The Gym Rats Spring Kickoff brought basketball to Spiece and Sport One Parkview Fieldhouses this weekend with loads of basketball for boys and some girls in grades four through eleven.
The main event was Sunday afternoon’s 11th grade boys championship on court one at Spiece Fieldhouse. When the final buzzer sounded, it was Indy Heat Red that came out with the first place trophy. That that hardware was nice and all, but more important were the expectations met by coach Josh Riikonen’s squad on the court in mid-April when it feels like the high school season just ended.
Short of Indy Heat’s 2020 EYBL team, the championship squad was the best team in the 16 team field. But with the EYBL team participating only in Saturday’s pool play and not in bracket play, it was clearly a tournament for Indy Heat Red to win or lose of their own accord. That is a lofty expectation for anyone to deal with in April, still meshing with each other and figuring out how you work in a scheme different from your regular season. That is what makes April basketball tough: a lot of expectation with less than adequate preparation.
“I think it’s extremely important for the guys to learn this early in the spring. When you are a gifted group, you’ll never get less than an opponents best,” Riikonen said. “The guys on this team hold themselves to a high standard and expect to play well it was great to see them face adversity and find a way to win.”
The Indy Heat Red roster is a who’s who of the top Class of 2020 players in the area: Homestead’s Zak Krueger, East Noble’s Hayden Jones, New Haven’s Donovynn Sisson Lewis, Northrop’s Qualen Pettus, Snider’s Dillon Duff and South Side’s JT Langston Jr. The roster also features Muncie Central’s Victor Young, Northridge’s Alex Stauffer and Guerin Catholic’s Bernie McGuinness.
Indy Heat Red used Sunday’s bracket play to face a variety of challenges. They powered by a Jessie Bates III backed Just Believe Hoops in the morning, 61-23, before being tested by a feisty Club 1 Prime 2020 team in the semi final game. The finals saw Indy Heat Red up against TPE 2021, who were playing up a year as sophomores and also in their fourth game of the day.
But TPE had nothing to lose. It allowed them to play looser in the first half than Indy Heat Red really could. That is when the message of Riikonen and the Indy Heat expectation had to be clear and delivered upon.
“The biggest message to the guys is to continue to bring energy and effort throughout the game. Five games in a weekend can be a grind, often times the team to win is the team who can still bring effort and energy,” Riikonen said.
“The guys did a great job of doing the things we’re trying to be a staple of our team which is unselfish basketball, hard nosed, and play with a fast pace.”
Indy Heat Red led by just six at halftime, but certainly answered the call in the second half by creating space and finding the confidence to slowly assert themselves until TPE’s deficit became insurmountable. Each time that TPE threatened to get the game back in a competitive range, Indy Heat Red was able to slam the door shut with a defensive stop, closing off the interior, or a timely bucket likely off the hands of Young.
Young scored 17 of his game high 26 points in the second half of the 73-53 win.
The confidence of Indy Heat Red was soaring late in the second half when TPE’s bench alleged to their defenders that Duff couldn’t shoot, only for him to knock down a three pointer and some pointed words back at their bench.
Either Young or Duff led Indy Heat Red in scoring in each of their five wins over the weekend.
TPE, to their credit, played very good basketball in a game they just weren’t supposed to win. New Haven’s Thomas Latham created space as good as anyone with his back to the basket and finished with 18 points. But expectations, being what they are, always pointed towards Indy Heat Red. Throughout the weekend, the bonds of the team were clearly tightened. In the championship game, against the fire of a good opponent with nothing to lose, Indy Heat Red found confidence in each other.
“I love the opportunity to get going in April and get tuned up and the guys getting to know each other,” Riikonen said. “With only one spring live period it’s great for the guys to get tuned and starting to understand one another’s strengths.”
Expectations will only rise for Riikonen’s team in tournaments and locally, where we have no choice but to expect a team our best rising seniors to succeed. For now, but not for much longer, it is still just April though. And as far as passing their first test, it is hard to not give Indy Heat Red an ‘A.’
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