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Coach Ballenger Reflects on Season, Future
March 14, 2007 - Knightstown Coach Chad Ballenger took a few minutes to reflect on the recently-completed basketball season, pondering a few “what ifs” and looking forward to the bright future of the program.
The Panthers just completed a 1-21 season in which they lost their last 11 games. It was a long struggle for the team that returned just one player with varsity experience. The season came on the heels of three consecutive sectional titles. In his first four years heading up the varsity program, Ballenger had led his team to a 70-25 record.
He offered some suggestions to the returning players, referencing the unusually high amount of talent coming up through the ranks and the fierce competition that will evolve for roster spots in the coming years.
He also admitted that he thought the team would be more successful than they became.
“Coming into the season, as a staff we sat down and talked about watching the kids play all summer,” Ballenger said. “I really felt like if we could win six or seven games, it was going to be a really good season. That’s not to say my expectations were lower, but being realistic and looking at what we had - kids without any varsity experience and losing nine seniors. I thought if we could win six or seven that would snowball and now all of the sudden you’re sitting at 10-10. I still felt like this year going into the sectional that if we could beat Shenandoah the first game….my expectations were that we’re going there to win. I really think our kids believed that, and it showed the way they competed those first few quarters.”
Despite losing their first 10 and their last 11 games, the Panthers still never lost the desire to compete. The team fought and scraped for all they got, and on some nights, that wasn’t much. But the benefit will be seen in future years, when those rookies become veterans.
“It was a situation where we got to play a lot of young kids,” Ballenger said. “Obviously, I’m not pleased at all with the won-loss record, but I am pleased with the attitude the kids had. They came to practice every day and worked hard, and I couldn’t have asked for any more out of them. It was a situation where we got to play a lot of young kids who got to grow throughout the year. I know in the future we’re going to be in good shape, but it was also a situation we didn’t want the kids by any means to get used to what we went through this year.”
The Panther program had gone through difficult years prior to this season, so the rebuilding year shouldn’t be anything new to Knightstown basketball fans. Before Ballenger’s arrival, the Panthers had suffered through seven consecutive losing seasons. During a three year span from 1999 through 2001, Knightstown had a combined record of 6-57, including 1-19 in 1999. That season was followed by marks of 3-18 and 2-18, indicating that not only were the upper classes weak, there wasn’t much in the reserve tank either.
That’s not the case today, with extremely strong classes coming up and a slew of underclassmen dominating the varsity and JV rosters this year. Translated, that means there won’t be a repeat of consecutive losing seasons, let alone winning just six games in three years.
“We’re in a good situation,” Ballenger smiled. “We have a freshman team that went 14-5 and an eighth grade team that went 14-4, so we’ve got kids behind us that are coming up. What that is going to create is a very competitive nature for the kids. We moved six kids up off the freshman team, so the freshmen did that without the kids that were on the JV and varsity.
“I’ve not seen any basketball teams around the state that have had 13 seniors. It’s going to be very competitive, and a situation that at a small school you don’t have very often. I really believe there’s going to be some very good basketball players that aren’t going to be able to play for us because of the competitive level that we have.
“That puts me in a tough situation because we’re really going to have to evaluate kids. Any time you’ve got to tell a kid that they can’t play by cutting the kid, it’s tough. We have 13 freshmen, plus a very competitive eighth grade group behind them. That makes for a very unique situation. One, it’s going to make us extremely talented for the next few years, but in a tough situation because there are just going to be some kids that aren’t going to be able to play, and that’s always tough as a coach.”
The competition for a varsity roster spot will be extremely competitive in future years. When those 13 freshmen are seniors, combined with today’s multi-talented eighth grade players comprising the junior class, there will still be just 12 varsity uniforms to award. Ballenger said he and his staff are doing their best to prepare the players for the challenge that is ahead of them. The object, he said, is to get them to understand that those who dedicate themselves and apply the necessary work ethic will be the ones wearing the uniform.
“We will meet with every kid,” Ballenger continued. “We’ll have a big team meeting. We’ll discuss our goals. In that meeting I list every kid in our program. I put on the side, 12 varsity spots and 12 JV spots – 24 spots for however many kids are in that program. We outline it for them and discuss what is expected. Then we’ll meet with each kid and try to tell them what their strengths and weaknesses are and what they need to improve on to be a part of that program. Then as a coaching staff we go back and just watch the kids and see what’s going to fit our program the best.
“We were kind of in that boat with the group that just graduated. Last year on our sectional championship team we kept nine seniors. We had to cut some, but that number was what we could get to, to get everything that we asked. It put us in some tough situations. Some of those kids, when they were freshmen, we talked to them about being role players. They did everything that we asked. They came to every open gym; they came to every weight session and really made it tough. A few of those kids we probably could have cut, but they were great role players, did everything we asked, and didn’t complain. We kept those kids around because they were such good role players. We had great team chemistry.”
This past season wasn’t an entire wash, despite a 1-21 record. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors saw a lot of varsity playing time, and those youngsters grew up a lot during the season, playing their best ball in the sectional against eventual champion Shenandoah. The coach knows what direction the team needs to go to become a sectional contender next season.
“We have to get better offensively and we’ve got to take better care of the basketball. We went on major scoring droughts and we never had a go-to player all year. We never had a player where we could say, ‘Ok, this is who we’re going to go to’. We had different kids on different nights step up. Nathan (Hibbert) had some good nights, Zach Apollos had good nights. Some different players were able to hit shots at times, but we didn’t have a consistent offensive threat where when we needed a basket, they just rose up and met that challenge.
“Over the summer we’ve got to be able to look and say these kids are going to be our go-to players and they are going to be able to do that. I think with some of the younger kids being a year older next year, they’re going to be able to do that.
“Defensively, we’ve got to get better. At times it was very good, at times it wasn’t. We also turned the ball over, and any time you lose an opportunity to score it kills you. Unforced turnovers drive me nuts, and there were times this year we threw the ball to nobody, or a kid would dribble off his foot. Those are the ones you can’t have, and it is typical of a young team. Would it have won us any more games? Probably not, but it would have made us more competitive at times.”
The coach then shouldered the ultimate blame for the team’s performance.
“I’m not looking for any excuses, because the bottom line is we want to win, and it starts at the top,” Ballenger said. “It starts with me, and I felt like at times maybe I let the kids down because they weren’t doing the things we need them to do. You’ve got to look at the top. You’ve got to look at why aren’t the kids doing the things that needed to be done, and I’m the guy in charge, and that’s what it comes down to. I won’t ever fault their effort. I told them numerous times that they just didn’t get things accomplished that they needed.
“I had some personal problems off the court that led to me being gone numerous times throughout the season, and that wasn’t fair to the kids.
“Who I feel the worst for are the seniors,” he said, referencing Nate Hibbert, Dakota James and Ryan Hood. “I told them that. There are three seniors that will never wear a Panther basketball uniform again.
“The rest of the kids can accept what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
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