Sunday, February 7, 2016

Penn head coach Al Rhodes talks to his team during a timeout. The Hall of Famer, coming off his first sectional title in 14 years, will guide the Kingsmen against Concord in a 4A Michigan City Regional semifinal Saturday, March 15. (Mark Shephard)

Penn High School head basketball coach Al Rhodes watches his team during a game against visiting Concord on Dec. 13, 2013. The same two teams meet in a 4A Michigan City Regional semifinal on Saturday, March 15. (Truth Photo By Jon Garcia) (AP)

Concord coach Steve Austin calls a play in the 4A Elkhart Sectional championship March 8, 2014, at North Side Gym. The Minutemen beat Goshen 50-45. Austin will face Penn's Al Rhodes in a postseason game for the first time in 21 years in the Saturday, March 15, Michigan City Regional. (James Buck / The Elkhart Truth) (Buy this photo)
Twine Line: Peculiar twists spice regional Saturday
Posted on March 14, 2014 at 8:26 p.m.

Some peculiar twists are pervading in the three boys basketball regionals that will involve area schools Saturday, March 15.

In the Class 4A Michigan City Regional, how is it that Concord's Steve Austin and Penn's Al Rhodes, with 957 combined wins and 62 combined seasons, are meeting for the first time in postseason in 21 years?

We're talking about two giants of Northern Indiana coaching with enough geographical proximity, enough time in the same playing class and enough deep runs between them to suggest there's no way it's possibly been that long.

But it has been.

(Saturday, March 15, Eastern Times)

Class 4A Michigan City
• Lake Central (19-3) vs. LaPorte (16-7), 11 a.m.
• Concord (15-8) vs. Penn (22-1), follows
• Championship, 8 p.m.

Class 3A Blackford
• FW Dwenger (15-8) vs. NorthWood (21-2), 10 a.m.
• Muncie Central (10-11) vs. Norwell (19-6), follows
• Championship, 8 p.m.

Class 2A North Judson
• Woodlan (18-6) vs. Winamac (14-8), 11 a.m.
• Hammond Noll (21-3) vs. Westview (20-4), follows
• Championship, 8:30 p.m.

And here's another twist heading into that Concord-Penn semifinal showdown. Penn junior star Jordan Geist is the son of Concord Intermediate assistant principal Scott Geist.

Over in the Class 3A Blackford Regional, NorthWood, Fort Wayne Dwenger, Norwell and Munice Central make up exactly the same field as two years ago, with exactly the same pairings as two years ago. That's kind of peculiar.

And in Class 2A at North Judson, all four teams — Westview, Hammond Noll, Woodlan and Winamac — sport the same nickname, Warriors.

That's not only peculiar, it might be unprecedented, though research on what's merely a coincidence, as opposed to an achievement, will have to be left to another day.

Still, none of the above items might be as peculiar as this — Rhodes, already four years into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, is coaching beyond the sectional level for the first time in 14 years. Seriously.

"No, not really," Rhodes insisted this week of whether he's given it much thought. "You don't have time when you coach to think about stuff like that."

He also insists he wasn't beginning to sweat whether he'd ever add another after capturing 14 sectional titles over the first 20 years of his extraordinary head coaching career.

Rhodes stepped down at Warsaw in 2002 after shaping that program into arguably the state's standard for sustained success, including seven regional titles, four semistate crowns and the 1984 state title over 22 years.

When he did resign in pursuit of a new adventure, he made it clear he was not done with basketball. He went to work with former Warsaw star and then-NBA player Rick Fox on a project designed to benefit players from the Bahamas. He continued with some other basketball teaching ventures, too, and he mentioned pursuing coaching at the college or pro level down the road.

But the high school itch drew Rhodes back, and fast. After just one year out, he accepted the head coaching job at Logansport, a program reeling at the time. The final two of his four years with the Berries netted a 27-17 record.

Then it was off to rebuild Fort Wayne Northrop, a program that had gone 16-67 over the four preceding years.

Rhodes went 10-12 in his only season with the Bruins.

He intended to stay longer, but an opening at his alma mater, Penn, was too much of a dream to resist.

Now he's in his sixth year there, and this year marked the fourth time in the last five seasons his Kingsmen reached the sectional title game.

But it wasn't until this past Monday that Rhodes' long postseason title dry spell finally ended.

"We've had some tough luck in the sectional, but I've felt good about what we've done, and about everything (after Warsaw)," Rhodes said.

"One of the reasons I went to Logansport was for a greater challenge," Rhodes said. "I thought that would be fun. I've tried to always in my life take the road less-traveled when it comes to major decisions. Which will be the most challenging? Where can I make an impact with the program and grow as a person?"

Rhodes has helped grow Penn (22-1) into a record-setting club entering its semifinal against Concord (15-8).

Now he's looking for a reversal of that last, long-ago postseason meeting with Austin. That came in 1993, when Austin's South Bend St. Joseph Indians beat Warsaw in the single-class South Bend Semistate championship.

Just a year earlier, Rhodes and the Tigers beat Austin and St. Joe in a Fort Wayne Semistate semifinal on their way to the state finals.

Of course, both those epic games happened multiple years before any of the current players were born.

So let's fast forward to today, and to the day in our state tournament that does indeed feel most like those pre-class days.

After all, while sectionals have become fragmented in terms of both geography and unbalanced brackets, and while semistate and state are now single-round affairs, the regionals still bring four high-quality teams together and still test them over possibly two games in a single day.

Embrace it. The format doesn't appear likely to go away soon, but how likely was it that Rhodes would wait 14 years?


Reviewing last week's Twine picks, four of the six sectionals went as projected. Semifinal wins by Concord's over Northridge in 4A and Fort Wayne Blackhawk over Elkhart Christian in 1A eliminated my other two chosen champions.

This week, it gets even tougher.

I'm going to go against two of my own staples — Sagarin ratings and favoring a senior-dominated club over a junior-dominated club — and lean toward Penn to beat Lake Central in the final at Michigan City. If the two teams do indeed reach the championship, and if it's close late, I'm thinking perhaps the Kingsmen's 76 percent at the line on the season to the Indians' 62 percent spells the difference.

In 3A, I'm leaning oh-so slightly to NorthWood winning its second-ever regional title, but warning that the Panthers' semifinal opponent, Fort Wayne Dwenger (15-8), may be the team from any of these regionals that is furthest ahead of its overall won-loss mark. The Saints have won nine straight, all by at least nine points, and beat the 19-3 host Bulldogs 50-40 in the New Haven Sectional final.

In 2A, I'm guaranteeing the Warriors will win. Just not sure which ones. I'll take Noll over Westview by an eyelash, with the survivor of that contest adding the title game.