By Adam Yoder
NAPPANEE – Heading into the 2020-21 season, the NorthWood boys basketball team was replacing a large senior class to graduation and returned only one senior in Ben Vincent.
Fast forward to sixteen wins, a sectional championship, and regional runner-up finish, and Aaron Wolfe’s squad lands as the number three team in the InkFreeNews Top Ten teams list as our No. 3 selection.
By the end of the calendar year in 2020, the Panthers would jump out to a 7-1 start with solid wins over Triton, Columbia City and Fort Wayne Concordia, among others.
As young teams tend to do, there was inconsistency during those first six weeks, and as the schedule got a little tougher in January, it began to show up in the win/loss column.
Beginning with a loss New Prairie early in the new year through a loss to South Bend St. Joseph’s on February 13th, the Panthers went on a skid that saw them lose seven of nine games. That stretch saw NorthWood fall to 3-4 in the Northern Lakes Conference after a 3-1 start.
What was hidden in that skid was the fact that Wolfe’s squad didn’t lose any of those games by more than 12 points. So, as a great program tends to do, NorthWood fought and improved. The coaches trusted the players and the players trusted the coaches.
The young squad, behind the scoring of sophomores Cade Brenner and Ian Raasch, learned to value the ball better and close-out those close games in the fourth quarter. The finish to the regular season would see the Panthers rattle off four straight wins headed into the IHSAA West Noble Sectional.
That improvement became even more evident in the state tournament as the Panthers claimed the sectional title with wins over Wawasee (47-46) and West Noble (46-40). The win over West Noble secured the 10th title in program history and third in the past four seasons.
After Wolfe’s seventh sectional title, the Panthers would get a chance to do something they didn’t get to do last year due to COVID-19, compete in the IHSAA New Castle regional.
In the morning game, NorthWood defeated the host Trojans 44-42 to advance to the night-cap versus the Leo Lions.
As the Panthers clawed their way back into the Leo game, Brenner seemed to have knifed to the basket late in the contest for the go-ahead basket when a questionable foul was called on the floor to negate the basket. The Panthers would not be able to convert the out of bounds under set and Leo would go on to finish state runners-up after a 50-49 loss to Silver Creek in the state championship game.
After the season, the post-season awards piled up for the young NorthWood squad. Coach Wolfe was named the area coach of the year by multiple publications.
Brenner (16.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.8 APG) and Raasch (9.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.0 APG) were named to the All-NLC First Team after the season, with Vincent taking Honorable Mention honors. Brenner also nabbed IBCA large school underclass All-State honors, and Raasch was named Honorable Mention All-State.