ANDERSON, Ind. — It’s a veritable hoops renaissance.
After four years of upheaval and displacement, the conversation surrounding Anderson High School basketball has changed. Instead of focusing on the past, the Indians are looking toward the future.
Madison County tournament championships by both the boys and girls teams this week are the most tangible signs that things are coming together nicely in the refurbished building on Main Street.
“We’ve always said it really didn’t matter where we play,” Anderson boys coach Joe Nadaline said. “It didn’t matter what uniforms we wore, they were always going to say ‘Anderson’ across the front. The Anderson High School tradition is the same, and it’s always going to be the same.”
That sense of unity and purpose has been a significant key as the Indians have grown into a new identity.
When Highland High School closed four years ago, it did more to divide the community than to bring former rivals together. Anderson Community Schools lost students to neighboring systems inside and surrounding Madison County.
There were bitter disagreements about how to move forward, and when the Wigwam closed a year later the gulf between the two sides grew larger. As the debate raged on, the kids who remained at Anderson bore a heavy burden.
Athletics can play a large role in how a school is perceived by outsiders, and the Tribe was falling behind many area competitors. That was especially true where it matters most, playing Indiana’s game on the hardwood courts.
Chad Cook was the final girls basketball coach at Highland, and he was building the foundation for a solid program. When the schools were consolidated, he inherited an Anderson team that had finished 2-21 the year before and not all of his Scots made the leap with him.
But Cook focused on what he had to work with instead of what he’d lost. The Lady Tribe improved to 9-13 in his first season and made a surprising run to the sectional championship game. By the end of Year 2, Anderson was a sectional champion.
The Indians posted a 37-12 combined record in the past two complete seasons, and they’re off to an 11-3 start to this campaign. The formula for success is simple to instill and far-reaching in its effects.
“We talk a lot about attitude,” Cook said. “It’s not just winning, but it is how we play. We want to change people’s perception of us. We want to play with class. Hopefully, that will keep us from losing any more players to other schools.”
Nadaline has taken a similar approach, with a few different obstacles, on the boys’ side.
He’d been an assistant coach for 12 seasons under Ron Hecklinski, and he took the head job following a 2010-11 season in which a young Indians team struggled to a 4-17 finish. Adding to the challenge, he’d be the first Tribe boys coach to play his home games somewhere other than the Wigwam.
“It was definitely not the ideal situation to start your head coaching career at Anderson off at,” Nadaline said. “There were a lot of things you had to just fight through.”
The Indians fought to 9-13 in the first season at the Tepee and improved to 16-6 a year ago. At 6-5, this season has had its shares of ups and downs, but the Tribe stunned its county rivals with three consecutive double-digit victories to earn its second straight tournament title.
And now Nadaline has his sights set on bigger prizes.
“Obviously, the next step is to do better in the state tournament,” he said. “That’s something we’re really focused on.”
The Anderson boys haven’t won a postseason game since their last sectional championship season in 2009. Nadaline wants that to change this March, but he understands it will take further growth from a young team that still is finding its way.
That youth also has been a benefit to the program, however.
Senior guard Kenya Wilkerson is the only player to have called the Wigwam home, and this will be the first class of Indians to have spent all four years in the consolidated high school.
“These guys, for the most part, don’t really know about any of that stuff,” Nadaline said. “This is their home.”
The days of high schools fielding a starting five comprised of players who grew up in the same neighborhood have long since passed.
Anderson — like every other school in the state — will continue to lose students to rival systems. Competition within the city limits alone continues to heat up with the rise of Liberty Christian and Anderson Preparatory Academy.
Challenges on and off the court will never subside.
But Cook and Nadaline have proven through their hard work — and the dedication of their players — that this new version of Anderson High School can thrive.
“Success breeds success,” Cook said. “The more we win, hopefully the more girls will want to be players for the Lady Tribe or guys want to be Anderson Indians.”