ELKHART — Jack Walters remembers hanging at the top of the key during a game a few weeks after Elkhart Christian Academy had lost its top scorer.
An opposing player turned to Walters and said, “So are you guys still good without Cory?”
The Eagles senior didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’re fine.”
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ECA has been more than fine. In fact, the Eagles have been more like phoenixes rising from the ashes.
Cory Waycaster left ECA for Jimtown in early January for financial reasons. In the following two weeks, the Eagles dropped from 5-1 to 7-4.
The doubters came out, but Walters and his teammates never took their eyes off of the end goal: ECA’s first-ever sectional title.
As Ryan Kupferschmid, ECA’s top scorer, put it: “We have way too much talent here” to give up.
“With Cory gone, it gave us even more motivation almost to even make it a better season,” Walters said. “It seemed like a lot of people were counting us out.”
With the help of Caleb Stayton, who re-joined the team after Waycaster left, ECA started winning again.
Coach Ryan Culp watched as every player on the team contributed to help fill the void Waycaster left.
Kupferschmid went from 12.8 points per game before the roster change to 20.9 after it. Walters became a starter. Tanner Watson was called on to be more of a perimeter threat. Team captain Tyler VanArsdale became more aggressive on the boards. Point guard Kenny Bearss accepted the role as full-time ball handler, a responsibility he used to share with Waycaster.
“Everybody has stepped up,” Culp said. “Everybody seems to understand the situation. They’ve all recognized we needed guys to step up and continue to step up in order to achieve that goal.”
As the Eagles adjusted to their new roles, they were also tasked with playing one of the more difficult schedules the team has seen in its nine years as a member of the IHSAA. In its 20-game regular season, Class 1A ECA (13-7) faced eight schools in higher classes, including 4A Central and Memorial.
Of ECA’s seven losses, four came to 3A and 4A schools. Of those four, three were decided by nine points or less.
“They can play with bigger, stronger, faster teams, and with enrollments much bigger than our own,” Culp said. “They don’t get shaken by the fear of those opponents. We talk a lot about respect your opponent, but don’t fear them.”
Hanging with the big guys — or as VanArsdale puts it, “David vs. Goliath” — speaks volumes for ECA’s potential in the state tournament, where it will go back to facing other “Davids.”
“If you want to be the best, you have to play the best talent,” Stayton said. “I think that’s great to play the bigger schools, the more physical schools, so when we get into sectionals, we’ve seen everything that there is. When we played Central on Tuesday, that was a big boost for us even though we got beat. We could still play with them.”
ECA heads into the first round of Hamilton Sectional with a chance to not only win its first state tournament game since 2009, but also secure its best record since 2003-04 (15-5), the school’s last season before becoming a full IHSAA member.
The Eagles have a good shot at it, too. They visit Hamilton (5-15), a team they beat 83-51 in November, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26.
“If the season were to end today and we don’t win another game, we look at our record, what we’ve accomplished, what adversity we’ve come through, and we can be very proud of what this season has brought,” Culp said. “Regardless of where it goes from here, we’ll all be able to look back and say what an exciting and fun season this has been. But, we do have a goal: Win the sectional.”
Tuesday, Feb. 26
Howe (1-17) vs. Lakewood Park (15-5), 6 p.m.
Elkhart Christian (13-7) vs. Hamilton (5-15), follows
Wednesday, Feb. 27
FW Canterbury (12-8) vs. FW Blackhawk (7-15), 6 p.m.
Bethany Christian (3-17) vs. Lakeland Christian (7-14), follows
Friday, March 1
Tuesday’s winners, 6 p.m.
Wednesday’s winners, follows
Saturday, March 2
Championship, 7:30 p.m.