The left corner of the gym is painted blue. The crowd descends to a hush. He bends his knees, and his follow-through pushes the ball straight through the net. The “swish” echoes throughout the gym as sense of relief rushes over our crowd. After the second shot clanks off of the rim and into the hands of a Tindley player, a timeout is called and the tension in the room raises to an altitude almost too high to withstand. The ball is inbounded and a frantic race to get a shot off before the buzzer ensues. Everyone knows whose hands the ball would be in; number 13 has been hot all night. The screen is set, and he rolls to the top of the wing. 13 catches the ball and his elevation is met by two Blazer defenders, but the shot somehow finds its way to the hoop. As the shot sinks through the net, our hearts go with it.
Just like that, it was all over. Months of hard work, preparation, and excitement all jolted to a stop within a matter of 3 seconds. You could see the shock and frustration of the players. You could see it in the student section, the pep band, among the parents. You could feel the energy in Bethesda’s gymnasium collapse on one side, and ignite on the other.
In the face of disappointment, especially one so abrupt, it is easy to make generalizations. It is easy to see the final result of one game and call the whole season a failure. However, it is much more difficult to do so in the face of all that the Blazers, especially the seniors, have accomplished this year. It’s hard to overlook big wins against rivals Lutheran, Bethesda, Indy Metropolitan, and Cardinal Ritter. It’s hard to overlook Coach Brandon Lafferman’s newfound ease and confidence with which he led. It’s hard to overlook the impact each and every one of the eight senior Varsity players had this year, as well as the promise of the next generation, evident from junior Connor Holly’s 18.7 points per game, a 9-4 record from the JV and serious Varsity contributions by sophomore Tyler Wott and freshmen Zack Hodgin and Emerson Halbleib. Despite all of the great accomplishments and prospects that were seen this year, the funny thing about basketball is that, in retrospect, it is difficult to think about anything besides those final three seconds.
The team this year was a group led by a strong core of seniors. It was always destined to be this group. Marked as the class that was going to establish University basketball as a legitimate program year in and year out, the expectations were high from the beginning, which, for most of whom, was in 2011. The halls of Fairbanks seemed wider back then, the baskets taller, the finish line well out of reach. Without having taken a single class, the 2015s walked into the U Center for their first open gym with Coach Gianakos. They were far behind the learning curve. From the second they walked in, “there was a consistent regimen that everyone on the team was accustomed to doing,” said senior Mikhail Liston. “There was a specific way to stretch, specific way to warm up, specific way to carry yourself as a basketball player.” As freshmen, the 2015s had to learn all of this, all while fighting the nerves and anxiety of being the new fish in the University High School pond.
As the players got more experience playing with each other, they started to gel as a group. “It definitely took time to get to know each other,” recalls senior Christian Grubaums, “but we definitely have amazing chemistry now.” Practice after practice, game after game, the unfamiliar became routine. “The more you play with someone, the more you realize where they have to be on the court to play the best. And as a teammate, that should be a priority, because its an edge you have on the other team,” states Liston. And that is exactly what they did.
The JV team started to put up impressive numbers, piling up wins and drawing a lot of attention from the coaching staff and the student body. Watching players like Eric Wott, Dominic Dixon, Anthony Maranto, Sam Forkin, and more, they learned how to play the game the “University Way.” They looked up to and emulated their ways on and off of the court. Freshman and sophomore years went by, and the 2015s accounted for a promising JV team, and some, like Mikhail Liston and Tyler Diehl, even made important contributions to the team’s 2012-2013 Semi-State run. Just as the group was getting comfortable, however, they experienced a bump in the road.
Before the 2013-2014 season, the team had a change in management. The Blazers decided to part ways with Paul Gionakis, and to promote Assistant Coach Brandon Lafferman to Head Coach. Liston looks back on the coaches and their differing coaching styles by stating, “‘Gio’ was more of a ‘everything is my way and if it isn’t, then you’re not on the team’ kind of coach. He believed in keeping things the same, and trusting in the system whether it was working at the time or not. ‘Laff’ immediately was more open to hearing the opinions of others.” Liston learned a lot from both coaches, but strongly enjoyed the respect and the influence he was able to have with Coach Lafferman. “The game is more funner with him.”
While Lafferman likes to have fun, he knows how to be serious as well. Grubaums described the team’s playing style under Lafferman as “fast-paced,” noting, “he liked to make us work, which is a good thing.”
