Sullivan soldiers on
The classic basketball movie Hoosiers was based on a true story. The real, modern-day Hickory Huskers are playing in Sullivan County.
The movie continues too. Sullivan County is once again competing in the state tournament’s second round.
The Griffins will play Math, Civics and Science in Tuesday’s second round, the third straight year they have reached this point. It is a remarkable run for one of District 4’s smallest schools. Sullivan once had little history but that now has recorded three straight 20-win seasons and reached four straight state tournaments.
While MCS, the state’s No. 2-ranked team is a basketball factory disguised as a small-school program, Sullivan is the real deal. Look at the elementary program today and one likely knows exactly who will be on Sullivan’s future high school roster. That is fine with them too. Coach Glenn Vaughan, his staff and his players keep making it work.
The Griffins have achieved this unprecedented run of success the hard way. And now Sullivan basically has become a true American success story.
“We talk about this team wanting to prove people wrong and the other side is when you have kids from the school district who have grown up in the county and see guys be successful ahead of them and then get to this point and see teams have other advantages you have two ways to respond,” Vaughan said following Friday’s 52-47 Round 1 win over Mount Calvary. “You can make excuses and whine or you can be the best you can be and compete every day and that’s what they do. They bring it and we do the best we can with what we have.”
That has become the Sullivan way and it works. The Griffins have made history the last three seasons. They captured the program’s first league and district championships in 2012, won a program-record 23 games last year and now have broken the record for consecutive 20-win seasons and state playoff appearances. Over the last four seasons, Sullivan has won 84 games.
This might be the most impressive season during that stretch considering the obstacles. Sullivan (20-6) lost four starters from last year’s team. These were four of the most decorated players in program history so many thought Sullivan’s outstanding three-year year run was over.
Instead, the Griffins keep on winning. Jordan Beinlich, Sean Flannery, Bob Polcrack and Adam Szklanka have combined with returning starter Conner Wylie and now they collectively are leaving their own legacy. It was not easy and Sullivan took some early blows, but the Griffins picked themselves up, went back to work and have excelled, winning 14 of their last 16 games.
Early in the season, Sullivan let a big first-quarter lead against Muncy slip away and lost. It looked like history was repeating itself Friday when Mount Calvary turned a nine-point third-quarter deficit into a 1-point fourth-quarter lead. This team has grown up quick, though, and followed the example of teams before it, mounting a 14-6 run and pulling away for a first-round win more than two hours from home for a second straight year.
Polcrack hit a go-ahead 3-pointer, Wylie dominated inside the way he has often this year and Flannery, Szklanka and Beinlich took turns hitting big shots. Against the odds, those are the players who have put this Sullivan team right up there with its other great ones.
“That’s something we’ve been striving for all year, to prove people wrong,” Vaughan said. “We come back with four new starters and people think we’re not going to be as good but those guys played before and knew they could be successful.”
Tuesday, the Griffins try to pull their biggest surprise yet against a perennial powerhouse, a state semifinalist last year and a former state champion that spends its season playing some of the state’s biggest schools. MCS is bigger, stronger and quicker. It truly is a David vs. Goliath matchup.
But Sullivan is not running scared. The bigger the challenge, the more this program likes it. The Griffins have played the underdog all year and this is their chance to shock the PIAA world, their chance to really put the egg on the doubters’ faces.
They know they will be backed by a huge crowd too that will make it feel like a home game back in Laporte. Sullivan loves this team, loves this program. The whole county sometimes feels like it is at opposing gyms. Friday, when the team bus headed out of town it passed by fans at a local restaurant holding large signs cheering them on. This is a team that truly has its county behind it.
Sullivan keeps pounding the rock. The program could rest, savor its accomplishments and be satisfied knowing it is one of the state’s premier public school programs. That is not how this program operates. Sullivan only knows how to go full throttle while chasing the state’s biggest prize. Others might think it is a far-fetched dream but players and coaches, keep working, keep fighting. If the journey ends before a state final, they never have to wonder whether they pushed themselves to the max.
Doing so is the only thing these players and coaches know.
“That’s a credit, not just to these guys, but the guys who played before them,” Vaughan said. “We’ve had quite a few winning seasons and in the last seven years the bar has been set high and every team keeps trying to raise the bar and keeps trying to accomplish a little more. I have a lot of respect for the guys who played in the program and pushed themselves to be as good as they can be.”
Somewhere Norman Dale must be smiling.