Leo coach Cary Cogdell has taken his alma mater to unprecedented heights in Class 3A state finals run

Leo coach Cary Cogdell patrols the sidelines during March 20’s Class 3A semi state game at Elkhart’s North Gymnasium.

Bleed purple.

Yeah, it’s cliche.

Yeah, Cary Cogdell knows it.

That doesn’t change how he feels about himself or the reality of the situation. If nothing else holds true heading in to Saturday’s Class 3A state finals, this does: Cary Cogdell bleeds purple.

“I grew up with it, it was so important to me as a player and as I’ve become older and more mature, you cherish it that much more,” Cogdell said. “I didn’t understand as a player. Yeah, we are going to win the sectional, that is how kids think. And now, I’ve been through it and realize, this is really hard. Before last year, the question was always in my mind, are we ever going to win a sectional?”

It took Cogdell 16 seasons as the head man at Leo, most of them above .500, to finally cash in on a postseason title. The Lions did so in 2020 and were focused on a regional with conference rival Norwell in it before the world changed.

Covid-19 struck down the season and Leo was left with a pile of what-ifs.

Finally, there was a postseason title and then it was all gone.

A year later, not only do they have another sectional crown but they have made it all of the way to the state finals.

Cogdell will tell you, the last 400 days or so seems like something out of a movie, his own real-life Hoosiers.

One of the coaches most synonymous with northeast Indiana basketball at this point, almost all of Cogdell’s story has come as a Lion. After graduating from the school in 1994, Cogdell went on to play at Saint Francis, but returned to Leo as an assistant coach shortly after graduating college in 1998. He served on the staff for three seasons before a head coaching opportunity opened up for him at South Adams High School. So daily, he began making the trek to Berne in the afternoons despite still working at Leo during the school day. He spent two seasons with South Adams, going 11-30.

“I left because I wanted to become a head coach and I didn’t think the Leo job was going to open up anytime soon. I thought Coach [Phil] Bollier was going to be a lifer here,” Cogdell said.

But Bollier wasn’t a lifer, it turned out. Cogdell returned to Leo in 2003 as an assistant, not even realizing that within a season, Bollier would be off to Georgia for a new job. It opened up the opportunity for Cogdell to apply, which was, as he says, by no means a slam dunk after going 1-19 in his second year at South Adams.

“It is home. I was ok, truthfully, coming back and being an assistant for a long time if that’s what it was going to be because Leo meant so much to me,” Cogdell said. 

Cogdell did get the job though and immediately proved his worth in this familiar environment, going 16-7 in that first season. The team reached the sectionals finals before losing to No. 1 Bellmont.

It wasn’t so easy to get back there though. Between his first team at Leo and the 2020 sectional champion squad, the Lions had winning seasons in eight of the 14 years, but only made it past the first round of sectional play twice.

Leo coach Cary Cogdell directs traffic during a January 11, 2020 game at Norwell.

During his first year back at Leo as a varsity assistant in the 2003-2004 season, Cogdell was reunited with a senior class that he had coached as seventh graders. Included in that group was Tyler Morningstar, who now serves as the varsity assistant under Cogdell and is in his 12th season with the Leo staff.

“He is definitely one of the people I admire most in my life. And it’s not just basketball related,” Morningstar said. “I have learned a ton from him. Obviously I have learned a lot of basketball stuff, but just in life, how he handles things, how he processes things, how he always seems to be in control of his emotions. That is stuff that has really made an impression on me.”

One thing Cogdell had to control was a growing obsession to get back to the sectional title game after the opportunities were scarce over the years. The focus and hunger wasn’t just for him though, it became the same for the Leo fan base.

After March 20’s semistate comeback win over South Bend St. Joe, longtime Leo fans were crying with excitement, something notable in Cogdell’s eyes as well as he wrapped his arms around Blake Davison after his game-winning shot in the closing seconds.

The win and trip to state means a lot to not just Cogdell but the entire Leo community, making you remember just how much of a “small town” Leo can be even as the infrastructure of Fort Wayne creeps closer and closer to the area.

