OTTUMWA — Better late than never.
At least that's what Hank Plona was hoping would be the case Wednesday night at Southwestern.
The most unique season in the history of the Indian Hills men's basketball program got off to a rocky start. The Warriors struggled to score, making just nine field goals in the first 33 minutes while falling behind 47-31 against the Spartans.
Three minutes later, fourth-ranked Indian Hills found themselves in position to regain the lead. In the end, it was too little and too late as Southwestern made enough plays down the stretch to secure a 60-56 win, preventing the Warriors from a 32nd consecutive season-opening win.
It certainly isn't the start the Warriors were hoping for. It definitely isn't the type of start the Warrior basketball program is accustomed to.
If the past year has taught Plona anything, it's to be prepared to adapt to unusual circumstances.
"It's definitely been different. I think everything in the world has been different," Plona said. "Recruiting was a little bit of a challenge. We couldn't really see kids, couldn't really go to meet them. We're going in blind a little bit more this year. The pandemic, on every person, has been a challenge."
Through all the challenges, the Warriors have put together a talented roster good enough to make IHCC once again a favorite to qualify for the NJCAA Division I national tournament. Indian Hills is the preseason favorite to win the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference title for the fifth consecutive year after going 30-3 last season, earning both regional and district championships in postseason play before being seeded second out of 24 teams in 2020 national tournament.
The Warriors never got the chance to make a run at the program's fourth national title, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic led to the eventual cancelation of the NJCAA National Tournament last March. It was a jarring experience for players like returning sophomore Chris Payton, who blossomed during his freshman campaign earning first team all-ICCAC honors after averaging 11.5 points and 5.7 rebounds with 16 points and 6.3 rebounds per game coming in conference play.
"It was kind of surreal. I have never had something taken away from me without any reason other than that's the way it is," Payton said. "It was something to learn from. You have to cherish everything you have in front of you and take advantage of every opportunity that you have in front of you."
Payton, however, isn't one to dwell on the past. The consensus preseason All-American forward is ready to get back to work in hopes of finishing his time at Indian Hills on a high note this spring using the lessons learned last season of what it took to get into position to contend for a national championship.
"It didn't take too long to get over what happened last March," Payton said. "You always think a little bit about what could have been. We were on a roll at that point of the season. Everyone understood their roles. Everyone understood what we needed to do to win in any certain situation.
"I don't really forget about it, but you just have to move on. It motivates me because I know where we need to be at that point of the season. The timing is going to be different with the season being moved back this year, but I know now what it takes to get to that point."
Spring term transfer Tyem Freeman is also expected to contribute immediately for the Warriors as the 6-6 guard from Missouri State played 27 minutes on Wednesday in his IHCC debut collecting five points, two steals, two assists, one block and eight rebounds against Southwestern. Tyrese Nickelson, Theo Bourgeois and Ben Lyon join the talented group of returning sophomore headlined by Payton, who has received high praise from his head coach.
“In my opinion, Chris is a future pro and the best player in junior college,” Plona said. “He's certainly a guy we wouldn't trade for anybody. His leadership and the way he plays the game has only gotten better. Even in these past 10 months off, I think Chris has improved.”
That certainly wasn't easy for Payton, or any player trying to improve while being away from school in the midst of a pandemic. For most of the past 10 months, players have been left on their own to get themselves ready for the rigors of a junior college basketball season.
"When the weather allowed it, there were a ton of outdoor courts in my town that I could work out at," Payton said. "Other than that, there was running outside whenever the weather allowed. I've got a couple sets of weights in my basement that I also rely on. Other than those few things, it was pretty hard to prepare the same way you would during a normal offseason."
The Warriors also added guards Levar Williams, a 6-2 transfer from New Jersey Institute of Technology, and 6-3 Lee College transfer Ismael Cruz. It was Cruz that nearly sparked a second-half comeback for the Warriors, scoring a team-leading 12 points while sinking three consecutive 3-pointers during a 13-1 run that sliced Southwestern's 17-point second half lead down to five in just over a minute.
Indian Hills also put several members of a talented freshman class to the test on Wednesday, starting Braxton Bayless and Curtis Jones while bringing Taj Anderson off the bench for 20 minutes of action. Bayless, the 2020 Class 4A State Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player from Ankeny, scored five points and collected a team-high three steals in his Warrior debut.
Anderson, a 6-3 guard from Queens, was was one of the most sought after freshman in the country with a unique scoring ability that translated on Wednesday to nine points off the bench, leading IHCC in scoring through the first 33 minutes. Jones, from Minneapolis, impressed during early season workouts with his ability to score and finished logging a team-high 32 minutes for the Warriors on Wednesday.
“We've got several guys that can shoot and we've got Chris Payton inside," Plona said. "We have guys that can definitely pass and shoot. I still think Chris is going to be the focal point of what we do, but if you have four shooters around Chris and you send a double team, you should get a look at a 3-pointer.
"We just have to continue to develop our style. The bottom line is we want guys that can play. We have basketball players, smart kids and guys that play together. I am looking forward to seeing what kind of team we can become."