The (feeder) program

According to the schedule, the Columbus North girls basketball team’s run to the Class 4A state championship game began Nov. 10 with a seven-point win at New Albany.

In reality, it began many moons ago.

This is the Bull Dogs’ second straight trip to the mountaintop, and a victory against Penn on Saturday would give North’s senior class a four-year varsity record of 104 wins and six losses.

Head coach Pat McKee is 145-17 in six years, and this season more than any other has proven that his success isn’t dependent upon any one player.

It’s not mere coincidence that the same handful of schools keep winning consistently year in and year out. When it comes to Indiana girls basketball, fans of teams such as Bedford North Lawrence, Heritage Christian and Oregon-Davis expect state championship contention every season. Columbus North is no different.

There’s a difference between having a team and having a program.

The foundation

Teams need to rely on the arrival of one or two star players for short-term success.

Programs build long-term stability from the bottom up.

That’s exactly what McKee has done in Columbus. When he took over the North program in 2010, he didn’t just concern himself with the varsity. He didn’t stop with the junior varsity or the freshmen, either.

The Columbus Comets travel team, which McKee established upon his arrival, provides local girls the opportunity to start building their skills are early as the third grade — two years before they can begin playing for their schools in the Elementary Basketball League.

That extra time, McKee said he believes, will pay off in the future.

“Lots of times in the past, the beginning level, the entry level, was fifth grade in EBL,” McKee explained. “And if someone starts in third grade, and they play third grade and fourth grade, in the fifth grade it’s their third year, compared to the girl who’s starting in the fifth grade and it’s their first experience. So the younger players can start and be exposed to the basic skills, the more likely that they’re going to be more confident and therefore more advanced when they hit the higher grade levels.”

The Comets aren’t trying replace EBL; rather, the plan is for each to supplement the other. Their teams for grades 5 through 8 play a fall schedule, then shut down for the elementary and middle school seasons. In the spring, they start up again.

By the time Columbus girls are in high school, they’re ready to excel — regardless of which school they end up going to.

“We’ve tried to make sure people truly understand it’s a community-based program, and it’s not about school choice,” McKee noted. “Anybody who wants to play Comets is welcome to play, and if they choose to ultimately go to East, that’s fine.”

“We just want basketball in Columbus to get better,” North assistant Brett White added, “and just to get the exposure to some good coaching and experienced coaching and experience playing. I think it’s obviously shown up, not just here, but the East program also.”

McKee is quick to point out that the Comets are not the only important cog in the city’s youth girls basketball machine. The Columbus Boomers and Columbus Explosion have have helped groom players, as have the EBL programs and Foundation For Youth PAAL leagues, among others. Those groups were producing local talent before the Comets even existed, and they continue to do so.

The various youth programs aren’t in competition with one another, McKee insisted. His hope is that with each of the different entities making contributions, Columbus as a whole can remain a power in the sport for many years to come.

“Everything together is creating a well of talent — East is a good team,” he said. “We’re really good right now, but it’s because of the players, and it really extends down to all of those coaches who have coached in these travel-based teams, the house leagues and the school-based teams at all these levels.”

We got next

For now, anyway, it’s the Bull Dogs reaping the greater share of the benefits — and while the varsity team is certainly the most visible example, it doesn’t even have the best winning percentage in the school this winter.

North’s junior varsity hasn’t lost since a Jan. 28, 2012 setback at Bloomington North. The Bull Dogs followed with a victory in their finale that year and have posted four consecutive unbeaten seasons since — a 73-game winning streak.

With four seniors departing after this season, some of the players who contributed to the last couple of perfect JV campaigns will be counted on to become varsity mainstays. They’re already making waves this year — Nadia Lomax and Kat Norman have seen regular varsity minutes off the bench, and Kenzie Patberg provided some valuable minutes in last weekend’s semistate triumph.

Likewise, the young players who end up coming to North next year and beyond will be tasked with helping to maintain the program’s current level of success.

“Right now we’re at our highest peak, obviously, but I think next year they’re going to have the same expectations and the coaches are going to hold those accountable,” senior forward Elle Williams said.

The past two years have been great for the Bull Dogs, but nobody at North is planning on Saturday being the end of the line.

That’s the difference between a team and a program.

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.