Bounce hoped that the Northeast Corner Conference Tournament title game between a pair of unbeatens would deliver some hype and excitement.
It did actually, for a half.
But after the break on Saturday at West Noble, Central Noble, led by Indiana Mr. Basketball candidate Connor Essegian, rolled through Eastside, winning 62-44 and capturing its third-straight tournament crown.
Essegian dropped 39 points in the win, and the Cougars proved that they are far and away the top team in the NECC.
It was also a bit of validation for the top-ranked team in Class 2A after much was made about Eastside’s historic start, winning its first 14 games of the season. The Blazers took their first lead of the game early in the third quarter, but then Essegian went to work as he and Logan Gard led the way to push the advantage back into double digits.
Eastside would not get closer than eight points the rest of the way.
So as Central Noble celebrates another league tournament title, its first of several goals achieved this season, Bounce wants to take a look at what lies ahead for this group.
An NECC regular-season championship looks promising, but six league games between now and then has Coach John Bodey using the old adage of “one game at a time,” especially since Eastside will get another shot at the Cougars as soon as next Friday.
But Bounce is looking further ahead into the future. The roadblock that was Churubusco in sectional play the last two years is now in rebuild mode. Eastside and Bremen look to be the biggest obstacles in Sectional 35, but the Cougars (15-0) have already beaten both.
Which brings us to a 2A regional that will likely include No. 2 Blackhawk Christian and No. 8 Lake Station. Combined, the two have just one loss, with Blackhawk’s defeat coming in OT to Homestead. Are we seeing enough out of Central Noble to believe it can vie for its first regional crown in 20 years and second one in program history?
After Saturday, Bounce likes the Cougars’ chances. Many will believe that the key is Essegian. But much like Homestead and Fletcher Loyer, the future Big 10 player and Mr. Basketball candidate can only do so much. For the Spartans, the supporting cast of Grant and Andrew Leeper, Grady Swing and others will prove to be the difference deep in the postseason. For Central Noble, it is Gard, Conner Lemmon, Ryan Schroeder and the rest that will need to continue to step up.
Bodey knows that his squad has a target on its back due to the No. 1 ranking. Central Noble got the best that the NECC could throw at it this past week, handled all the pressure and tossed aside all challengers. The expectation is that the Cougars will continue to do so in the league.
But as the stages get bigger and more pressure-packed, will Central Noble be up to the challenge?
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