IN the 41 years since Columbus High School split into two schools, Columbus East and Columbus North have never won conference boys basketball titles in the same season.
That could change tonight.
If East can win at Jeffersonville, the Olympians would win a share of their first Hoosier Hills Conference title since 2003. North won a share of its first Conference Indiana title Friday.
“You’re looking at two of the premier basketball conferences in the state,” North coach Jason Speer said. “The Hoosier Hills Conference and Conference Indiana are well respected around the state. They don’t just hand those (trophies) out. They have to be earned.”
The Bull Dogs certainly earned their title, and the Olympians have certainly earned a chance to play for their conference crown. North went 4-1 to tie Southport for the Conference Indiana title. East is 5-1 in the HHC and can share the title with New Albany with a win tonight.
“You try to compete and win your conference every year,” East coach Brent Chitty said. “It’s nice to be able to have a chance to play for it. We’re excited about that opportunity.”
“I think it would be a big accomplishment since we haven’t done it in so long,” said East senior Bryce Lienhoop, who went over the 1,000-point mark and became the school’s leading rebounder in Saturday’s win against Scottsburg. “We came so close last year, and this year, we’ve been working for it all offseason.”
The Olympians went 6-1 in the HHC last year, losing only to Jeffersonville in overtime. The Red Devils went unbeaten to win the league title.
“Ever since last year, we’ve kind of put a little bit of a target on them,” Lienhoop said. “We want to go down there and get after them and be able to pull out a win.”
At 10-10 overall and 2-4 in the HHC, Jeffersonville is having a down year after winning a regional title last season. But East, which is 15-3 overall, knows it won’t be easy.
“They’re a very talented team,” Chitty said. “Somebody told me when I first got the job, conference is going to be between New Albany and Jeffersonville. You have to beat those guys.”
The Olympians’ 2003 squad, coached by Steve Brunes, was led by seniors Jeff Prebeck and Michael Wohlford, junior Matt Allison and sophomore Ben Slaton. That HHC championship was their first since winning four of six titles between 1974-79.
North, meanwhile clinched its tie for the Conference Indiana crown with a win Friday at Bloomington North. The Bull Dogs are in their 17th year in Conference Indiana after the South Central Conference dissolved in 1997.
“Everybody I think sets a goal, and it’s very rewarding to achieve a goal,” Speer said. “Through hard work and dedication, we were able to accomplish that goal, so obviously, it does feel good.”
Like East, North came agonizingly close last season. The Bull Dogs’ only regular-season loss came on a last-second shot at Pike. The Red Devils, who went undefeated in the conference last season, moved on to the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference this year, paving the way for the Bull Dogs and Southport.
“It’s great,” said North junior Josh Speidel, who also recently scored his 1,000th career point. “It shows you the job coach Speer has done here. It’s great to be the first (North) team ever to win a Conference Indiana title.”
The Bull Dogs’ conference title is their first since winning three consecutive SCC crowns from 1983-85. The 1985 team, coached by the legendary Bill Stearman, was led by seniors Chris Conoley, Pat O’Connor and Randy Pruitt and juniors Scott Prince, Rick Risley and David Jaggers.
“There’s been a lot of talented players since Columbus North had won a conference championship,” Speer said. “I don’t think it was a lack of talent that Columbus North had. It does take a lot of things. It takes luck, and it takes talent.”
Speer said producing two conference champions speaks to the amount of talent the city has produced. He is in his sixth year as the Bull Dogs’ head coach.
“It’s tough to compare teams and records from the past generations, but I think (the talent level) definitely has changed in the past six years,” Speer said.
With both teams playing first-round sectional games coming up Tuesday, the focus will be on those contests. Chitty, who is in his fourth year at East, hopes a win tonight can springboard his team into the tournament.
“It gives you a lot of momentum,” Chitty said. “We’ve been playing some great basketball, and this will be another big challenge for us.”