This is still small town Indiana basketball in the shadow of urban sprawl.

“I get it. I get how big it is. I understand it. By going here and growing up here, it just means that much more. It has been a part of who I am for my whole life,” Cogdell said.

“We’ve had those conversations about how it would mean something to bring it [a state title] home to where we both went to school. For him, to bring it back to Leo and be part of that first time of doing something like this feels amazing,” Morningstar said. “All of the years of just not getting over the hump, finally getting there, staying at this school, not chasing a position, just working it and eventually getting over that hump. It means a ton.”

The trip to the state finals has united Leo fans, staff and players from throughout the years. Cogdell has seen that outpouring of support, pride and thankfulness over the entire season and especially the two weeks between the semistate win and the state finals. Even his former teammates at Leo have reached out, as have former players of his.

“As a player it was an honor to be coached by him. He has an amazing feel for the game. It was cool to learn that through the years, I felt like it helped me become a better player and start to look for certain things in a game,” said former Leo player Will Moreau, who graduated in 2017. “And to Leo basketball, he is the motor. I mean obviously he’s the head coach but if he’s fired up then that team can do anything.”

Leo coach Cary Cogdell is interviewed after March 20’s Class 3A semi state win over South Bend St. Joe.

Dylan Barrow, another former player who graduated in 2016, agrees. But to him, learning from Cogdell didn’t stop between the lines on a basketball court.

“Coach Cogdell is the rare coach that impacts who you are as much as he impacts what you can do on the floor. He sees and values the little victories of the season, which makes it even more special that he’s gotten to do big winning this year,” Barrow said. “He’s a staple of the program, and his relationships with players is what keeps a lot of us around and excited for the team long after graduation.”

Having an impact on his players is crucial for the sustained success that Cogdell has been able to have at Leo. The style he runs has always been different whether he has a shooting team, a running team, a defensive team or a slow tempo team. With trends of the game often following the NBA, Cogdell has had to stay current on style and tempo. He says the kids now are so much more skilled than they were 15 years ago, let alone when he was in high school.

The understanding of players changes too and Cogdell’s role as a guidance counselor at the school only helps to get into the psyche of players both on and off the court. It has helped the game evolved to not be as rigid as it was when Cogdell was coming up. So to that point, you can either adapt as a coach or get left behind and lost in the shuffle.

“I’ve always tried to be open to the fact that there is more than one way to skin a cat and it is all about what your personnel is and finding a way to adapt to that personnel. As the game changes, as coaches we have to change our mindset a little bit and be open to the possibility that there might be a newer, better way to do things,” Cogdell said.

“One thing that Leo has been fortunate to have with Cary at the helm has been consistency from junior high up to where he is in the head coach position,” Morningstar said. “He gives the coaches, including myself, freedom to develop the kids the way we want to try to develop them as long as it fits into the framework of what his ultimate vision is. He is not afraid to let us experiment and think outside of the box.”

Leo went 11-0 to start the 2020-21 season, and now sits 24-4. It was the second to last undefeated team in the area when they lost to North Side on January 25. The Lions rallied off more wins but then lost three of their last four heading into sectional play. It required a bit of a mental reset that has made them winners of their last six games, a mixture of comfortable and close games.

Now on the biggest run of his career, Cogdell is grateful for the chance to prowl the sideline during the Class 3A state title game inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It took 19 seasons as a head coach to get here and he knows so many things factored in having the chance to square off with Silver Creek. As he puts it, you have to focus on the journey because no matter your potential this isn’t the NBA where you have a seven games series to toy with. Instead, you have just 32 minutes to advance in an Indiana high school basketball postseason.

“You have to be really good and you have to have some luck. You just do; the ball has to bounce your way, you have to have some calls that go your way. It is not an easy thing,” Cogdell said.

And if you are going to play for a state title coaching Leo, it turns out the one thing you need most is the propensity to bleed purple.

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