NEW CARLISLE — New Prairie boys basketball coach Mike Bauer needed Ben Wigginton by his side.

When Bauer was searching for head coaching positions a year ago, he had to have Wigginton as his assistant. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t coach; simple as that. The two of them agreed that priority No. 1 for wherever they ended up was to make basketball as fun as possible for their players. They have a deep, passionate love for the sport and wanted to help the younger generation feel the same.

“To me, basketball’s fun,” Bauer said. “You should want to come to practice. The atmosphere should always be one where you’re challenging each other to be better, with one common goal; but you’re having fun doing it. We joked around a lot this year, but we also pushed each other to get better. I hope the kids enjoyed this year as much as (Wigginton and I) did.”

Bauer didn’t know it at the time he accepted the New Prairie coaching job, but the Cougars were kind of lacking in the fun department. They went through a coaching change after Derrick DeShone left for Concord in 2018, opting for first-time head coach Kris Davis. New Prairie went a dismal 7-16 on the year, including a winless 12 games in the Northern Indiana Conference.

While a lack of winning surely played a factor as to why the Cougars’ season last year was far from fun, there was much more that factored into it. Davis created plenty of roster changes in his one season and created sort of a different vibe. Bauer seemed to be just what New Prairie needed to move forward and put the struggles of 2018-19 in its rear-view mirror.

“I give all the credit to coach Wigginton and coach Bauer,” senior point guard Chase Ketterer said. “They instilled us to keep doing the little things, keep doing things right and to play as a team. But also, having fun at practice and actually having fun playing. It’s something that last year, you know, I didn’t really have fun doing it. This year, basketball kind of got fun again for my teammates and me, and that’s why we did a lot better at the end of the day.”

Ketterer’s sentiment rang true with the rest of his teammates. His backup, junior guard Derek Daniels, is the epitome of just how much Bauer turned around the culture of this program, which finished 13-13 this campaign.

Going into his sophomore year, Daniels expected his role to grow even further with the varsity. He was already the Cougars’ sixth-man and most improved player his freshman year, looking forward to another productive season at the highest level. But then the coaches changed Daniels’ jump-shot, demoting him to the junior varsity just a season after being a key cog to New Prairie’s varsity team.

Daniels described it as one of the more demoralizing moments in his life, but worked hard to make sure nothing like that would ever happen again. Bauer realized Daniels’ worth at the first practice of the summer, implementing him as a high-impact player off the bench. In a span of a year, Daniels went from questioning basketball as a whole to creating some of the best memories with some of his best friends.

“This year’s so much more fun because I’m playing with my best friends,” Daniels said. “I never got to enjoy playing with them my first two years, so this is just completely different in the best way. The dynamic between us is just so much more fun. So it’s not even the playing time that’s made this year so great for me. It’s the chemistry and playing with my friends.”

Daniels will be part of a large returning senior class in 2020-21. He’ll team up once again with his best friends whom he’s played with since second grade in Braydon Flagg, Hunter Smith, Rylan McBride and Tanner Moreno. The five of them, along with Bauer and the rest of the returning varsity players, have their goals set on overcoming the humps of losing in the sectional and Bi-County Tournament finals in 2019-20.

“Our goals from the beginning of the season were focusing on Bi-County and the sectional,” Bauer said. “We wanted to be clicking by Bi-County and keep running things smoothly and run our system well, and carry that into the postseason. Even though we couldn’t get it done this year, I’m really proud of the progress we made and I think we have a great group of guys coming back next year to be able to take it one step further and win the Bi-County and the sectional.”

With an experienced core comprised of the team’s leading scorer in Flagg (13.7 points per game), a 45-percent 3-point shooter in McBride, a tenacious post presence in Smith, and high-energy, smart guards like Daniels and Moreno, those goals aren’t just empty words. They’re strong possibilities if Bauer continues on the path he’s paved for himself and the New Prairie basketball program.

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