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NWI-TIMES: 21st Century's Williams, Haskins are Gary's elder statesmen

on Friday, 17 March 2017 18:01

Joy is something all Indiana boys basketball teams still playing today on Semistate Saturday have.

It's in the bus ride, the locker room and out on the court.

There are 16 teams in the four classes who are 32 minutes away from advancing to next Saturday's state championships at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

How could this experience not be a ton of fun?

But the joy at 21st Century in Gary might be at a higher level. The Cougars' coaches -- 62-year-old coach Rodney Williams and 57-year-old assistant Ricky Haskins -- are swimming in the fountain of youth coaching this young team.

21st Century (19-8) will play top-ranked Lafayette Central Catholic (21-6) at noon today in the Class A Lafayette Jeff Semistate.

"They're like father figures to us," junior DeAndre Gholston said before Wednesday's practice.

"You're too ugly to be mine," laughed Williams, as all those in the coaches' office broke into laughter, something that is always around this program.

Williams graduated from Horace Mann in 1973, before playing football at Northwestern. Haskins graduated from Mann in 1977, then went on to play college basketball at Bishop College in Dallas.

One lived on Seventh Avenue and Hayes. The other grew up on Seventh and Garfield, right around the corner.

"I scored more points than him in high school," Williams said.

"Yeah, but I won a sectional," Haskins answered back.

Upon returning to the Steel City, the two coached different sports at divergent levels. They finally got back together working with the Gary Running Rebels AAU basketball program.

Haskins became the athletic director at 21st Century in 2007, and the administration wanted him to start an after-school basketball program. That's when the idea of joining the IHSAA started.

It happened, but it was much different at the start.

"We had one set of uniforms," Haskins said.

"Yeah, the boys would wear them then they'd turn them around and the girls would wear them," Williams added.

The program played three games in 2008-09, all big losses. In 2012, the Cougars became eligible for IHSAA tournament play. Last Saturday's 76-73 win over Oregon-Davis in the Triton Regional championship game was 21st Century's 100th win.

Last year, led by Eugene German, the Cougars advanced to the semistate and lost 103-80 to Liberty Christian.

"We had so much fun when we were coaching with the Rebels, driving all over in 15-passenger vans with the kids," Haskins said. "Being with the kids, teaching them basketball and life. We loved it.

 

"So when the opportunity at 21st Century happened, we said let's keep it going."

"We try real hard to teach these kids character, on and off the court," Williams added. "We don't want them complaining about the calls. We are more interested in them as students than basketball players."

This team is young, which caused Williams to think they were a year away from being able to make a run. But here they are, just 32 minutes away from getting their coaches to their first state championship game.

"They treat us like we're their own sons," senior Core'Von Lott said. "They teach the game. In our offensive sets everyone touches the ball and anyone can get a shot. We know this (LCC) game is going to be tough, but we want to win it for our coaches and get them to state.

"That is the main goal."

Gholston concurs.

"They're always cracking jokes, keeping it fun," he said. "They've created a bond here. We all get along so well. And when we're in a tough situation in a game, that bond really helps us to overcome.

"We all want to win so we can go to state. But the biggest reason is we want to get our coaches to Indianapolis, really bad."

"Well we better get it done," Haskins added with a smile. "None of us are getting any younger."

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