The stage is not merely set as Steve Austin goes for his 400th boys high school basketball coaching victory. It’s also elaborately decorated.
Austin will shoot for No. 400 Thursday, Feb. 7, amid the accompanying trappings of his Concord Minutemen trying to close out a perfect Northern Lakes Conference season, with none other than Northridge — the school that asked him to resign seven years ago — being the team in the way, and with one of his former pupils, Raider head coach Ronnie Thomas, going against him for the first time.
“It is kind of a lot of things coming together perfectly,” Austin said Wednesday of Northridge’s visit to McCuen Gym. “What are the odds of all that happening together?”
Austin stands 399-242 in his 28th season overall, including exactly 300 wins between his two longest stops, South Bend St. Joseph (140) and Northridge (160). At Concord, he’s 77-28 in his fifth season.
“It means I’ve been coaching a long time,” Austin said when asked to reflect on what No. 400 might mean. “I think it also means I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by a lot of good people — coaches, administrators, players — and we’ve had some good team success. It also reminds me that I have a wife (Dawn) who knows and is understanding about what goes into it. And it’s a chance to look at some of the great names ahead of you (on the all-time victory chart), some of them way ahead of you.”
Way behind Austin is Thomas, in his rookie season.
Thomas graduated from Northridge in 2005, was a leading player on back-to-back 15-win clubs as a 6-foot-10 center for Austin and is at least the fourth former Austin player — joining Marty Harshman, Aaron Cripe and Matt Crawford — to become an Indiana high school head coach.
“I have great memories of playing for him and a lot of respect for him,” Thomas said Wednesday of Austin. “He taught me a lot about the game, the nuances of it, and for me, ways to get my shot and use my size. It’s going to be interesting to go over to Concord and coach against him. We still keep in contact — though we haven’t talked much this week.”
The No. 17 Minutemen enter at 14-1 overall, 6-0 in the league, having already wrapped up the NLC title.
The Raiders enter at 7-9, 3-3, but that’s with four straight victories, matching early last season for the program’s best winning streak in the last four years. That streak has come on the heels of a seven-game skid, too.
“I think Ronnie’s done a good job,” Austin said. “His kids play extremely hard and play really good defense.”
“I think our guys just kept after it,” Thomas said of what’s led to the turnaround. “We’ve improved every time we’re on the court, be it practice or game, and we’ve preached the importance of that. Nate (Ritchie) has been pretty good all year, but now he’s taking better shots, rebounding much better, and our defense has stepped up. Pete (Smith) has stepped up and hit some shots from outside, Joey Ganyard’s knocked down some key shots. It helps inside when you can get points from the outside.”
Ritchie, a 6-6 junior, is averaging 18.3 points. Junior Sam Ahonen is at 9.1 and Smith, a sophomore, is at 8.4, including 11.0 over his last five outings.
For Concord, Ball State-bound senior Franko House is averaging 16.4 points, sophomore Filip Serwatka 12.7 and junior Ramon Johnson 8.8. The Minutemen appear primed to be in contention to present their coach with his 12th career sectional title in three weeks at Elkhart’s North Side Gym.
Austin earned four sectional crowns in nine years at St. Joseph, one in two years at Richmond, five in 11 years at Northridge and has added one over his four completed years at Concord. He also coached one year in Michigan at Edwardsburg.
“I really don’t know,” the 58-year-old Austin said of how much longer he might coach. “When I first took this job, I wanted it to be for at least eight years. Some of it might be waiting to see what my kids do after high school (son Brett is a sophomore and daughter Kiley a freshman at Concord). I do know if it gets to a point where it isn’t fun anymore, that’s when it will be time, but right now, I’m still having a lot of fun. I like dealing with the kids and seeing them grow — even though sometimes that’s not so much fun along the way — and seeing their faces when they have success.”