It is a hard lesson to learn days after falling short of the state title game. But there is a lesson in it for Leo – a big one.
The last three years for the Lions have been exhilarating with a mix of heartbreak and success. But the lessons from each of those teams individually and as a whole will live on for years to come, for future Lions, giving these teams a real stamp on the area. And it will be a lesson that Leo and Coach Cary Cogdell, later on, will really love. Because it is the perfect storm of coaching, talent and hard work.
While the Lions won’t return to this weekend’s state finals, it is only fair for them to be lauded again before all is put to bed on the 2021-22 season.
When you look at the last two seasons, the success story is heightened. Leo did what it was supposed to one year and outdid expectations the next. That is rare, where when the expectations were high, Leo actually met them. When the expectations for Leo were lowered a bit, it exceeded them.
Leo was always going to be good this year, still a favorite in the Northeast 8 Conference and even in the sectional. But the gap wasn’t significant, evidenced by the Lions losing the league to Norwell. They also could have very easily lost their sectional to momentum-seizing programs like Woodlan, Concordia and Bishop Dwenger. That time though, Leo didn’t lose.
Expectations were at about a seven and Leo performed at a nine when it mattered, getting a hair away from a second-ever state finals appearance just a year after the first one. It has redefined what success means for Leo basketball and it started before these past two years.
It began in 2020 when Leo won a sectional and was rolling before running into the Covid wall that ended the season prematurely. A lot of what we saw from Leo these last two seasons was built on that 2019-2020 team and guys like Chase Bates and Andrew Tkacz, guys that never got to really revel in deep postseason success.
That shouldn’t be lost on the 2021-22 team, whether you are a guy like Ayden Ruble who was here for that sectional title or a guy like Caedmon Bontrager who became part of the Leo family more recently.
In 2021-22, Leo had to recover from a state title hangover and the lack of some key guys that got the Lions to Indy.
Blake Davison, the last of the line of Leo’s first family of basketball and arguably the best player in program history, was a major loss.
So guys had to step up. And Bontrager’s inclusion on this season’s roster was a big step. A big guy capable of taking over almost every game is always wanted, especially when you lose a scorer like Davison.
Bontrager shined, as expected, but whenever teams were able to give him a hard time, there was almost always another Lion to step up and make things happen. That is where DJ Allen, Ayden Ruble, Xavier Middleton and Brody Hiteshew really came into important roles, more so even that the effects they had on the state title run last season.
Those four all helped Leo reach the state finals in 2021 and come within a hair of winning the whole thing. Ruble was a starter in regionals at New Castle, Middleton’s defense mauled South Bend St. Joe in semistate and Allen opened many eyes in the state finals in 2021 opposite Trey Kaufmann-Renn.
This season though meant that they all needed to add to their game, be efficient offensive players off the effective two-way players they were the year before. Each of them surged in critical times, going from (outside of Allen) role players to guys who changed Leo’s pace on both sides of the ball. They became major senior leaders next to Bontrager and carried a big load most of the season.
That returning group knew expectations and how to meet them. Clearly, they also knew how to exceed them.
But Cogdell, as a coach, has never been afraid to lean on guys who weren’t in the program or playing high school basketball for a fourth season. So he turned to some young kids to, the future of the program who will have to use these lessons into next season and beyond.
Another senior, Luke Lagrange, reingratiated himself with Leo basketball by being illing to be a fighter when called upon. He was huge as a freshman learning the varsity ropes at Leo and after two years away from the program, came back to be a critical cog in helping this team go deep into the playoffs; something they didn’t know they’d be able to do at times when the state finals appearance ended last March.
Trey Hiteshew started hot, Jackson McGee finished that way. In between, they complimented each other and the senior class well. The pair were taught from the get go what level they had to be on to match what the returners did. And those returners badly wanted to get back to the state finals. Who can blame them for that? Redemption is a powerful tool and Leo used that mindset properly.
Things didn’t end the way the program wanted last Saturday. Things rarely end the way a team wants. There is a school of thought, maybe even at Leo, that not winning a state title is not winning a state title; it can be black and white where you either have that big trophy or you don’t.
But this team was a shade of gray, those other trophies earned along the way meant something. They mean something and the lessons they teach will mean something for Leo basketball as it moves forward.
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