By Noah Dalton
MITCHELL – It would be fair to say this past season was a rocky one for Mitchell High School.
Beginning the season, the team lost eight of their first 10 games before eventually winning three straight heading into sectional play, where they won the program’s first postseason game in 12 years.
It was the start of the season that was perhaps the most frustrating for the Bluejackets, who began 1-6, losing close games to Springs Valley, Eastern Greene and Salem. Each of those losses told the same story; Mitchell taking a lead into the half, often times one that was double-digits, before losing the game in the end.
“Definitely, when you’re 1-6 to start the season, extremely frustrating,” Bluejackets’ head coach Jackson Ryan said. “All the work that the kids are putting into it. And unfortunately not being rewarded for it directly in the win column is tough.”
This Mitchell team was a young one, with only two senior players on the roster. That youth and the inexperience that inherently comes with it was an issue for them in these early close matchups, Ryan said, as the team didn’t have much experience closing out games at the varsity level. Regardless, the team was consistently generating leads in these games, which was a positive sign for what could’ve been ahead.
“Thinking back to that time, I think a lot of our youth was a big part of that. You’ve got a lot of guys that are really getting their feet wet at the varsity level for the first time this year. Especially in the backcourt with guys like Austin Mosier, Bryson Shoults. So, it’s frustrating. Yes. There’s two ways you can look at it,” Ryan said. “You know, number one, we gave ourselves an opportunity to have a lead late in the game, on the road, specifically for a couple of those. and just to see what we’re capable of, is a good thing and something for us to build on for next year. But when you’re in it in the moment, staring down 1-5 it’s tough, and the only way to get through it is to get yourself out of the hole.”
The team bounced back from there with a 30-point win on the road against North Knox, before entering the toughest part of their schedule.
Over the next few months, the Bluejackets would face tough teams like Paoli, who finished the season 18-6, Brownstown-Central, who later advanced to the 2A semi-state finals, Orleans, who finished the season 22-4 losing in their sectional finals, and 4A Bedford-North Lawrence, who went to double overtime against eventual 4A regional champion Jennings County in the opening round of their sectional.
Mitchell went 1-7 during that period, with four of those losses coming by more than 30-points. Ryan felt the difficult schedule put before them served as good experience for their youthful roster, as well as helping to prepare them to potentially surge later in the season closer to sectionals.
“We’re not afraid to play anybody, anywhere. I mean, when you look at what our schedule already is, with Brownstown and Linton-Stockton, who are still playing for semistate. You had BNL, we picked up Bloomington South this year, Paoli, great team, great year. Just to kind of prepare us,” Ryan explained. “Not only to hopefully be playing our best basketball going into sectional but with how young we are to give us this experience. So hopefully somewhere down the line, whether it is this year, or turn the page and look forward to next year. Hopefully, some of the lessons learned, as tough as they might be, we can learn from them and grow from them.”
After a tough stretch of games, the Bluejackets traveled to West Washington to face the Patoka Lake Athletic Conference opponent Senators, a game which Ryan felt was a turning point for the team.
Having lost three in a row heading into that game, Mitchell once again found themselves trailing, down big at the half 42-19.
“I feel like the turning point for us was the West Washington game, specifically at halftime. I don’t think we could have played a worse half then what we did in the first half of that game,” Ryan said.
At the end of the half, a different Bluejackets team emerged from the locker room.
In the third quarter of the game, they began fighting back and clawing their way into the game. After a 15-4 third quarter, they only trailed by 12. That momentum carried for them into the fourth, where they got the game back within one by the final buzzer, ultimately losing 58-57.
After losing so many of their games to this point after blowing leads in the second half, Mitchell was on the opposite side of that equation this time. In a close game, they were finally the team who showed poise late, making good decisions down the stretch to keep themselves in contention.
“To see what we did in the second half and the run we went on and unfortunately just running out of time there at the end or just needed an extra possession or two. There’s a lot of good things in the second half that I think kind of turned the corner for us in the season for sure,” said Ryan.
From there, the team lost another one-point game to PLAC opponent Perry Central, their second game in a row decided by that margin. After two more difficult losses against strong competition, this time 1A regional champion Loogootee and consistent 4A contender Bloomington South, the Bluejackets would finally have some results to show for their improvement.
Mitchell faced Brown County on Feb. 11 in what proved to be perhaps the Bluejackets’ best performance of the season. In that game, Mitchell scored the most points they had in a game in 25 years, netting 98 points on their way to a 46-point victory over the Eagles.
From there, the Bluejackets were able to win their next two games, besting Edgewood and Shoals, before falling to 3A regional champion Scottsburg in their final regular season game of the season.
With momentum on their side, Mitchell headed to North Knox for their first round sectional matchup, a rematch against North Knox who they beat convincingly earlier in the season.
For the first time since the 2010-11 season, the Bluejackets advanced to the second round of post season play after defeating the Warriors 59-45.
Their season was ended just a few days later when they matched up against Linton-Stockton in the second round, who defeated them 74-42 on their way to competing for the 2A state championship against Fort Wayne Blackhawk this Saturday.
