Specialization in youth sports has robbed a lot of student athletes of countless memories and left their scrapbooks at last half empty.
We all know how it goes.
A youngster shows some talent early. A club or AAU coach starts talking about how “Junior” will go to Duke or UCLA if the family listens to him. Several years later after many checks have been cashed, reality occurs.
“Junior” gets a walk-on opportunity at Septic Tank Community College and the club coach won’t return phone calls. "Junior" missed out on several opportunities to play other sports in high school with his friends, and the club coach buys a new car.
Andrean senior Matt Lelito didn’t focus on one sport at 5959 Broadway. Although on paper you would think he would. The 59er's have one of Indiana’s best baseball programs so most all of the players put all their time into stickball.
That allowed to ‘Niners to win last year’s Class 3A state championship. But on Saturday, Lelito and his teammates will run onto the floor at Lafayette Jefferson High School to play Frankton in the Class 2A semistate. Just 32 minutes from playing for hardware at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“I’ve been playing basketball since seventh grade,” said Lelito, who is from St. John. “I loved it. I couldn’t give it up. I had to do both.”
Andrean hoops coach Brad Stangel is very happy the 6-foot-5 post did just that. While Lelito doesn’t get a lot of headlines in his role as a defensive stopper who scores here and there, he is a very important part of this talented roster. It takes a village in red and gold.
“Matt’s had the same role for us the last three years,” Stangel said. “We didn’t have many big guys his sophomore year so we threw him to the wolves. He’s athletic and strong. He always guards the other team’s best post and he’s had some really big games for us.”
Andrean’s gymnasium is one of the Region’s best gyms. A classic. Lelito and his mates have noticed that all the banners hanging in the crackerbox have state numbers underneath. Except for hoops.
In 1980 and 2000 the 59ers have made it to state in boys hoops, but have yet to chop down the nylon in Indy. They are now just 32 minutes away from having another shot at it.
“We talk about it all the time,” Lelito said. “We want to put a number up there.”
Lelito will play baseball at Kankakee Community College next year. He plans to use that experience to draw attention from a bigger school, where he will study Kinesiology.
This team has trailed in the fourth quarter of every postseason game but one. Almost all of their games have been down to the wire white-knucklers. But Stangel has seen a group of young men who will not quit.
“They don’t want this to end,” Stangel said.
“We do not want our season to end,” Lelito added.
I hope more youngsters and their families learn from Lelito. Play all the sports you can for as long as you can. Youth sprints quick. Enjoy as many experiences as you can. You never know what might happen.
“I don’t get nervous in any games,” Lelito said. “I’ve been in these positions many times. I’ve played in semistates and state in baseball. I’ve played in tough sectionals and regionals in basketball. I feel like we trust each other and we know what we can do.”
Now, that’s special.
Our days are filled with uncertainty. Often.
We know the sun will rise in the east and set out west at night. But there is no way for sure to know what will transpire in between.
Great joy in facing a historic opportunity, or insufferable pain emanating from pure evil.
These were the two emotions dribbling in the minds of the Hanover Central Wildcats last Saturday night. The boys basketball team boarded the yellow bus to travel to Calumet for the Class 3A sectional championship game against the host Warriors.
Hanover had only one sectional title in school history in 1986. That’s a long, long while.
But there was also some overpowering fear in the ‘Cats’ souls. Two of their friends and former school mates -- Thomas Grill Jr. and Molley Lanham -- had been missing for several days. A social media push was seeking answers. The Wildcats took the floor last weekend with hope of making history and a daunting fear of the dark unknown.
“I was thinking of them, we all were,” Hanover senior Luke Barach said. “We didn’t know. They were in my prayers.”
The Wildcats went out and “upset” Calumet 50-42. Climbing up that dusty, cob-webbed ladder meant the world to these kids. A huge crowd from the community was there to support them. It had been 33 years since the last nets had been chopped.
“It felt so great to finally win it,” junior Dominic Lucido said.
But on Monday the hard news let the Region know that Grill Jr. and Lanham had been killed. Valparaiso’s Connor Kerner has been charged in this crime.
When will this unspeakable horror end?
When will we start treating each other with an eternal respect?
Who will save us from ourselves?
Lucido was friends with Grill Jr.’s brother and spent many days at the family’s home in middle school. Barach played Jr. Wildcats’ basketball and Grill’s father was his coach. This wasn’t some random case of violence seen on the TV while surfing with the remote.
This awful instance hit home. And it was a direct hit.
“They are in my prayers,” Barach said. “It’s so sad. I will keep them in my head, my heart. In my mind I have to believe they’re in a better place.”
Where would we all be without such a hope to cling to?
These heavy hearts will travel to South Bend Washington on Saturday morning for a regional semifinal against Culver Academy, likely the top team in 3A in the state. These Wildcats are riding a wave of good feelings from the historical success they’ve had.
Coach Bryon Clouse has a lot of young talent growing playoff whiskers right now. He said the addition of 6-foot-6 freshman Landen Babusiak and 6-foot-3 junior T.J. Burt at midseason gave a talented group a spark and more depth.
The players at Monday’s practice joked that winning the sectional crown will finally get Clouse to stop talking about the ‘86 team.
“Climbing up the ladder was awesome,” Clouse said. “Turning around and seeing the kids (players), their families, the students, the people from our community really meant a lot. It was special.
“No one expected us to win sectionals and no one expects us to beat Culver. So we’re going to play loose and have some fun.”
Hanover hit 16 3-pointers in one game this winter and 15 in another. The ‘Cats know how to hang some nets. This is a great stone to have in your back when you’re facing Goliath in March.
I hope all who read this will remember the two families from the Hanover community in prayer, who are grieving right now, living in days where basketball scores mean nothing.
Here’s to hoping the boys in light blue can lift up their neighbors by the way they play, and the way they remember their lost friends.
“They will be in my mind when we play on Saturday,” Barach said. “They will be in my prayers.”