While I have been writing here for over eight years now, my first love in terms of sports will always be Indiana high school basketball. If you aren't from Indiana or did not grow up here you can't truly understand what it means to the state. That is why I have been writing for a few newspapers for 15 years: because I love the game and I get paid for my hobby, essentially.
Occasionally, that job and Hammer & Rails intersect, and that was the case last night as I was assigned to cover the Carmel-Zionsville game at Carmel for the 2014-15 season opener. It was a game with at least three Division I players on the floor with Keegan Culp (Air Force), Derrik Smits (Valparaiso), and Ryan Cline, who will be a Boilermaker this time next year.
First, some background on Cline. Since Carmel has over 4,000 students and it one of the largest high schools in the state it is extremely rare that a sophomore plays extensively on the varsity roster. Cline played as a freshman reserve during the 2011-12 season when Carmel won the state championship. He then played a large role the next year as a sophomore, scoring 11 points in the state title game as Carmel repeated. Last season as a junior he was the focus of a team that was ranked No. 1 in the state and only lost twice, but one of those losses was in the sectional championship to Hamilton Southeastern.
What stands out about Carmel, and what will translate well for Cline once he gets to West Lafayette, as they are a team that is much better than their parts. They are extremely disciplined and rarely beat themselves. They play stifling team defense, as evidenced tonight when they held a good shooting Zionsville team to 1 of 8 from three. Anyone not named Derrik Smits was 6 of 23 from the floor. They are basically like an anaconda in the fourth quarter if they have a lead. They get stops defensively, don't turn it over, and either score or get to the free throw line (where they don't miss) when they have the ball.
Scott Heady has done an excellent job in teaching the philosophy, and that is why Cline is now 70-8 in his high school career with two state championships already in the bank. The 70th win came last night the way many of the previous 69 have come: Through timely shooting and tenacious defense. Carmel won 51-37 and that was with Derrik Smits (headed to Valpo) scoring 19 for Ziosnville as a virtually unstoppable 7-footer.
Cline finished with 13 points on 5of 8 shooting from the field. He was 3 of 5 from long range, where he will make his living for Purdue. I have now seen Cline in person five times and I can say he is a deadly shooter from long range. I am not alone in this assessment:
"If there are any two better shooters in America on a high school team than Keegan Culp and Ryan Cline I'd like to see it," Zionsville coach Shaun Busick said. "I think Cline is a serious Mr. Basketball candidate and he could easily be four year starter in college."
Cline is such a good shooter that I overheard coach Heady say that he wished he would be more selfish in shooting. He wanted Cline to keep the ball and get to the line to close the game out, but Heady also said that Cline was focused on the team and doing what it took to win.
Afterwards I got to talk to Ryan for a few minutes and here is what he had to say. First, I asked him how he felt he would fit in with a team that has no scholarship seniors, especially after coach Painter called him the best shooter in the state:
"It is obviously going to be a battle just to get playing time. Those guys (Kendall Stephens and Dakota Mathias) are great shooters and hopefully I can just get in there, contribute, and get Purdue back to the place it was at. When I was on my official visit I got to know those guys and now I am just really focusing on my high school basketball and finishing my last year with as many wins as possible."
Next, I asked him about recruiting classmate Grant Weatherford, who is just up the road at Hamilton Heights:
"He is one of my good friends and we hang out all the time, actually. We go up to the Purdue games and he is a great kid. He is a competitor and he knows how to win. I am excited to play with him again after this summer."
Finally, I asked him how closely he was watching this team (after giving him the good news of the win over BYU):
"Obviously a guy like A.J. is an NBA caliber player and it is fun to watch him and Isaac (Haas) battle in practice because it makes him a better player. I am excited to see where their talent can go. As for getting to West Lafayette, I am just excited to get as many wins as I can."
I can tell that Ryan is a high character player that is very team-oriented. He is an old-school Purdue player in that he is going to connect with the whole team in a specific role to make everyone around him better without worrying about his own stats.
We're getting a good one here.