Despite the disappointing finish to their season, the ending stretch showed a glimpse into the potential of this team, as well as their improvement throughout the season.
“I think you’ve got to learn first of all, how to play and not just the kids, but for me as a coach too. I mean, this is a completely new group of kids and what worked last year, two years ago or five, six years ago for me might not work for this group of kids and it’s just a process and you have to learn,” Ryan said. “Once you learn how to play together. You have to learn how to win, and I felt like mid to late January, into the beginning of February, we really learned how to play. Learning from the West Washington game, the Paoli game was a tough result for us. The BNL game was a tough result for us. Learning from those things, learning how to play, and then finally learning how to win and how to do it together.”
Looking ahead to next season, the team will lose two of their players. Brendan Tolliver, who was one of the team’s key players on both sides of the ball and Owen Modglin, who will both be graduating at the end of this school year.
Both were players brought something unique to the team that will need to be replaced next season, whether that’s Modglin’s attitude and energy or Tolliver’s offensive and defensive capabilities, which were key for Mitchell in many of their wins this season.
Though his minutes played or points scored may not necessarily explain it, Mogdlin’s presence in the locker room, at practice and at games will be missed next season.
“Owen Modglin is a great practice player and a great teammate, and whether he’s on the floor for five seconds at the end of the game or doesn’t see the floor at all, he’s just always bringing great energy to the bench, to the locker room, wherever he is,” Ryan said.
Tolliver started nearly every game for Mitchell and was often one of their leading scorers near the end of the season, while typically being tasked with guarding the other team’s top offensive threat.
“Brendan really turned the corner at the end. Brendan Tolliver could always do things, athletically speaking, that other kids just can’t do. And finally, you always want to be playing your best basketball at the end and he did just that, kind of tapping into that athleticism and attacking in transition. I felt like in the half-court, Brendan and Austin Mosier had a great connection on backdoors and cuts and different things, especially down the stretch,” Ryan said. “So we’re gonna miss that. I mean, just having a guy that we can give the basketball to and say, ‘hey, here’s a high ball screen’ or ‘we’re going to clear this area out for you. Attack and go get us a bucket’. And then defensively, Brendan was putting up those numbers, while also typically guarding the other team’s best or second best perimeter player. That’s a lot to ask for one person,” he continued.
Ryan will look to some of the team’s younger players who played a key role in their rotation throughout the season, such as freshman Gavin Robinson or junior Bryson Shoults to step up and fill the void on the court left by Tolliver’s graduation.
“I know that guys, like a Bryson Shoults, like a Gavin Robinson are going to be more than able to step up and shoulder the load defensively. And, attacking the basket, they’re going to be ready for that and hopefully they can see what Brendan Tolliver did over the course of the second half of season and be ready to step in and fill those roles,” Ryan said.
It won’t just be one or two players that step up for the Bluejackets. It will be a team effort, just as it had for them all year.
“I think my favorite thing about us is never one person. It’s never one guy. It’s always going to be a team. It’s always going to be a collective effort. And that’s something we hang our hat on and something we’ll definitely continue to hang our hat on as we look forward to next year,” Ryan said.
Ryan, who is closing his third season as head coach for the team, said he’s excited to see the continued growth of his team heading into next season as he continues to work toward building the school’s basketball program with the future in mind.
“It’s about building a program from when these kids step in to The Hive for the first time as a freshman to you know, ultimately when they walk across the stage in the gym to get that diploma. Did we do our job making them the young men that they are destined to be so they can go out and be dads and husbands and just positive people in society off the court,” said Ryan. “Then on the court, can we take that next step? And again, all the work that we’ve put in with this group of kids for the past three years, you know, it’s now time for us to make that next step and really excited to see us do that next year.”
With seven of the team’s eight top players returning, Ryan hopes to see the team improve upon what they’ve built to this point. Having finished the season with a PLAC record of 1-5, improving their standing in the conference is among his top goals for next season.
Ryan is also eying a .500 record for the team as a goal to strive for next season, something the school has only been able to do five times since 2000.
To do so, Ryan said the work for the players cannot stop here prior to the next season. He will encourage them to play AAU, attend open gyms hosted at the school and continue to work on their games prior to the start of basketball activities for the next school year.
Knowing the team will once again face a tough schedule in the next season, he hopes what the players have learned, not just in this past season, but in his three years in charge of the program, will continue to be a base that can be built upon.
“We’re really encouraging kids, whether it be open gyms, hitting the weight room really hard, getting up shots in their own, playing AAU or different things. Are they getting better? Because if you take what we have and continue to get better, to strive to be the best version of ourselves, I think the sky’s the limit for us. It just comes down to getting better and then the mistakes that we made at the beginning of the season, are we going to show the maturity, show the growth in order to win those games,” Ryan said.
“It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be walk in the park. We will still play a very tough schedule and we’ll continue to do so. But, what everyone’s going to have to continue to sacrifice to come together in order to build something. I’m really excited for some of our guys returning to take on bigger roles and to show that growth and to show what they’re capable of. I hope that what we saw at the at the end of the season, this year, is just a taste of what’s to come for a full season next year,” added Ryan.