All season long, Guerin Catholic Head Coach Pete Smith has been getting heckled by the most aggressive of fans. That is, when they aren't writing term papers or vacationing on spring break at Cocoa Beach.
"The alumni has just been killer for me," said Pete Smith with a straight face, and then let out a big smile. "Our first group are now seniors in college, so they come back and they e-mail and so forth, and they say 'We did this, how come it's working better for them' and so forth."
Coming off a season in which the Golden Eagles lost eight seniors that won a Sectional championship in 2010 and lost in Sectionals to Tipton 52-39 in 2011, it could have been anybody's guess to how this Guerin Catholic squad would actually respond. Led by a senior drive group that includes guard Riley Rapp (8.9 points per game, 3.9 rebounds), who will be playing in his 103rd varsity match-up in the State championship on Saturday, the Golden Eagles were a group full of players that hadn't been in this position before.
"Most of our other seniors played as juniors on the junior varsity team," said Smith. "It's been so cool to see them every game get a little bit better as they get more varsity experience and realize they can handle the moment. So far they have shown they have done a really good job of it."
Those seniors include forward Adam Hufford (9.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg), forward Bryan Hall (8.9 ppg.), and guard Mitchell Paige (5.8 ppg) off the bench. But where the Golden Eagles are mostly led by seniors, a steady mix of two sophomore starters in Whit Rapp (3.9 ppg.) and potentially the team's best overall player in 6'5 center Aaron Brennan (17.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg) bring youth to the squad.
"He gets tougher and tougher every game," said Smith about Brennan. "He took a great charge against Bosse on Saturday, they called it a block but he did a nice job I tell you. He brings good inside, outside play in for us because actually he is pretty good on the perimeter too. But he blocks a lot of shots so he helps us on the interior defense wise, he can score the ball, and he works very hard."
The Golden Eagles have made the trip to Banker's Life look easy throughout the tournament, winning their past three games in double digits, including a 75-56 victory over Evansville Bosse in the Seymour Semi-State championship. Coach Smith's squad roared back after going down 17-7 in the first quarter, led by Brennan's 22 points and Huffrod's double-double of 12 points and 13 rebounds. But Smith doesn't believe Saturday's contest against Norwell will be half as easy.
"I know Coach Hawkins been there three years," said Smith.
"And though I'm not very good friends with him, I know he has developed a very great program. Their program is very senior-laden, the play a lot of similar styles to Carmel and Columbus North, two teams we are familiar with. They like to score, and I like to score, so it will be a game I think of up-tempo, and who defends just a little bit better might be the one who comes out ahead. They have a good inside game, a good 6'7 center, a great 5'11 point guard who can score the ball, and they have wings that can score with inside toughness. So they are definitely the best 3A team we will play this year."
Norwell perhaps has had the most difficult run of the two teams to the Class 3A State championship game, knocking off #2 ranked Muncie Central 63-58 in the opening round of Regionals and #7 Mishawaka Marian 76-67 in the Huntington North Semi-State.
With ten of their twelve players standing at six feet or taller, the Knights bring plenty of height onto the floor, including 6'7 Senior forward Kyle Fillman (15.0 ppg., 13.2 rpg.) who will be playing at Grace College next season. But surprisingly despite how tall the team is, perhaps the best player in Junior guard Josh VanMeter (18.7 ppg., 5.5 apg) is perhaps the shortest of them all.
Short or tall however, Head coach Randy Hawkins knows his Knights are going to have their hands full with the Golden Eagles.
"I know they are athletic and can do some good things," said Hawkins about Guerin Catholic.
"And they can get to the basket, so we are going to have to play some good solid, sound defense which is what has got us here so far. We are going to have to be ready for them, defense is what will win us the game, and that is what it's all about."
Tip-off for the IHSAA Class 3A State Championship is at Bankers Life Fieldhouse at 6:00 p.m, and a live broadcast of the game can be seen on Indiana's 4 WTTV.