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Apaches defy odds in reaching regionals

HUDDLE: Wabash’s starting five of Elijah Vander Velden (left), Logan Vander Velden (12), Dereck Vogel (5), Blake Gribben (11) and Trenton Daughtry (right) huddle before the start of Saturday’s regional game.

BY JACOB RUDE - sports@wabashplaindealer.com

Three years ago, the Wabash boys’ basketball team won nine games. Last year, the 12 games won served as an accomplishment with the program finishing with a winning record for the first time since the mid-90s.

That type of perspective is needed to properly frame how impressive Wabash’s 2018-19 season was. Twenty-one wins. A Wabash County title. A Three Rivers Conference crown. A sectional title. Wabash gathered trophies and milestones in bunches this season.

Saturday’s challenge, facing off against the No. 4 side in Class 2A in Frankton, finally proved to be the hill too steep for the Apaches to climb. That isn’t to say Wabash didn’t come close. The Apaches held their own against a program two years removed from a state title. At times, Wabash looked the better side as the lead changed hands countless times throughout the day.

In the end, though, Frankton’s experience showed through as the Eagles executed down the stretch, even absorbing missed free throws in the final minute to knock off Wabash, 57-54.

“We knew it was going to be that type of game,” Wabash head coach Paul Wright said after Saturday’s game. “We felt like we were pretty evenly matched with them size-wise, guard play-wise. We tried to prepare our kids all week that this was going to be a game like it was. We just didn’t make enough plays. We went on a nice little run there in the third quarter. Frankton’s a great team. We just weren’t able to keep it going.”

Frankton’s four trips to the regional round in the last eight years provided all sorts of experience for the Eagles. Three of the Eagles’ top four leading scorers on Saturday played in the state finals two years ago. Wabash, meanwhile, had not won a sectional in 52 years before this season. The Apaches, instead, used on regular season games this season to gain experience ahead of Saturday’s sold-out showdown.

“At Blackford, we had a crowd of this size,” Wright said. “The sectional championship game was a heck of a game between us and Manchester, back and forth and both teams made runs at each other. And the Peru game…I thought this year, we had three games that really got us ready for an atmosphere like this. The only difference is, we didn’t play them at 10:30 in the morning.

“I thought our kids did an awesome job of coming out and playing hard. That’s all you can ask for. I can’t be much more proud of these guys than I am.”

In getting to Saturday’s regional, the Apaches relied heavily on its senior duo of Logan Vander Velden and Blake Gribben, even if the scorebooks rarely showed it. While Vander Velden did average 9.6 points per game, his value often came on the defensive end matched up against the opponent’s best player. On Saturday, he had a big hand in holding Key to 6-of-16 shooting from the field.

Gribben, meanwhile, averaged just 5.2 points per game but played in all 26 contests, starting the vast majority and featuring prominently all season for the Apaches. His biggest contribution often came on the glass, helping Wabash average 33 rebounds per game and 11.4 offensive boards per contest.

“They mean a lot to what this program, hopefully, can sustain in the future,” Wright said of his seniors. “Their work ethic, they might not have lit up the scoreboard but there weren’t two guys that played harder than those two did in practice. And not just this year. Logan, with his work ethic, he’s going to be so successful at the next level playing football. And Blake, his ability to just do whatever it takes to win, you saw that today. He had five huge rebounds.

“There’s a lot we’re going to miss with this class with their leadership and just their work ethic every single day on and off the court.”

While Saturday was a day of gloom for the Apaches, the future remains bright. Guard Trenton Daughtry showed out in the final weeks of the season, pouring in 25 points in Saturday’s loss and averaging 24.5 points per game in his final six games of the season. He’s already eclipsed the 1,00-point mark for his career and will be chasing the school’s all-time scoring mark next season.

Backcourt mate Dereck Vogel showed his value to the Apaches as well this postseason. Along with Daughtry, Vogel played every second of the final two games of the season for Wabash.

While Vogel averaged just 8.2 points per game, 31 threes on the year were third-most on the team and often came in timely moments, 11 of those coming in the postseason.

A host of other contributors return as well. Elijah Vander Velden emerged as a junior for Wabash, averaging 7.5 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds along with 3.5 blocks per game. Jordan Holley played in all 26 games for Wabash while Kallen Kelsheimer played in 24 games this season. Jasper Walters burst onto the scene late in the year, helping Wabash to a conference title while hitting 42 percent from three-point territory on the year. Half of his 42 three-pointers came in the final 10 games.

The expectations will remain high for Wabash. And while Wright admitted there’s plenty of potential in his side moving forward, he also noted how quickly potential could turn into disappointment.

“Like we said at this time last year, there’s a lot of potential,” he said. “But potential’s a scary word. We told them in there we’re going to have to work just as hard as we did or harder starting in June like they did last summer to get where we want to be. I think we have the kids that will do it with their work ethic but it’s going to be a lot of hard work to try to match what we did this year.”