BNL, with late excellence, exceeded expectations during turbulent 2020-21 campaign

BNL senior Ben Cosner, who hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer against New Albany in the sectional semifinal, and the senior class powered the Stars to a 14-11 record in 2020-21.

By Justin Sokeland

BEDFORD – The dictionary defines overachiever as one who achieves success over and above the standard or expected level. In the final analysis, factoring in the sputtering start, a mid-season shutdown and a lack of star power when compared to previous seasons, that defines Bedford North Lawrence’s surprising 2020-21 campaign.

The Stars closed the season with a 14-11 record following an impressive run to the Class 4A sectional final at Seymour, falling to Jeffersonville in a classic championship battle. After struggling to score for the first two games, the number of wins and the competitive grit BNL finished with was unforeseen.

BNL won seven of its last nine games, evidence of the vast improvement over the course of the turbulent season and the ability of second-year coach Jeff Hein to wring the most out of his team. By the end, the Stars played with patient purpose and became a dangerous threat against almost any competition.

“We exceeded expectations,” Hein said. “This team came together so well. They played hard, they played smart, they played for each other. That’s the big thing. That’s why we achieved what we achieved. They bought into playing together.”

When the season started, BNL had more questions than answers. The Stars were searching for a way to replace graduated star Brayton Bailey, who led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists the previous year. When BNL staggered to 0-2 and scored only 57 combined points in those losses, the future appeared bleak.

BNL senior Kooper Staley, a two-year starter, averaged 10.2 points per game.

The Stars appeared to recover with back-to-back victories, then the dreaded COVID-19 virus struck the program, and a two-week absence stopped any momentum. BNL lost 4 of 6 after that unexpected break.

After that, the turnaround began. Key wins over Jennings County and Evansville Memorial, a five-game winning streak capped by the electric last-second triumph over New Albany, one of the Hoosier Hills Conference co-champions, in the sectional semifinal. BNL had become a force.

“The way the season ended for us, with the ability to get people in the gym again, was very beneficial to our program,” Hein said. “It brought some energy back to the program, which is what we needed. I hope that produces the kids that want it be a part of that in the next several years.

“They saw that energy, saw the positive effects, saw we can play with the big dogs like Jeffersonville and New Albany. We proved that. We have that capability when we come together as a group and play the right way.

”There’s a lot of excitement now. We probably exceeded expectations with a group that didn’t have the athletic ability of some of the teams we played, but we got it done because we played hard, played smart, played together and defended. It says a lot about the competitiveness of the kids.”

BNL had four returning starters, and a six-man senior class that deserves much of the credit. Sophomore Colten Leach, back from a knee injury suffered in the 2020 sectional, was the leading scorer (13.6), but the upperclassmen were the backbone.

BNL senior Jackson Miracle hit 12 of 12 shots in the sectional and averaged 5.7 points per game during the season.

Ben Cosner averaged 10.6 points and tackled defensive assignments against bigger foes in the post. Kooper Staley totaled 10.2 points while providing a perimeter threat, and Jackson Miracle was a stabilizer in the paint while contributing 5.7. Aden Pemberton started the first half of the year but was switched to a reserve role when sophomore Colton Staggs emerged. Josh Blunk and Austin Messmore also came off the bench.

“The senior group was tight, they were really close to each other,” Hein said. “Cosner, Staley and Miracle have always been close, and they were integral parts. The acceptance of Leach into that, along with Staggs, was huge. Trying to fill the void from Brayton’s graduation was difficult. Not one person could do that. But Leach had a heck of a year for us.

“When you have groups that far apart (senior to sophomore), it can be difficult with that age disparity. That two-year difference can be an issue. But as the year went on they accepted one another and fed off each other’s strengths.”

Senior groups are always difficult to replace, especially one that took up half the varsity roster.

“Miracle, Cosner and Staley were big-time contributors last year, and a lot was due to them,” Hein said. “We had Brayton last year, but they were able to complement him. Ben had a great second half of the year last year and a great second half again this year. Kooper was one of the best shooters in the league, without question. Last year Brayton was able to penetrate and kick to him, and he was able to get shots. This year they keyed on him more, but when Cosner got going and Staggs as well, that opened Kooper more.

“Miracle (who hit 12 of 12 shots over three games in the sectional) has been huge for us for two years. Just the effort, the extra rebounds, the desire and energy, his positive attitude was just so good. He was such a good leader, came to practice with a great attitude, you could tell he just enjoyed playing the game. That was contagious.

Sophomore guard Colten Leach led BNL in scoring at 13.6.

“Aden came in after a year off (with a knee injury), with his toughness. He wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in there, to do a lot of little things that don’t go in the box score. He did things we needed done in order to win. Josh had games he really made a difference, a kid I wish we had another year. I could see his development.

“Austin was our captain, and there are very few kids like him today. He just wanted to be a part, understanding he wasn’t going to play a lot, but just be a positive influence and part of the team. He did whatever he could do to make our team better. He just got it, and few very kids get it the way Austin got it.”

That will leave a void to fill for 2021-22. Competition for playing time and roles next season could be fierce. BNL could be very young, and leadership might not come from the senior class.

“Obviously Leach and Staggs (who averaged 11.6 points over the last five games) will play significant roles,” Hein said. “I would expect (Kaedyn) Bennett to step into more playing time.

“After that, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. There will be competition. A lot depends on how hard they want to work, if they want to get in the gym and get some playing time. Are they willing to get stronger in the weight room? The importance of that, getting bigger, quicker and stronger because of the teams we face, is huge. That’s the case with everybody.”

Hein, following one of the more impressive coaching jobs, now owns a 29-21 record in two seasons with the program and 324-227 overall. Defense has been his trademark. BNL allowed only 51.2 points per game, marking back-to-back years of allowing only 51 for the first time in over 35 years.

BNL coach Jeff Hein owns a 29-21 record in two season with the program.