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July 10, 2014

HIGH SCHOOL BOYS’ BASKETBALL: Connell moving from Clarksville to Charlestown

School board makes hiring official

CLARKSVILLE — Sometimes, when everything aligns properly, you really can go home again.

On Tuesday, everything aligned for Jason Connell, who was officially announced as the new varsity boys’ basketball coach at Charlestown High School by the Greater Clark County School Board.

Connell will depart the same position at Clarksville, where he presided over two of the most successful campaigns in the school’s history by going 41-9 and winning back-to-back sectional championships. The 2013-14 campaign, in particular, will be remembered for Clarksville advancing all the way to the Class 2A semistate, where it fell to eventual-state champion Park Tudor. Connell went 65-18 after taking over the Clarksville program in the middle of the 2010-11 season.

His success with the Generals made Connell, a longtime teacher at Charlestown Middle School, a logical choice to replace former Pirate boss Sean Smith, who took the coaching job at West Washington.

“We were fortunate to have a lot of great applicants and with such a strong group the competition was fierce,” said Greater Clark superintendent Dr. Andrew Melin. “But Jason Connell is a tremendous addition to Charlestown High School as basketball coach. Knowing that he is already a teacher in our school system and knowing how successful he has been at Clarksville, we feel very fortunate to have him to fill this position.”

The process to fill the vacancy, described by Connell as a “whirlwind,” has been an adventure since Smith resigned in late May. Two viable candidates emerged early on the search, led by former Providence coach Lou Lefevre, who eventually was installed as the new coach at Tipton, and Cliff Hawkins, a winner of multiple sectional and regional crowns as coach at DeKalb and Center Grove. Hawkins landed at Madison.

According to Melin, none of the candidates had what Connell does — the chance to come home.

“No one is settling for Jason Connell,” Melin said. “What it boiled down to was that he was the right person for the job.”

There are few coaches who know Charlestown as well as Connell. He has been part of the basketball scene in the city for more than a decade, starting with a stint as eighth-grade coach at Charlestown Middle School before he moved on to join Smith’s staff when the former coach took over in 2006. Connell coached the Charlestown junior varsity until 2010, when he was hired in the midst of the 2010 season by Clarksville, where he immediately thrived.

“Opportunites like this don’t come along every day,” said Connell, who is scheduled to meet with his former charges at Clarksville on Wednesday before taking the reigns for Charlestown on Friday. “I teach here, my family lives here. In a lot of ways, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

In a basketball sense, however, Connell said it was one of the toughest decisions that he has ever made, although it was an easier decision this year — with the graduations of Clarksville stars Calvin McEwen and Andrew Jones — than it would have been a year earlier.

“I committed to those kids, so if I was going to make a move like this, now was the time since their careers are over,” Connell said. “But all of these (Clarksville) players are my guys. We worked so hard together and learned so many things together and have so many great memories. These past two years were, basketball-wise, the best years of my life.”

Connell will be taking over a Charlestown team that struggled to a 6-16 record last season, although the young roster, led by its front line of Hunter Crace and Tanner Wesp, showed flashes of potential down the stretch. The Pirates went 2-2 over their final four games, won late-season road games at Pekin and Salem and advanced to the sectional semifinals before falling to Brownstown. Charlestown had a losing record in two of its last three seasons, gradually falling off after going 18-5 and making the sectional title game in 2011.

That struggle, along with the continued success of the Pirate football team, has had the effect of forcing Charlestown basketball out of prominence in the mind of local fans. For athletic director Chad Gilbert, he thinks he’s found the solution.

“Arguably, Jason Connell has been as good as anyone in Southern Indiana over the last three or four seasons,” Gilbert said. “We wanted to hire someone who is a winner, who is high energy. And that’s exactly what we got.”

Both Connell and Gilbert agree that the first order of business, even beyond improving the current team, is putting in place a feeder system for the city’s youth that will reap benefits for years to come.

“The best thing about having a new coach is that he can start from scratch,” Gilbert said. “He can pick and choose every coach in the system, from fifth grade to varsity. And we’re counting on him to get those coaches and create a system that will allow us to have success not just this year or next year, but every year.”

It’s a task that Connell, who admits that he thought about one day leading the Pirate program during all his years under Smith, cannot wait to take on.

“I’m excited,” he said. “We’re gonna get the community on the same page — which is the hardest thing to do sometimes — and we’re going to win and we’re going to have fun.”

“It’s been a whirlwind. I can only hope that the kids are as excited as I am and I can only hope that everyone is as excited as I am because we’re going to try and win some basketball games.”


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