Having a group of talented, hardworking players like the 2015s takes a lot of pressure off of a new coach. Lafferman states that, “It definitely made the transition easier knowing I would have these guys around my first two seasons.” Lafferman and the 2015s learned how to work together and be more effective each day. “We grew together,” he remembers.
In a school of less than three hundred, it is hard not to develop close relationships. From classes to open gyms to practices to games, the team spent a lot of time together. Their bond made the time spent in the classroom, on the court, in the locker room, and on the busses more fun. Senior Jake Tanner recalls fond memories of the Vincennes Tournament, in which the team spent a great deal of time on the road enjoying each others’ company. “It was great getting to bond with my teammates more. We would chill in each others’ rooms, laughing and joking. It was a ton of fun. I’ll never forget our trip to Montana Mikes. We told the waitress it was Jazen’s birthday and the whole staff sang to him and gave him a slice of cake.”
At the beginning of the 2014-2015 season, the tables turned. The 2015s now found themselves in the shoes of the great University players before them who both inspired, motivated, and pushed them. “When I was an underclassman, the upperclassman really helped me get to where I am now,” stated Diehl. “So I was excited when I got the opportunity to be a leader to all of them. It gave me the opportunity to really get to know them and help them understand the program and how we do things.” Mikhail Liston, too, utilized his position of power, and made an effort from the beginning of the season to “make sure that I’m always on point to give them a good example, because I want them to be even better than I am.” Christian Grubaums was excited for the challenge, stating, “Having the responsibility is what being a senior is all about,” also noting the benefits they received. “You don’t have to pick up the balls, which is nice.”
While all of the seniors embraced their role as mentors, they also knew that they had a big job to do themselves. It was their last year of University High School basketball. For many it was four years in the making. They were at the peak of their game, and ready to make their final year the best of all.
It is tough waiting all summer long to get back on the court with your teammates, but one senior had to wait even longer. In early August, Mikhail Liston suffered a heartbreaking injury, breaking the base of his fifth metatarsal after coming down wrong from a layup. An athlete’s worst nightmare came true for Liston. “It was so d*mn hard being in that position. Honestly, at first I was depressed. I couldn’t even walk without having someone help me in the beginning. I was in bed for the majority of the day and I had a lot of time to think.” With all that time confined to his bed, Liston decided to acquire a new mindset. “I just decided in my head that my injury just had to be a ‘blessing in disguise.’ I didn’t want to ever be in the position that I was in again, and thats what motivated me to get better.”
The Blazers, without Liston, opened the season with a loss to perennial 2A champions Park Tudor, but quickly bounced back with a huge 50 point victory over Baptist Academy. Following another 2A loss to Speedway, the team went on a four-game win streak over rivals Lutheran and Bethesda, as well as 2A Muncie Burris, and Seton Catholic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The team faced a tough late-December, but with the help of a newly returned and highly motivated Liston, Coach Brandon Lafferman rallied the troops to turn their luck around and had a huge January going 5-1. Over that span, the team had wins over sectional opponent Indy Metropolitan, 2A Ritter in overtime, Eminence, Traders Point, and Anderson Prep (99-53). The team was headed in the right direction. Sadly, their streak was met by 3 back-to-back-to-back tough 2A opponents in Covenant Christian, Shortridge, and Heritage Christian, all three resulting in losses.
Knowing the importance of momentum going into sectional play, the seniors organized a meeting with the team to get things back on track. They stressed the importance of teamwork and playing together. Using their experience from the past three years, they knew that one person was never going to beat five. “There is strength in numbers,” said Jake Tanner, “and we needed to use our numbers.” The younger players took heed of the seniors’ advice, and from there it was all business.
Huge wins over sectional opponent Indiana Deaf, Gambold Prep, and 2A Irvington Prep propelled the team full-speed ahead into the sectional tournament at Bethesda. The Blazers first faced off against Indiana Math and Science on March 4th. The team’s senior leadership was evident in the game, demonstrating nothing but experience in their 78-36 victory. Tyler Diehl played like his University basketball career was depending on it, hitting 7 of 10 shots for 22 points. Junior Connor Holly added 12 point and 5 assists. Seniors Zach Duncan and Christian Grubaums dominated the boards, pulling down 7 and 6 rebounds, respectively. Although excited about their first round victory, the Blazers were far from content.
