25-0. There doesn’t need to be another way to start this story.
Few teams can ever get there. And although Homestead’s season ended with a Regional loss to Carmel, that ride to 25-0 was intense and set new standards for a program that is already arguably THE standard in Northeast Indiana boys basketball. Because of that, Outside the Huddle is proud to name Spartan coach Chris Johnson our 2020-2021 boys basketball coach of the year.
Adding in junior All-Star Fletcher Loyer to the mix at Homestead clearly didn’t hurt the Spartans as they cashed in on Summit Athletic Conference and Sectional titles. But the point at Homestead has always been clear: development from the bottom up. Guys don’t touch the court under Johnson’s leadership until they are ready. So to be able to roll through the area and (almost) everyone else is quite impressive.
“I have been very fortunate over my years to have great young men who’s work ethic is high, they want to be successful and come into practice each and every day to try to learn,” Johnson said. “It is them putting in the time and me just having the opportunity to be a part of it and that is the way I have always looked at.”
Johnson’s part is a big one though. He has won the 13th most games in his career of any active boys basketball coach in the state on Indiana and of those 12 in front of him, only two have a better winning percentage than Johnson’s 70.8 percent. Johnson has spent 27 years as a head coach and nobody above him on Indiana’s active all-time wins list has coached less than 31. That 25-0, regardless of player or coach driven, was no accident.
Homestead had its two standout players including Loyer and Indiana senior All-Star Luke Goode, but the talent continued to trickle through the lineup. They’ve developed through the years to lead to this season even though some of them stayed multi-sport or may not even feature basketball as their primary game. Grant Simmons is well respected for his work on a baseball diamond for one. Goode, who was considered mostly a three point specialist as a freshman, developed into one of the best players in the state as a senior. He was also regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the area before giving up football after his junior season.
“You have to have kids that want to be dedicated themselves. I’ve been very fortunate with Luke and Grant and all these kids, that even though they are multi sport athletes, they still find the time to work at their game whether that be football, baseball, tennis…they continue to work at a high level,” Johnson. “I am very fortunate that I am at a place where we have kids that are willing to do that.”
It didn’t take the Spartans long to get a wake up call into this season. There were lofty expectations locally and state wide for the Spartans, so they were obviously going to get everyone’s best shot and not just in the SAC. Three games into the season on December 5, they were forced into two overtimes against Indianapolis Cathedral, winning 71-65. After that, the Spartans would win 11 of their next 12 by at least 10 points including a 107 point output against conference upstart North Side.
Also during that run, the Spartans’ lone super close game was a three point win against Warren Central in a game that showcased how gritty they could get in addition to being pretty flashy.
Johnson also was able to coach against brother Mark in the final season of his brother’s career. The Spartans beat South Bend St. Joe on December 19 at Grace College. Johnson says that without riding Mark’s coattails, he himself wouldn’t be where he is today with Homestead. Receiving the guidance from Mark and watching him as early as Mark’s time as an assistant at South Bend LaSalle helped build up Chris Johnson as a coach. It was Mark too, fielding a call from Bishop Dwenger’s Fred Tone, that spoke in support of Chris getting an opportunity to move from being an assistant at Merrillville to coming on at Dwenger that sparked more of his career.
And Chris too was there in Elkhart when Mark’s career ended in March in the semi state round. Being there with his brother, among so many other experiences this season, really have helped Chris cross off a lot on his to do list.
“I’m honored and humbled to have 20-some years of being in this business and basically – I feel like – seeing it all,” Johnson said. “They last thing being on the bucket list was being in the Hall of Fame tournament which we’ve been invited to and are going to be participating in next year.”
The team that won that Hall of Fame Classic in New Castle this season was Blackhawk Christian. The Spartans and the Braves now routinely play in the best and most anticipated game of the season in the area against each other. This season, it was another Homestead win, 72-60, on January 12.
While his career is winding down, as Johnson says “over the next four, five, six years and we will see where it goes from there,” the target will loom large on both he and Homestead. It is a target that is well earned, as is the well known manta for their athletes of ‘Homestead versus everybody.’
But that pressure doesn’t solely come from outside of Homestead. The longtime Spartans coach continues to put a lot of it on himself.
“I always put pressure on myself. Each and every year, our goal is to win the conference and be playing your best basketball at the end of the year and make a tournament run,” Johnson said. “For 27 years of being a head coach, there is only one time that I have ended a season where we’ve been extremely happy and that was after the state championship season . So unless you win it all, the pressure is always there.”
After an overtime thriller at Lawrence North and a Goode buzzer beater at Hamilton Southeastern showed that the Spartans had more lives than your average cat, the Spartans looked poised down the stretch of the season to make a deep run. After the win over HSE, Homestead won five of their next six by 19 or more points.
Just like in 2015, Johnson felt that this group had all of the pieces to make a Class 4A state title run. And clearly, others did too as they were the consensus top team Class 4A or all of the state no matter what metric or poll you looked at. But as Johnson said, luck has to go your way too. The ball didn’t bounce Homestead’s way in the Regional round in 2021 though with Carmel converting on some tough opportunities and second chance opportunities.
That was a tough pill to swallow for the Spartans and the SAC that was hoping for a conference state champion. All that said, it doesn’t take away from the intro to this column. The 25-0. The pure dominance from their leading scorers trickling down to any Spartan that touched the court. Players play the games, but certainly in the case of Johnson, getting the right guys the right reps, the right training over the years and into the right spots pays major dividends. That is the name of the game when looking for the area’s top coach year in and year out.
“When you know you have enough to win it, you want to be the last team standing. Just unfortunately didn’t happen that way,” Johnson said. “Anytime you go 25-0 and you are the number one team in the state…to have the big time players we had, it was just enjoyable all year round because we had great men one through 12 that came into practice each and every day at the highest level.”
Homestead, under Johnson, now has seven seasons with postseason titles in the last 10 years.