One team in Howard County has already kicked off 2021, and started strong with a lengthy list of high-quality returners hungry for a push in their final year.
The IU Kokomo Cougars are 3-1 so far, despite having some shooting struggles early, but the team is doing everything else well, for the most part, and it’s shown why the team is a force in the River States Conference. The team has three fifth-year seniors, including program all-time leading scorer Trequan Spivey, who have returned for their COVID-19 extra year of eligibility, and that has coach Eric Echelbarger excited.
“You kind of take for granted having an offseason until you’re hit with something like we were in summer 2020. Obviously coming into last year, there’s so many different dynamics that made it difficult,” Echelbarger said. “It was very clear coming into last year that guys weren’t in the shape they wanted to be in, and we were just behind. This year, you feel a lot more prepared. It makes all the difference in the world.”
He said he feels more comfortable as far as player safety goes, mentally and physically. The gym can be therapeutic for basketball players, and having that constant accessibility can only benefit his players in every way. Also, being in basketball shape when practice begins allows the team to hit the ground running from day one, which is too valuable to quantify after last season, Echelbarger said.
Leading the experienced Cougars in 2021 are fifth-year seniors Spivey, the leader and point guard; Desean Hampton, a 6-foot-5 forward, and guard Allante Harper.
It’s exciting to have both experienced vets and younger, talented players coming in who can learn from the vets, Echelbarger said. This could be a big year for the Cougars, and one that could lead to some trophies at the end of the season.
“We have a large group of underclassmen who are just trying to feel things out. When you lose a whole year like we did last year, it creates a very interesting dynamic where basically you have two classes that don’t have very much experience. That’s last year’s freshmen and this year’s freshmen. So that’s kind of created an interesting dynamic in our team in trying to pull the two groups together. I’m excited,” he said.
Last season was cut short for the Cougars, but was a promising one. The team went 7-2, and only 1-0 in conference play before the River States Conference shut it down. Now, with a loaded team of young and older players, it creates a unique opportunity to run it back in a more relaxed environment.
Being able to show off the new Student Activities and Events Center at IU Kokomo has been refreshing, Echelbarger said. Fans have blessed the facility in big turnouts so far, which just hits the spot for the coaches and players on game day. It’s starting to feel more normal in 2021, finally, than the empty courts that made games feel like practice last year.
The Cougars have been able to stack wins despite not shooting particularly well so far, but Echelbarger said the offense will come in time. Shooters shoot, he said, and eventually the shots will fall if the team can stay consistent on defense and on the glass. The first four games of the season have been at home, which has helped, he said. He’s excited to test his team on the road.
“We’ve had really good turnouts so far. It’s a really nice facility that sits perfectly on our campus, and we’ve had a really good student section. We’ve had a lot of people from the community come out and check it out. We’re allowed to have fans this year, which is obviously huge, there’s no restrictions as far as that goes. We just want to keep encouraging people to come out,” he said.
The next home game for the Cougars is Nov. 19 against Alice Lloyd College at 1 p.m.