The team knew they were in for a real test in the semi-final rematch, as their first meeting with Indy Metropolitan was closely contested game. The Blazers came out firing from the tip-off and never looked back. In order to come up with a big win, they knew someone had to step up, and freshman Emerson Halblieb rose to the occasion. Playing very limited minutes on Varsity the entire year, Halblieb came into the game due to early foul trouble and ended up catching fire. He hit 12 of 12 field goals for 26 points. Holly added 10 assists and 8 rebounds. Mikhail Liston’s performance was key in the victory, as his poise and command of the field was possible only by a player of his skill and experience. The Blazers found their way to the finals by beating the Pumas 81-52.
In the Sectional finals, the team finally got their chance to seek revenge against a tough Tindley team. After being down in the first quarter, the team battled back to make it interesting at half time. The game was back and forth, but by the fourth quarter, the Blazers had a lead. Propelled by Tyler Diehl’s huge 29 point performance, the team had a two point lead with only seconds left on the clock. It looked like the Blazers would have a chance to play the following weekend, but Tindley eliminated that hope by hitting an incredible double-clutch three pointer as the time expired to secure a 43-42 victory.
It’s never easy being told you can no longer do something you love, and these seniors love University basketball. For months, these kids ate, slept, and breathed UHS basketball. It was a major part of their daily routine, of their instagram bios, of who they were. For many, a period of reflection followed the immediate disappointment.
Mikhail Liston used the opportunity to share his wisdom with the underclassmen one last time as their teammate. “After we lost against Tindley, [Jacob] Daniels and I were in the room with the freshmen, and we told them to make sure they always leave it out on the court and to cherish every moment. Because in the blink of an eye, the four years are gone. And it’s crazy, because parents tell us this all the time, but it really is true.”
Although it was the last time they will play competitively together, it is clear that their relationship will not stop there. Christian Grubaums states, “This group of seniors means more than I can say in a few words. I’ve been playing with these guys for just a few years but it feels like forever.” For Zach Duncan, playing UHS Basketball was “one of the best decisions I’ve made in high school, because it gave me friends and memories that I will keep forever.” Diehl adds, “It’s really tough to think about the fact that I’m never going to step out on the court in another high school basketball game with them, but I know we are all going to remain tight when we go off to college. I really consider this group of seniors my brothers.”
Parting ways at the end of the season is tough for the players, but it is also difficult for Coach Brandon Lafferman and his staff. “I will really miss seeing these guys on a daily basis,” exclaims Lafferman, “but I am thrilled to see the direction and paths they choose in life. I am looking forward to hearing about where they go, and I hope their experience with the boys basketball team helps them along their journey.”
Basketball is a simple game in essence; one ball, two hoops, two teams, and an objective: to put the ball in the opposing team’s hoop. However, what it demands out of an player is what makes it so special. Hard work, perseverance, teamwork, intelligence, athleticism, and mental fortitude are all utilized simultaneously to extract the best qualities out of an individual to achieve the highest level of play. This group of seniors has used basketball as a way to adapt to a new environment, form friendships that will last a lifetime, and be the best individuals that they can be.
Not everyone is a fan of the sport; everyone has their own interests. But when these eight seniors put on the University jersey, they represent us all. Come Sectional time, seeing the entire student body rally around the team and around each other, it is clear to see that we all have won, no matter what the result is on the scoreboard.
This group of seniors – Mikhail Liston, Tyler Diehl, Jake Tanner, Jacob Daniels, Jazen Cosby, Zach Duncan, Marcelius Lewis, and Matt Duncan – has been influential in the development of the entire program. Nobody knows their importance better than Coach Lafferman, who says, “The 2015 senior basketball players have been instrumental in shaping the University Boys Basketball Program over the last four years. During their time here, we have seen the program win two sectionals, one regional, and have had a winning record every season.” Although their immediate impact is over, what they have taught and demonstrated to the younger generation will continue to be seen for years to come. “I will always remember the class of 2015 as the guys that helped put University Basketball on the map!”
Mikhail Liston sums it up the best by saying, “From the start, I’ve always wanted to leave a lasting imprint on the school’s history, and I feel like this group of seniors has done just that.”
Special thank so the Boys Basketball Seniors and to Coach Lafferman
Feature Image by Emily Gardner