basically a swingman who will be counted on to use his athleticism to be one of the Trojans’ primary rebounders due to the absence of a true post player.
This also holds true for Benkert, who is coming off a sophomore season in which he averaged 12.3 points, 5.2 boards, 2.2 assists and 1.3 steals. Leading into what is the second half of his varsity basketball career, Benkert already has produced 452 points.
“His outstanding shooting has continued to evolve,” Hawkins said. “The other thing about Michael is he has another gear, and he’s just now finding that out.
“He is just so much about winning right now that he’s willing to play wherever we need him.”
The versatility of Bryant and Benkert allows their coach to utilize them differently based on game situation and/or need.
Also making an impression in preseason workouts and practices is 5-11 point guard Joey Lenkey. The junior got his feet wet at the varsity level last winter by playing in 13 of Center Grove’s 23 games and averaging 1.5 points.
Lenkey’s minutes may or may not be impacted by last season’s starting point guard, senior Ryan Pendygraft (6.4 ppg, 4.2 apg). Pendygraft currently starts as a defensive back for the school’s football squad during its deep postseason run.
“Joey is a great leader and our players truly respect him,” Hawkins said. “I think we have a nice complement of kids who can shoot the basketball.”
Six-foot guard Austin Crowder (1.4 ppg) appears to be a strong bet at the starting “2” spot when Center Grove opens its season Nov. 26 at Franklin. Carson Lee, a 6-2 junior forward, likely will start up front along with Bryant and Benkert.
Two more juniors, 5-8 point guard Anderson McCoy and 6-5 Al Leiter, should be the first two off the bench in most games. Hawkins’ sophomore trio of 5-9 Trevor Harrell, 5-11 Bailey Barrett and 6-4 Bryce Brown also will factor into this team’s plans.
Hawkins finds out immediately the hand he’s been dealt. The Trojans’ first six opponents (Franklin, Franklin Central, New Palestine, Bloomington North, Pike and Martinsville) were a combined 90-47 last season with three Class 4A sectionals won (FC, Pike and Martinsville).
A challenge, to be sure, but not one Center Grove plans to back away from.