As the Indiana high school boys basketball season started this past week, fans are going to notice several new faces on the sidelines.
Four IHSAA teams changed coaches during the offseason, with two of them mired in a bit of controversy. At La Porte, longtime coach Tom Wells was not renewed by the school board, leading to a heated public meeting and no legitimate explanation about his termination. He was replaced by Kyle Benge, who has college assistant coaching experience, but no high school head coaching on his resume.
Benge was an assistant at Plymouth for three years with his dad, Roy, the Pilgrims’ athletic director for more than 25 years, and still there now. He was an assistant coach at Grace College, Kentucky Wesleyan and St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer.
He had to leave the latter position because the institution closed after the 2016-17 school year due to enormous debt. So he’s in La Porte with a wife (Ashley) who is pregnant. Their first baby is due Feb. 24 — one day after the Slicers’ regular-season finale at Munster.
“Not great timing on our part,” Benge joked.
Needless to say, there’s a lot on his plate and a learning curve as a new high school head coach.
“In college we’d have 30 practices before our first game,” he said. “Here it’s seven or eight. I was hired in late July, so I started behind the eight-ball.”
It showed a little in the first game, an 89-38 loss to South Bend Riley at home, though Riley is ranked No. 7 in the preseason 4A media poll and No. 5 overall in the coaches poll that includes all four classes.
Benge said he’s going to count on his experience in Plymouth to help with this first season at La Porte.
“It’s a similar community with basketball-rich traditions,” he said. “Everybody here has warmed up to us. If I need a shoulder to lean on, dad is there (in Plymouth).”
He’ll also have mom, Claire, in the stands a lot since that’s what most mothers would do.
“She’d usually go to most Plymouth games for my dad, but she’ll be at more of my games this season,” Benge said.
At La Crosse, Jeff Mitzner was also not renewed by the school board despite him being loyal to his hometown school and alma mater, and he was replaced by Jeff Marlow … for about two months. Then Marlow stepped down in the middle of the summer without organizing any summer program for the players.
A source told me he realized the drive from Rensselaer to La Crosse was a little long, especially when he didn’t get the teaching job he was hoping to get. I tried to confirm this with athletic director David Amor, but he never returned two messages I left for him back in the summer.
Marlow was replaced by Preston Frame, who opened his tenure with a 91-41 loss at River Forest.
Fellow Porter County Conference member South Central’s coaching change was without controversy — at least directly. Eric Branz, who dealt with some parental issues two seasons ago, was replaced with longtime La Porte assistant coach Joe Wagner, who was a loyal assistant for 12 years under Wells for the Slicers after graduating from La Porte in 2000. Wagner was recommended for the Satellites’ job just three days after that fun-filled La Porte school board meeting that officially ended Wells’ tenure.
Branz didn’t return to South Central because he took over as head coach at Yorktown in the Muncie area.
Personally, I hope Wagner does really well for the Satellites, maybe even bringing them a sectional title for the first time since 2003, after the uncomfortable ending at La Porte. He opened with a 40-36 loss to Wheeler.
Marquette’s coaching change was definitely without controversy, but might be the one that gets the most attention.
Donovan Garletts, who led the Blazers to four straight sectional titles and three regional titles in two different classes (Class A and 2A), two Class A semistate titles and the 2014 Class A state title, and has a PhD in education, moved on to be the assistant superintendent in Greencastle.
The last two sectional trophies came in 2A, which is where Marquette will remain for two more years. In fact, the Blazers are ranked No. 9 in the preseason Associated Press 2A poll.
Garletts' top assistant, Fred Mooney, takes over after an extensive coaching career himself.
After 35 years at Hammond Baptist, Mooney retired a few years ago before Garletts tabbed him (more like begged, according to Mooney) to be an assistant. And then when Garletts left and Marquette principal Jim White made Mooney his first choice as the replacement, Mooney had some explaining to do to his wife, Vickie.
“I told her and she said, ‘Really? Again?’” he said. “I didn’t tell her for like a whole day and then she said, ‘I thought you were slowing down and retiring.’ It was kind of nice being an assistant, showing up for practice and games and going home.
“I know what expectations are for these young men. I know how to get them there.”
One unique aspect of his first season that won’t be easy is Marquette being an independent for the first time in years. The Blazers’ affiliation with the Greater South Shore Conference ended for various reasons. No conference title or traveling trophy — which ended with the Blazers in possession of it. Instead, Mooney’s team will have a brutal schedule.
“Donovan told me he thought it was the toughest Marquette schedule in 20 or 30 years, maybe more,” Mooney said.
The Blazers start with road games at Gary West Side (Saturday night), South Bend St. Joseph and La Lumiere, then home games against postseason contenders in different classes, Gary Lighthouse (3A) and Gary 21st Century (regional champ in Class A). There’s also the Bloomington South and Lebanon tourneys at the end of December, at fellow 2A ranked team Andrean, and a home game against 4A Lake Central.
Needless to say, Mooney will have quite a challenge, but his players should be battle-tested for the postseason when March rolls around.
Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at email@example.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.