In 18 years, Homestead basketball coach Rod Parker has won 313 games. Along the way, he has endured just two losing seasons but was met with many years where the Spartans were just OK. Near .500 records lingered until 2009-2010 when Homestead won 19 games. Since then, he has led Homestead to seven 20-win seasons, five Sectional titles, three Regional titles, two Semistate titles and that exclusive big trophy as state champions.
2017-2018 actually broke a lot of the streaks that had added significant value to the Spartans’ legacy. Though they had just been in the SAC for two prior seasons, Homestead lost to Bishop Luers in the Holiday Tournament, ending their unbeaten run in the league. South Side beat them on Sectional Tuesday, ending a four year streak of titles there and a three year streak of Regional titles as well as a five year streak of 20-win seasons.
The end of 2018 feels like so long ago.
Homestead didn’t backtrack after failing to make it out of opening night of Sectional play last season. Nobody really expected them to. Instead, they only got better this season starting and ending the year as the number one team on any number of area power polls, including Outside the Huddle’s. They improved their regular season conference record in the SAC to 36-0 over four seasons, capturing the conference title for a fourth time along the way. They also got back their crown as champions of the Holiday Tournament and Sectional rounds.
That Sectional win may be the biggest. Not only was it a third win against growing rival South Side on the season, but it loudly proclaimed that Homestead basketball was staying a statewide power.
“I think that experience of tournament success along with the experience of playing a tough schedule, you get on the road and you travel and you face some adversity so that your kids get into games and they kind of know how to handle the emotions from the beginning and how to handle those through 32 minutes of a basketball game,” Parker said.
Homestead’s scheduling changes really started to take shape in 2014-2015, the season they lost to Columbus North in the Class 4A state title game and finished 26-3. The next year it got tougher with four trips outside of the state, again three total losses and a heartbreaking semistate loss to Penn.
“Everybody wants to beat us and it is a compliment for what these kids have done and what past years have done here at Homestead by playing hard, putting in the time and working together as a team. We really address how important that is,” Parker said.
That Penn loss, though further along than last season’s South Side loss, was awfully familiar. The 2016 team that lost to Penn brought back a heavy portion of their offensive and defensive leaders. The 2018 team that lost to South Side graduated just one senior in Lauren Selking. Homestead bounced back from the Penn loss with a state title the following season, beating Pike at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse on the hands of Miss Basketball Karissa McLaughlin, now of Purdue, and two other Division I prospects in Jazmyne Geist (Northern Kentucky) and Madisen Parker (Bowling Green)
As much as 2017 was THEN and 2019 is NOW, the shadow of the state championship looms. The prize is highlighted on the wall inside Homestead’s gym and it will still be another year until the last player who was on the bench in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse that day graduates from high school. Rod Parker says that he doesn’t really talk much about that team to this season’s team, but the shadow does in fact still loom.
“We don’t really go back and talk about the team from 2017, because they have their own identity and were a different team,” Parker said. “But we do talk on the tradition and what the experience is like. Fortunately, a couple of our seniors have been through it and our coaching staff has been through it to have a handle to know what to expect and what the next step is going to be.”
The next step is a regional round and Homestead, for a program that didn’t make it past opening night of Sectionals last season, is one of the most knowledgeable programs in the area about where they journey leads. Five players on the current team — Haley Swing, Kara Gealy, Sydney Graber, Bri Lucas and Rylie Parker — stood on the stage at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in 2017 after proving various roles in the state title run. Another player on this team, Sylare Starks, has twice been to the Regional round too when she played for Concordia Lutheran as a freshman and a sophomore.
Swing was always going to be an important next piece for Homestead. As a sophomore, she was a consistent starter among four senior starters. In the 2017 state title game, she not only started with those four seniors, but played 30 of the 32 minute game only behind McLaughlin and Madisen Parker, who never exited the contest. She ended the game with five points and 10 rebounds. From there on, she has been a quality piece in the lineup and lately has been playing some of her best basketball of the season, maybe even of her career.
Gealy has always been some level of stabilizing force for the Spartans. During the state title run, she was a backup point guard who played 20 minutes in the 2017 title game. Since then, her ability to stabilize games may even go under appreciated by the general fan. Each year, Rod Parker raves about Gealy and while her numbers don’t often blow people out of the gym (but they can), the senior point guard is arguably the most important piece every night running Homestead’s always intricate and precise offensive schemes.
“Those are two kids who played some really good minutes down at Banker’s Life as sophomores in kind of completely different roles,” Rod Parker said.
“Those two kids went down there [to Regionals at Kokomo] two years ago and I think they both played 16-22 minutes and the big thing in those games I told them ‘you have to defend and rebound.’ And now they have to go down there and not only defend and rebound but they have to score so their roles have to change a little bit. But they have been there and they know what it is about and the excitement that goes along with it and the hard work that is going to need to happen between now and then.”
Graber played 10 minutes in the 2017 state title game as a freshman, pulling down an all important seven rebounds in a game where the post presence of her, Swing and Geist made a major difference against a big, strong Pike team. Since then, the Central Michigan commit, now a junior, has made herself all across the court as a first team All-SAC selection this season.
Bri Lucas didn’t play in the state title game, but has bide her time and has turned into an important interior defender and rebounder this season, helping give Homestead one of the deepest interior presences state wide with Swing, Graber and freshman Ayanna Patterson as well. And Rylie Parker, she was there too at Banker’s Life. She reveled in the moment then with big smiles celebrating with her dad and sister in the accomplishment, almost as much as she did with her own goofy flare as Homestead celebrated a Sectional title last Saturday. She didn’t play in that championship game in 2017, but that may be more of a motivator to get another trip to Banker’s Life Fieldhouse under her belt this year.
To get back, Homestead will first have to get through 18-8 Zionsville and the winner of 14-10 Carroll and 23-1 Hamilton Southeastern, one of the top teams in the state regardless of class. The regional that Homestead feeds into has been, over time, jokingly referred to as the ‘regional of death’ on both the girls or boys side. Getting through the two games in one day setting requires a lot of the teams who compete in it.
“We have to go down Saturday to one of the toughest regionals and just play basketball,” Rod Parker said. “The way that regional works, you have to do your homework on three teams. When you are in a tournament, we really address that you have to live in the present and take one game at a time. We’ve diversified our schedule so I think that we will be very adapted to the different teams that we might play in our regional.”
Zionsville lost a two-point game to Carmel earlier this season as the only opponent they have had in common with Homestead. The Spartans beat Carmel by 21 points just 10 days prior. Zionsville also lost by 20 points to Hamilton Southeastern. If Homestead were to win at noon on Saturday in Kokomo over Zionzville, they would likely earn a game against Hamilton Southeastern. Even though Carroll has won four of their last five, they area set to be a heavy underdog against the Royals in the 10 a.m. game. Carroll lost to Hamilton Southeastern by 40 points early in the season.
The Royals’ one loss came outside of the state of Indiana. They have played just one of the three teams who have beaten Homestead, with an 11 point win over North Central just one week after Homestead lost to North Central by seven points in an overtime game.