MOUNT CARMEL -- Back on Nov. 3 the Wabash Valley College men's basketball team was playing against Three Rivers Community Classic in the First Midwest Bank Classic in Poplar Bluff, Mo. when the team took a devastating blow to their aspirations for the season.
Their leader and returning scorer, sophomore Marcus Garrett, went down just 30 seconds into the game with an ACL knee injury, tearing his ACL and suffering meniscus damage in his knee. With Garrett sidelined, more responsibility would be pushed onto the fellow Warrior guards. An injury of that nature, just days into the season, threw a wrench into the Warriors' team chemistry that had been developed after months of practicing together in the fall semester.
Warriors head men's basketball coach Mike Carpenter was worried about how such an injury would impact the season.
"It was one of those deals that deep down you were devastated and hated it for Marcus but you're so worried about your team at that point," Carpenter said. "He was our vocal leader, our floor general, he was a guy that when the shot clock was going down, you could give it to him and he could go make a play. When he goes down, his injury second game of the year, you then start wondering who's going to start picking up the slack, but most importantly fill into that leadership role.
In the ensuing games, the remaining cast of Warrior guards tried to replicate Garrett's production, but were almost forcing it and trying to score individually to replace what was lost with Garrett's injury. While doing that they struggled, limping out to a 5-4 start to the season through the adversity of the injury.
The coaching staff and Garrett -- who Carpenter called coach Marcus for the remainder of the season, as Garrett remained a main fixture in Warriors huddles, practices and gameday preparation -- tried to settle the group and continue to get them to buy into the process in Garrett's absence.
"It's one of those things as a coach that you have to do your best to keep them together, keep them believing," Carpenter said. "I have to thank the assistant coaches for keeping everyone together. Once they figured it out the light bulb went off and we started playing good team basketball."
"On one leg he'd crutch himself out to the court to get on guys," Carpenter spoke of Garret. "You love that as a coach, the coach can't be the leader all of the time, the players have to take ownership. By him doing that I think that filtered down to Zion, Josh Thomas, guys like that to be leaders."
To their credit, they eventually found rhythm and started to collectively gather themselves as a unit. From Dec. 8 until the District 16 Championship the Warriors won 20 of their next 23 ballgames, winning a share of the Great Rivers Athletic Conference Championship and were clicking on all cylinders.
"Looking back on it, I couldn't be prouder of this group and of how we handled it," Carpenter said. "They could have folded and blamed his injury on why we weren't successful, but they adjusted and did a great job."
Those who had been trying to force it at times to replace Garrett's production, were now imposing forces for the Warriors. Two in particular, sophomore point guard Zion Morgan and sophomore guard Josh Thomas, led Wabash Valley with their impressive finishes to the season. Morgan averaged 25.5 points per game in the Warriors' two victories in the District Tournament, and posted averages of 7.8 ppg, 4.6 rebounds per game and four assists per game. Thomas, their leading scorer, averaged 14.8 points per game and used some nifty transition finishes to power his strong play.
They and the Warriors continued their strong play into a District 16 Tournament Final game against Kaskaskia, a team the Warriors had defeated twice in the regular season. With sophomore forward Anthony Christian (11.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg) out and sophomore big Levi Cook (8.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) limited, the Warriors' scorching end to the season was at last halted with a 68-66 wire to wire loss to Kaskaskia.
"They're a team that peaked at the right time, obviously they beat Olney, they beat Vincennes and they beat us," Carpenter said. "We got good looks, we just missed them, sometimes that happens. Defensively I thought we were solid, I forget what the score ended up being, but it was a low scoring game, the lower scoring the game, the less mistakes you can make. I didn't think we made a whole lot of mistakes, we just couldn't put the ball in the basket. We missed a lot of shots that we normally hit. You have to tip your hat to them, we just got beat. It doesn't take away, when we think of this season, we won't think of that game. We'll think of being down 14 with four minutes to go against Lincoln Trail and beating them, we'll think of beating Olney and beating Logan two out of three times."
The postgame scene was one of pure devastation, a team you could tell the game meant so much to. A group that had poured so much blood, sweat and tears into righting the ship following Garrett's injury. With the loss, it ended the Wabash Valley careers of 10 Warrior sophomores, who will go onto adventures beyond Wabash Valley, many of whom will make their decision on a four-year school in the next month or so.
