Naivety can be a good thing for a young basketball team. You know the kind, the ones that are supposed to lose all the time but, for some reason, either don't get the message or fail to understand it.
That was the Heritage Patriots last season, when they went 11-10 and had a 6-0 conference record for their first outright ACAC title. It helps when you've got one of northeast Indiana's best players, guard Luke Saylor, who averaged 19.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists as a sophomore.
“Everywhere that I've coached – I've coached at Huntington North and I've coached at Carroll – he's probably the most skilled player that I've been around as far as ball skills and the ability to see openings for a passing lane,” Heritage coach Adam Gray said. “He shoots it incredibly well. Probably since his freshman year of high school, he's grown five inches. He's been a captain as a sophomore and then again this year. I can't say enough about the kid.”
That includes Saylor's ability to deal with adversity. He broke and dislocated his wrist during a 76-51 sectional loss to Mississinewa on March 5. The Patriots had cut a 20-point deficit to 10 when Saylor went up for a dunk, got undercut and landed awkwardly.
“It was a very tough road back because we didn't know whether to get surgery or not, what would be a faster recovery for me,” said Saylor, who opted against surgery and couldn't start doing any shooting until late June. “It was really hard watching all my teammates work out and play basketball. I was just sitting off to the side.
“For sure, it set me back because it was a whole summer of not shooting, not lifting (weights) or getting stronger. I don't think I'm 100% back yet, but I will be soon.”
Fortunately for Heritage, Saylor has plenty of help from senior Dalton Wasson (10.3 points, 4.7 rebounds per game last season), junior Nyles Knapke (8.1 points, 2.9 assists) and senior Leroy Lepper (4.6 points, 2.4 rebounds).
Saylor, 17, enjoys quarterbacking the offense as much as finishing for the Patriots, who began this season with a 42-21 victory over Garrett, a 64-56 overtime loss to Whitko and play host to Leo on Friday.
“I like to have the ball in my hands and get my teammates open,” said Saylor, 6-foot-2. “I like to get a lot of assists and watch my teammates score.”
The Patriots put the rest of the ACAC on notice with their unexpected play last season.
“We were young last year. They didn't know what they didn't know and there wasn't really a pressure there because (in 2019-20), we won four games,” Gray said. “We were pretty good, but I don't think (the players) knew how good they could be because all they knew was from the year before. Like, we weren't very good and then they get out and get some game experience, and they beat some teams, and they competed with some teams that people probably thought we shouldn't have. And that just filled our confidence.”
The Patriots aren't going to take anyone by surprise this season, so their success will be dependent upon how well they deal with facing opponents' best laid plans.
“I think that (our players) are feeling pressure and are pressing to an extent where they feel like they have to play perfect. And they're going to have to realize that not everything is going to go perfectly in every game. They're getting better about that,” said Gray, noting that against Whitko the Patriots scrapped to make it close when, last season, they might have folded earlier.
“We're going to operate from a sense of we're going to come in every day, we're going to work, we're going to get better, and if (that ethic) comes out in wins, comes out in conference championships and competing for sectionals, then that's great.
“But at the end of the day, they need to see that their hard work and the way that they prepare, it gets them ready not only for a basketball game but for life.”
ACAC Players to watch
Joe Reidy, Woodlan: As a junior, he made 48.2% of his shots and averaged a conference-best 23.2 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.4 shot blocks for the 10-11 Warriors.
Trey Schoch, South Adams: The Starfires were impressive last season – going 15-9 – and Schoch averaged 16.8 points as a junior.
Ethan Poling, Adams Central: Averaged 16 points and 8 rebounds as a sophomore, as the Flying Jets (10-14) made it to the sectional semifinals.
Braden Smith, Woodlan: As just a freshman, he scored 12.3 points with 4.1 rebounds per game last season, scoring in double figures eight of his last 10 outings.
Austin Harris, Southern Wells: Has the ability to score – see his 20 points in 70-44 loss to Bellmont on Nov. 24 – and was honorable mention all-conference last year as a junior for a 2-21 team.