NORTH VERNON — When the Jennings County boys basketball team was without a head coach last spring and early summer, Bailey Sanders helped keep the squad together.
Now, in his senior season on the court, Sanders is continuing that leadership role. The 5-foot-10 point guard is a big reason why the Panthers are 11-7 with four games left in the regular season.
“He’s the leader on this team,” Jennings coach Joe Hartwell said. “He’s been vocal. He’s led by example. The way he’s grown as a leader has been tremendous. We wouldn’t be the same team without him.”
That leadership took full force in the months before athletics director Mike Broughton took over as head coach in August. Broughton has since stepped back into an assistant coaching role because of health concerns, with Hartwell moving into the head coaching position.
Hartwell, junior varsity coach Bill Lane and freshman coach Josh Land guided the Panthers after Bob Howe retired last spring.
“We didn’t even have a coach two or three months before the season,” Sanders said. “We went all summer with our assistant coaches, and they did a really good job of keeping us prepared.”
Sanders and his teammates went to work.
“I just kept working,” Sanders said. “You never take any days off, and I was in the gym trying to get better.”
The practice has paid off. Sanders leads the Panthers with 13.9 points, 5.7 assists and 2.1 steals a game and with his 79.7 percent free-throw shooting. He has more than twice as many assists and steals as anyone else on the team.
“One thing he’s really good at is shooting, but teams know that, so he’s been really good at the point for us and handling pressure,” Hartwell said. “A lot of teams don’t try to press us because Bailey does such a good job handling the basketball. He controls the tempo for our team, and when we play well, it’s because Bailey’s playing well. Usually when we have a dip, it’s because Bailey’s tired or struggling.”
“Everybody has stepped up,” Sanders said. “We have two sophomores (forwards Caleb Eder and Dan Leach) playing big-time minutes for us. They come in and make really big plays for us.”
While Sanders’ assists are up, his mistakes are down. He averages only 3.4 turnovers a game.
“He’s been more of a leader for us, and he’s also improved his decision making,” Broughton said. “He takes it in sometimes and makes some shots. Other times, he kicks it to the open guy. He’s working hard to become a college guard, and we hope he gets a chance to go on and play in college.”
Broughton has connections at Bellevue (Neb.) University, and Sanders has taken an interest in playing there.
“That’s hopefully where I’ll be, but I haven’t signed anything yet,” Sanders said. “Coach Broughton knows their coach, and he has done a tremendous job of getting me out there and noticed and helping me learn how to play the college game. Without coach Broughton, there’s no way I’d be the player I am today.”