Griffins rewriting record books

Some players travel 45 minutes in the summer just to attend an open gym. Others spend their summers constantly playing all over while friends might be lounging and enjoying the sun.

Rewriting a history book, changing a culture and becoming a state-caliber program is never easy. The Sullivan County players recognized that a long time ago. They put in the work, sacrificed the hours and now have etched their names into community lore.

Sullivan is competing in the second round of the state tournament for a second straight year. The Griffins (23-3) have broken the program record for wins. They are coming off a demolition of a perennial state title contender. All the hard work has paid off and those across the state are starting to learn all about this small town tucked away in the northern mountains.

“They work extremely hard. I would challenge anyone to find a high school sports team in general that works as hard as our kids do day after day physically and mentally,” Sullivan coach Glenn Vaughan said. “They take pride in that. They put a ton of effort into everything they do. The reason why we’ve had the consistent success we’ve have had is because the kids have bought into that effort every single day. It’s at a point where we don’t even have to preach to the kids about hard work. It just happens.”

Sullivan plays District 12 champion Vaux in Tuesday’s second round. A win there would send it to the state quarterfinals for the first time. A team that once had little tradition to speak of keeps raising the bar.

The Griffins captured their first league and district championships a year ago while finishing 22-4. All-state guard Sharif Welton graduated but the winning has continued. Sullivan broke the program record for wins Friday when it pounded Greenwood, 56-32, in its own backyard. It was a win which illustrated why this team, why this program is thriving so much.

Sullivan suffered a heartbreaking loss to St. John Neumann in the district final six nights earlier. Players and coaches appeared devastated, but from sadness grew more determination. More greatness could still be attained, so Sullivan put that game behind it, went hard at practice and then made a big statement.

“I’m real happy with the character the kids showed,” Vaughan said. “Making a run in states was one of our goals all year long so with the (championship) loss that didn’t go away. The other thing that motivated us was no team in school history ever won 23 games. This team can always talk about holding the wins record for a season so that’s exciting for them too.”

One look at the postgame celebration – or lack there of – shows how far Sullivan has come. The Griffins do not have the advantages their opponent Tuesday night does, but this team still expects to shine every year. It still expects to win and leave its mark. That is why in the locker room afterward players remained happy, but subdued.

It basically was business as usual for a team making its third straight state tournament appearance.

“Our coach tells us as a team don’t get too high or too low,” forward Derek Wilkins said. “You can’t get too pumped for these games. You have to go in level-headed.”

The Griffins have won 64 games the past three seasons but they act like they have won nothing. They are as humble a group as one will find. They have done great things, but they want more.

That attitude was evident against Greenwood. Sullivan smothered a team making its eighth straight state tournament appearance and held it to seven points between the second and third quarters. Different players took turns shining on both ends and everything came together 2 1/2 hours from their comfy confines back home where they have lost just once in two years.

“You look inside at Conner (Wylie) and Derek and then you kick it outside and there’s guys like Kelby who can drive or Zach who can get his shots and if not, we can work it back inside,” said guard Lucas Hatton, a superb defensive player who had eight points. “It’s a lot of different aspects. It’s nice to have a couple threats on the floor at the same time.”

It is also nice to have one of the state’s most passionate fan bases supporting it. Despite Greenwood being 40 minutes from Hershey Friday, Sullivan had more fans there and made it feel more like a game in Laporte. It has been that way for a long time too. The fans, as much as anyone, understand how special this team’s run has been, how strong the character of both the players and coaches is.

There was a time when the postseason rarely existed. Now nobody wants to miss out. They understand their team is the best show in town.

“It’s nice to see the kids come out to that crowd,” Vaughan said. “We have people that are tired after work and spending money on gas and food and coming to watch us to play and that means a lot.”

Hordes of young fans, many future basketball players, are following this team. The wins and the records are nice but this team’s greatest achievement might simply be showing the future Griffins how to do things the right way.

That might be what keeps the tradition growing strong.

“They know that it takes a lot of effort to be good and they already are asking what to do in the offseason,” Vaughan said. “They look up to them and respect them and last year’s team and the team before that. They know it’s possible to earn that success and that’s something a lot of kids in the program didn’t see before. Now it’s a culture here and that’s a credit to the team and the past few teams we’ve had. I’ve coached a bunch of great teams over my eight years and we’re hoping to continue to work hard and have a program five years down the road that everyone wants to watch and support.”

The good times might just be starting.