Things couldn’t have gotten much better for Cary Cogdell than the end of the 2021 basketball season. Save for one basket, the Leo coach had reached the near pinnacle of his coaching career by making the Class 3A state title game. He had built for it, in himself and in his program, winning a Sectional one year prior in a COVID cut short postseason.
When Leo lost to Silver Creek at the end of the 2021 season, a host of Lions saw their high school careers end, including Blake Davison, one of the best players in the program’s history. Rebuilding wasn’t going to be easy but it also wasn’t going to be impossible. One thing that wasn’t expected though, even in an established championship program: another deep postseason run so soon. Yet, as the 2022 season was concluding, Cogdell and Leo were again back in the semi state round for the second straight season.
That kind of continued success amidst a heavily changed roster has shown Cogdell’s longevity and success is no fluke. It is why we name him the 2021-22 Outside the Huddle Coach of the Year for boys basketball.
“Getting to the state finals and understanding how difficult that is – its not just about being good, its about getting some of the breaks to go your way too – its tough. You know following that is going to be extremely hard,” Cogdell said. “Everybody goes into the season hoping they can advance, but you know the old cliche of taking it one game at a time and trying to win. Especially as you get to the tournament, the games are a grind. You are going to have to win some close games and it was great.”
The Lions lost just six games under Cogdell in 2021-22 against 21 wins, making it his third best season as a head coach and a third straight season with a postseason title after none during the first 17 years of his career. While often successful during those prior seasons at Leo, winning a Sectional just before COVID changed a lot of things and Cogdell was able to build off that success, not just ride the wave out.
In 2021-22, he leaned heavily on a senior class that had been part of the two previous title seasons, including DJ Allen, Xavier Middleton, Ayden Ruble and Brody Hiteshew. Caedmon Bontrager’s addition to the lineup gave the Lions a breakout star player, which of course helps, but the dig deep, gutty performances from those other seniors helped bolster the Lions throughout the season. To Cogdell’s credit, he didn’t just lean on the known. Throughout the years, Cogdell has never been afraid to look to the youth in his program for big pushes. In 2021-22, he got that by looking to players like sophomores Jackson McGee and Trey Hiteshew.
“I felt like we had a lot of good basketball players this year and there would be times where guys, not playing poorly, didn’t play as much, but it was more because of whoever was on the floor was playing well,” Cogdell said. “I thought our sophomores did a good job of waiting patiently. When you’ve been in the state finals the year before and you’ve got eight seniors, you get on the floor and that is a little bit of pressure. I thought they [sophomores] handled that pretty well and the seniors did a good job of integrating those guys into it.”
The Lions won their first five games and eight of their first nine to start the season. Included in that was a 4-1 record against the SAC, and perhaps the most important in growing a comfort zone, was a win at NE8 rival Norwell. The Lions would later go on to beat SAC needle movers Snider and Bishop Dwenger and despite two conference losses taking them out of NE8 title contention, Leo was still among the area’s best and the highest ranked teams statewide in Class 3A. Then, the last two games of the regular season represented some stumbling, falling to Blackhawk Christian and then, for the second straight season, losing the regular season finale on a buzzer beater to Woodlan.
Maybe that was what it took. Because after a second straight buzzer beating loss to the Warriors, Leo responded loudly yet again. They, as comfortably as you’d hope for, got through Sectionals. Cogdell says the Lions did so with a mentality of “none of this matters, we just want to win” when it came to roster and playing time and who was getting what opportunity. Cogdell said he felt like there was a real switch flip when it came to tournament time. Leo also proved their first win over Norwell wasn’t a fluke with another win over the Knights in the Regional round. The Lions ultimately lost to Mishawaka Marian in the semi state round, but it didn’t change this: Cogdell has established himself as one of the area’s best coaches because he can win constantly and can be a champion with a changing roster.
“I believe this: that success breeds success. In high school basketball, it is still going to be cyclical. Some of the larger schools numbers wise, they don’t cycle down as often. You are probably still gonna have some cycles, but I still think that there is an element of success breeds success,” Cogdell said.
“When you are in a community like this one, when you make a run, everybody wants to play because this is a really cool thing. I think that success can be sustainable. It’s a harder position to sustain success; this year felt harder to me because we were a little bit more the hunted because of the success we had last year. When you step on the floor, you better have your A game against everybody because they are probably going to come after you.”