By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
FRANKFORT, Ind. —
As he led his team off the court after Saturday night’s boys basketball regional final at Case Arena, Liberty Christian coach Jason Chappell looked up into a sea of hometown fans and began to clap.
The Lions faithful before him extended from the court well up into the highest rows of the second level and wrapped around to take up half of the other side of the stadium as well. When Chappell’s hands came together, the fans rose in waves and matched his applause.
At that moment, it was hard to tell Liberty Christian (20-6) had just suffered a heartbreaking 77-68 loss against sixth-ranked Lafayette Central Catholic (18-8).
The fans were celebrating a second straight trip to the Class A elite eight. They were celebrating an outstanding effort that saw the Lions take an eight-point lead early in the fourth quarter. And they were celebrating just how far this program has come in the past two seasons.
“You just look at what God has blessed us with,” Chappell said. “This was a great crowd for us. We used to play basketball games in our Washington (Street) gym, and we wouldn’t fill it up. And to see that out there tonight, these guys have taken it up several notches from where it was.”
As Chappell spoke, his red-and-yellow tie had been loosened and his shirttails were hanging by his sides. His face was heavy with the emotional toll of a battle hard fought, and there still was evidence of the tears he’d shared with his players in the locker room.
But there was far more hope in the air than sadness. The disappointment was palpable, to be sure, but as fans began to trickle in and embrace the players as they left the locker room, Chappell’s face brightened.
Liberty Christian beat Lafayette Central Catholic on this same floor in last year’s regional semifinals. The Knights sat with the weight of that loss through the long offseason and into the fall.
Their fourth-quarter comeback provided a kind of catharsis and gave them another piece of hardware to put in the trophy case.
It was hard not to think about the Lions — who will return four of Saturday’s starters next fall — matching Lafayette Central Catholic’s redemptive run next year. But it was equally hard not to focus on the opportunity that slipped away and thoughts of what might have been.
“We really wanted to make it to Bankers Life Fieldhouse,” Chappell said. “We really felt that we could have won a state championship, and we’re still a young team. We are still a young team.”
The last line sounded something like a revelation, as though hearing himself say the words the first time had tapped into some well of inner strength. A light at the end of a dark night.
Liberty Christian will say goodbye to four seniors: Thatcher Rouse, whose clutch 3-pointer pushed the lead to eight points in the final period; Remington Emery, whose inspired play helped lead a second-quarter charge that kept the Lions in front at the half; Terrence Campbell, whose 23 points in the afternoon session allowed Liberty Christian to reach the final in the first place; and Austin Castor, whose leadership while injured through the end of the season was highlighted as a key by Chappell.
The players slowly trickled out of the locker room one by one and were greeted by an ever-growing group of fans.
The evening had begun with fans standing out in the cold parking lot more than an hour before tipoff and cheering the players as they entered the arena.
It ended with those same fans crammed into every corner of the lower concourse, cheering the team just as loudly and with as much pride as they had at any point in the night.
Chappell thought about the objects of that affection — especially the four seniors — and his face finally lit up with a smile.
“They left their mark on this program,” he said. “They’re legends in my book.”