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March 20, 2014

H.S. BOYS' BASKETBALL: A General in charge

Connell’s arrival changed the fortunes of Clarksville basketball

CLARKSVILLE — It was a cold January night in 2011. Who knew it would turn out to be the night that would eventually end Clarksville’s boys’ basketball’s long suffering?

Just before the 2011 school year, Scott Matthews resigned as the head coach. Midway through the 2010-11 season, Greg Duke resigned to take a non-basketball job in Evansville.

Including interim coach Jeff Byrne, Jason Connell was hired to be the fourth Generals coach in four months.

“As a player, I don’t think I can imagine that,” Connell said on that January night. “They need some stability. I’m excited to be in this spot.”

By all accounts, it was a tough spot. The Generals were 4-6 — and by Clarksville’s recent standards, that was a good start to a season.

Matthews had moderately successful teams his first three seasons at 11-10, 14-7 and 12-9 but had only one sectional victory. That was followed by 8-14, 7-14 and 9-12 campaigns under the former New Washington star. Kyle Hobbs went 8-13 in his only season. That year was preceded by back-to-back 6-15 campaigns and consecutive 3-18 seasons.

“I came up from Silver Creek, and honestly, when I was at Silver Creek looking at Clarksville, people didn’t really respect them at all,” current Clarksville senior Calvin McEwen said.

Clarksville had three sectional victories in 20 years prior to Jan. 11, 2011. It had been 24 years since the Generals had won a sectional crown.

That January night changed everything.

Although Clarksville started to show promise under Connell in the first months of 2011 — including three wins in four games and a trip to the sectional championship — it would be hard to imagine what would happen next.

Connell led the Generals to consecutive 18-win seasons and a sectional championship following the 2012-13 season. Then came this 23-2 campign and a first-ever regional title on Saturday.

Once a Southern Indiana doormat, Clarksville is the last local team standing heading into Saturday’s Class 2A Seymour semistate.

And it all started on that cold January night.

“I knew we had some kids in place that were good,” Connell said. “We had some talented kids, but when you come into a situation like that, are the kids going to buy into you? They took me in. I made them no promises except we were going to work hard, and they did. But I couldn’t imagine the success we’ve had, winning a regional in our fourth year. It’s hard to imagine in four years that we’ve accomplished what we had.”

After going 90-152 prior to Connell’s arrival, the Clarksville bandwagon had plenty of seats. As of Saturday, it’s filling up swiftly.

“[The success has] brought a lot of people back who haven’t been to games in a while, which is great,” Connell said. “We’re happy to see that. That’s what it’s about. These kids have worked extremely hard and sacrificed a lot, so it’s good to see the great crowds. They’re coming. We’re getting the support we deserve.”

“I see more and more of the community every time we have a bigger game,” senior Aham Yennes said. “That’s good for our community.”

“It means a lot,” junior Wyatt Kissel added. “We’re a small town with a big step ahead — chasing history. It’s a big thing for the community — not just the school, everybody.”

This week, the Generals have been in demand — from media asking questions to restaurants offering free meals to police and fire escorts.

“The community has been great this week,” Connell said. “It’s great to see that. It’s been a lot of fun.”

“The community is supporting us,” senior D.J. Coleman said. “I think everyone is excited because it’s something that’s never happened before. We’re excited, too, but we have to stay focused. We enjoy these things, but we come [into the gym], it’s all business.”

Clarksville is carrying on a recent tradition of Southern Indiana basketball success. In the past few seasons, New Albany, Providence, Jeffersonville and Borden have regional championships. This year alone, the Mid-Southern Conference had three sectional champions, not including highly-ranked Corydon Central and Brownstown. Clarksville was joined by New Albany and Silver Creek in the regional round.

“We do want to represent the area,” Clarksville senior Andrew Jones said. “We have a lot of people going up [to Seymour] and we don’t want to let anybody down.”

And, of course, Borden took the 2013 Class A state title.

“Borden ended up winning state, and yeah, we want to do it, too,” Jones said.

“The basketball down here is special,” Connell said. “You talk about Borden, you do get that thought in your mind. Why not us? Why can’t we be like Borden? It will be a tall task, but we’re not satisfied.”

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