Column: Line Drives — Panthers have improved

[This is my column in the June 12 issue of The Commercial Review.]

Ask any member of the Jay County Panthers what the team means to them, they will give you a one-word answer.

“Family.”

Just like every family, the Panthers have had their ups and downs.

After all, spending that much time around the same people can cause tension.

And the stress has definitely been noticeable at times.

When practices get mundane and monotonous, some players have been visibly frustrated, wondering why they have to keep doing the same thing over and over again.

When shots don’t seem to fall or mental mishaps lead to consecutive turnovers, the Panthers are not the least bit shy about showing their frustration.

The aggravation boils over to some of the other athletes who try to push them, reminding those who may be struggling to find the purpose for the hard work — to represent Team Indiana at the USA Games in Princeton, N.J.

But in the last year, the mentality throughout the team has changed drastically.

Coach Chuck Wendel said during practice Monday the initial mindset of the team — made up of 10 athletes from around Jay County and Muncie — was that the trip to New Jersey was more for pleasure than business.

As the practices got more intense, the attitude shifted to focusing more on basketball and becoming the best team possible.

“I think the core guys were in it for basketball from the start,” Wendel said. “As we added some of the other guys, it was more, at first, about the trip.

“The more they saw how serious everyone was about basketball, they started buckling down and putting the effort into it.”

What a difference a year makes.

Before the Panthers were selected in April 2013 to go to Princeton, Wendel said the team didn’t work enough to really stress basketball skills. Aside from tournaments on the weekends, they practiced once a week, maybe twice.

So Wendel upped the practices to three days a week, and the results show.

Over the last eight months, each and every member of the Panthers has gotten better on the court.

The fundamentals, as one might expect, have improved tremendously. From shot selection to passing to even the most basic task of dribbling, the players have gotten better.

The ceiling is high for the Panthers, and they’re getting the recognition they deserve.

The Panthers won the sectional title for the third consecutive year and repeated as state champions so far in 2014.

They were honored during the third quarter of an Indiana Pacers game, and they went to Bloomington Wednesday to spend some time with Tom Crean and the Indiana University basketball team.

Friday, Finish Line, which is the sponsor for the basketball tournament in Princeton, will throw them a party at the corporate headquarters in Indianapolis.

While the Panthers are excited to represent all Hoosiers in the Garden State, Tyler Reck said he and his teammates are nervous too.

“I know everyone is nervous,” he said. “Every sport, everyone gets nervous. We just have to go out there and hope we win.”

If the Panthers play the way they have been practicing over the last few months, there’s no doubt they’re a contender to get to the medal round.

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