By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – In the void of Hoosier Hills Conference turnover, with two new coaches and the impending departure of another legend, with graduation claiming most of the league’s First Team from a year ago, some wondered which team would fill the vacuum.
As the season reaches its midpoint, there’s no question now. Jennings County has risen, well above the crowd. And the view is pretty good.
The Panthers, ranked No.11 in Class 4A at 12-1 and off to their best start in 12 years, have asserted themselves, taking over the conversation of league and sectional frontrunner. They will crash BNL Fieldhouse on Saturday night, capable of causing considerable damage.
With weapons at every position, Jennings ranks sixth in the state in scoring. With veterans across the board, the Panthers have no weak points. With perimeter shooters and power up front, they are loaded to contend for a lot of trophies and hardware.
“They’ve been destroying people,” BNL coach Jeff Hein said. “When they get going, they’re tough to beat. They’re so deep, and they shoot the ball so well. They all can shoot it, and they’re hard to guard because of that.”
Slick senior point guard Keegan Manowitz is the catalyst, averaging 14.8 points and 7.3 assists. His cousin Carter Kent, a dangerous sophomore shooter, adds 13.7 points, and senior Owen Law adds 11.5.
“It all starts with those two guards,” Hein said. “Those two kids can play, and they have some size on the floor with them. They have all kinds of options, a lot of things they’re doing very well. They’re so aggressive and really quick. They know how to change speeds. They’re solid.”
Jennings won its first 11, including an impressive road win over 2A No.7 Brownstown (with Purdue recruit Jack Benter), before falling to 4A No.5 Center Grove by two points. The Panthers are averaging 71.5 points and winning by nearly 20 points per game.
“I expected us to have a great season this year,” JC coach Josh Land said. “I have many things to be pleased with, but the two that really stand out are our chemistry and work ethic. My guys truly care about each other and our team success above all else. We have done an exciting job sharing the basketball and buying into one another. I’m also pleased with the way we’ve practiced. My guys bring it every day and push each other no matter what. They’ve done a great job holding each other accountable.”
Here’s a brief history lesson. Jennings started the 2010-11 campaign at 12-1, then fell – at Bedford North Lawrence. More recently, the Panthers pounced on the Stars last season, racing to a 73-48 victory. Kent came off the bench to score 20 (with four treys) while Lane Zohrlaut added 14. Colten Leach paced BNL with 15 points and 8 boards.
“BNL is an improved team,” Land said. “Their ability to shoot the ball from the outside has given them a few more weapons than they had last year. Leach and (Colton) Staggs are hard to contain and now they they have multiple shooters to throw it to. It makes them even harder to defend. They are a tough and scrappy team that will give us a hard fight.
“We have proven we can score the basketball in multiple ways this season. Our challenge is to get better defensively. We must keep Leach and Staggs out of the lane and off the free-throw line to win the game.”
JENNINGS COUNTY at BNL
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Records: Jennings County 12-1 (1-0 in HHC), ranked No.11 in Class 4A; BNL 5-4 (1-0 in HHC, vs. Mitchell on Friday)
Sagarin ratings: Jennings County 89.55; BNL 76.13
Last meeting: Last year at Jennings, the Panthers shot down the Stars 73-48. Carter Kent hit 4 treys and totaled 20 points for JC. Colten Leach had 15 points and 8 rebounds for BNL.
Previous game story: JC’s three Es spell doom
Game notes: Jennings has won 3 of the last 4 games in the series. The Panthers are chasing their first HHC title since 1998. BNL won its last league crown in 2011.
Bedford NL Stars
F – Kaedyn Bennett 6-2 Sr.
F – Colten Leach 6-2 Sr.
G – Colton Staggs 6-0 Sr.
G – Trace Rynders 5-9 Jr.
G – Noah Godlevske 5-8 Jr.
Jennings County Panthers
F – Owen Law 6-3 Sr.
F – Lane Zohrlaut 6-3 Sr.
C – Justin Ramey 6-7 Sr.
G – Keegan Manowitz 5-8 Sr.
G – Carter Kent 5-11 So.