Carpenter said he'll remember many things from this sophomore class and all of the individuals, but the development of Thomas on and off the court is one he'll hold dear.
"[With] Josh, we brought him in the office in December of last year and told him he should transfer because he hadn't bought into being a teammate, he didn't want to share the ball, he was a little lazy," Carpenter spoke of Thomas. "To his credit, he bought in. He got the rude awakening that, I need to change some things or I'm done. He came back the second semester last year and said coach, I'm going to do whatever you want me to do. He's probably changed as a player in a positive way more than any player I've ever coached. I'll always remember him saying that he trusted us."
Now, with the departure of the 10 sophomores, the Warriors will return just five freshmen and Garrett, who redshirted and will return to Wabash Valley. Of the freshmen, point guard Tony Burks (6.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.7 apg), guard Justin Boyd (2.3 ppg) and forward Amir Yusuf (3.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg) stand out as key returners with experience.
"Tony was tremendous for us, started some games, won some games for us," Carpenter spoke of the trio of freshmen. "Justin Boyd late in the year came on, helped us beat Lincoln Trail when we came back from 14 down, that's going to help more than anything. Next year's guys getting valuable minutes and experience on the court, as well as Amir Yusuf inside."
Rehabbing from his injury, Garrett is reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery from his ACL surgery performed by Dr. Fullop according to Carpenter. He's been rehabbing with Dr. Slater and the team's trainer. Garrett's been insisting to Carpenter that he could likely play now, but Carpenter and the fellow coaches are taking a slow approach with Garrett and offered an August or September timetable as his likely return date, citing they have plenty of time until next season and want to protect Garrett's future. When he does return, his invaluable leadership will be a major asset for next year's team.
"With what we have with Marcus returning, he's a good leader," Carpenter said. "I think that's going to help guys like Amir, Tony and Justin because Marcus is pretty hardcore and serious all the time. They're not going to be able to goof off and he'll make sure they're minding their Ps and Qs."
Filling the void of the 10 sophomores, Carpenter expects the Warriors to take some transfers and noted that he and his assistants, Tanner Morris, Cornelius Walker and Shea Sumpter have been on the road, recruiting tirelessly since the season ended. They secured a commitment from Mount Carmel forward Austin Rager in January, but are looking to fill nine additional roster spots.
"We're excited about the recruiting," Carpenter spoke of the ongoing recruiting process. "I have a really good staff that's been on the road a lot, I've been on the road as well. They get in the car and go see kids on the road all of the time. It's a huge advantage to be in the business as long as I have to have people call and recommend players to us. We can't take them all, but we can take the ones that are good enough for sure. I'm excited about the prospects we are on, if we get the kids we've targeted I'll be real happy."
Since his arrival at Wabash Valley in 2013, Carpenter, a two-time Region 24 Coach of the Year with over 250 wins as a head coach, has put an emphasis on recruiting high character kids and stresses the importance of team culture. That utmost respect for culture will be kept in mind when finalizing this recruiting class.
"We talk a lot about culture and we'll pass up on guys who have baggage and are troublemakers," Carpenter said. "We don't want to deal with it and I think it hurts your culture. We've graduated almost 94 percent of our sophomores since I've been here, that's what it's about to me, being selective on who you take. They also have to be able to play basketball too."
The entire roster likely won't be finalized until the latter months of the summer, but Carpenter hopes next year's edition of the Warriors can continue the steady upswing of momentum the program has going. The program is seeking its first National Tournament Appearance since 2012, back when its rival, Vincennes joined the Region and took control. They've come close since then, but just haven't surpassed the hurdle.
"We've been in the region championship two of the last three years, we won the conference this year, so I think we're getting close to where I want us to be. The next step would be getting us to Hutch. That's not a pressure type deal, it's something we want as a staff, we want for our people and our fans. We were a possession or two from there this year and we need to reload, bring the right kind of kids in and do it again next year and finish it the right way."
This was the first year since the Trailblazers joined that a team other than Vincennes had won the region. Still, the road to Hutch goes through Vincennes, Ind. and coach Carpenter will have next year's Warriors ready for the challenge that the Trailblazers pose.
"Vincennes has had a lock on this league since they came in, the year I got here," Carpenter said. "They won the national championship of course this year. They're ultimately who we have to go through, I'm ok with that and we're going to do everything in our power to put out a product that can get to Hutch next year."