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Tough start pays off for state-bound Hebron boys

Hebron Christian's boys basketball team didn't get off to a good start.

The Lions lost five of their first six games and had just three wins by midseason.

But that was against some tough competition -- competition deliberately scheduled by second-year head coach Will Cantrell.

Once Hebron got into the meat of its region schedule, those early games, even though they were nearly all losses, paid off. It wasn't always an easy sell either, even to some who know Cantrell best.

"My dad gets onto me about why we're playing this team or that," Cantrell said. "I have an older brother (Adam, who is the head baseball coach at Providence Christian). Eventually, it's a whole little-brother aspect. When you take on your older brother, if you don't bring it every second, he's going to kick your tail.

"I try to schedule bigger and better teams than us, especially in non-region, because I'm trying to get us better. It's really, really helped us in region games."

The Lions finished 10-5 in their region and won when it counted most. They beat Towns County last Wednesday in the 8-A tournament and clinched a state playoff berth for the first time in program history.

Hebron lost to Lakeview in the second game of the region tournament, but rallied to beat Commerce on Saturday and earn a No. 3 seed at state. It set up a date at home Tuesday at 6 p.m. with Lincoln County.

"I thought we really played well (against Lakeview)," Cantrell said. "We just ran into a buzz saw. They did not miss.

"We came back and showed a lot of character to beat Commerce."

The win avenged an early-season loss in which the Lions struggled.

"Two of our better players were out with concussions, but I told the team that even if we'd put them in and played the way we did, we still would have lost," Cantrell said. "So they were really fired up going into Saturday. It was a chance to redeem themselves."

This whole season has been something of a redemption.

The Lions won just five games in Cantrell's first season as head coach.

"When I first came in, it wasn't a real pretty sight," Cantrell said. "The commitment level wasn't there. It's taken a good two years to show everybody, to figure out what it takes to be good. Hopefully we've taken that next step."

The first week of school this year, Cantrell had players from the freshman team to varsity coming in and asking about conditioning and getting ready for the season.

That same week, Cantrell had a sit-down with his senior leader Dylan Schulte.

"I said, 'Dylan, no one gets more out of their abilities than you, but with this team, it's not enough. You've got to be more assertive,'" Cantrell said. "I can holler until I'm blue in the face, but until the kids take ownership, it's not going to make a difference.

"Dylan is by far and away the leader by example, but he's done an outstanding job being more vocal."

The other seniors on the team have also been a big factor in the Lions' success.

"They have really just bought in," Cantrell said. "Griffin Gambill doesn't have the greatest numbers, but he's a leader for us. Rob Harrison is another kid whose numbers don't jump off the page, but he's a glue guy.

"They do all the stuff people don't see, like keeping the guys focused. Some of the younger guys are playing so well, they have to sit on the bench with me for a bit. It'd be easy to have a bad attitude. But there's not even a hint of it. If anything, they've been more pumped up for people playing, quote, their position."

That attitude extends from the top down.

The JV team was there to watch the win against Towns County that sent Hebron to state.

"It was like they were going to state," Cantrell said of the younger kids' reaction. "Which they are. When that banner goes up (for the state qualification), it won't have any names on it. It will just say, 'Hebron.'

"It's been remarkable. This really has been a complete program effort."