BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
Darren McKaig stepped down from the Pioneer girls coaching job in 2011, so he could spend more time with his family.
At the time, he had three children under the age of 5 at home.
Nine years later, he’s back as the Pioneer boys basketball coach, and one of his players is family.
That would be freshman Drew McKaig, and he’ll be fighting for playing time on a team that graduated Jacob Brown, Logan Nusbaum and Gage Cripe. Pioneer won 17 games and tied for the Hoosier North title with Knox and LaVille by going 5-2.
“We’re basically losing three-fourths of our scoring, at least,” McKaig said. “Some guys have only gotten in five practices; some guys have only gotten in two practices. So it’s really hard to predict right now exactly how it’s all going to turn out.”
McKaig took over for Austin Cowley, who left to take the Delphi coaching job over the summer. McKaig, who was hired in mid-July, spent the last five seasons as an assistant on Cowley’s staff. A 1997 Pioneer grad, McKaig has coached at every grade level of basketball from third grade through varsity.
Both he and his kids are fully immersed in basketball.
“That’s helped me become familiar with them,” McKaig said. “My son is now a freshman, so I’m very familiar. I’ve coached his group coming up and the grades around him, and I have another soon who is a third-grader, so we’re just getting started with him.”
Cowley had six consecutive winning seasons, and they won at least one sectional game in five of those six years. However, Pioneer remains without a sectional title since 2013.
With Brown, Nusbaum and Cripe gone, McKaig said this year’s team could be deeper than the team that rarely played more than five or six players. Depth might be important given that Pioneer plays its first seven games, two of which are conference games, in less than three weeks.
“I think we have a lot of guys who can play some at the varsity level,” McKaig said. “So we might be playing a lot of guys and just trying to run, play hard, rebound well and maybe wear teams down a little bit. … This year, it’s going to be a variety every night. We’re not really sure where it’s going to come from, but we’re going to trust the process that if we play hard and we rebound hard and maybe press some too, that we’ll get some points.”
McKaig said he likes a more free-flowing offense as opposed to an offense with a lot of set plays, though he added there will be both in order to keep the opposing defense off-balance.
Defensively, McKaig said he will have to be flexible to meet the needs of the situation.
“It changes from game to game, and I think it even changes in the middle of the game,” McKaig said. “So many times in the past, you go into a game thinking this is a good chance to play a 2-3 zone, and all of a sudden, the other team is shooting really well and it just blows up in your face and you have to adjust. … I think you have to have two or three different defenses to go to.”
Asked if his team will shoot a lot of 3-pointers without the three graduated players from last year, all of whom were capable 3-point marksmen, McKaig said the idea appealed to the teacher in him.
“I think we have some capable shooters,” McKaig said. “We do shoot a lot of 3s in practice. I definitely think it’s an advantage to play by 3s and 1s – we call it 3s and getting fouled and shooting a lot of free throws – rather than always shooting 2-pointers. Being a math teacher, I think it’s a mathematical advantage to shoot the 3. But you’ve got to shoot a certain percentage to make that happen, so we’re going to see if we can get there.”
McKaig said he will be asking a lot from senior Ezra Lewellen, who is expected to bring the ball up the floor but also contribute to the scoring.
“Ezra will be our main ballhandler, (our) point guard,” McKaig said. “He’ll set up the offense, and then we’re going to have to get the ball back to him in the flow of the offense for him to be a scorer too. So he’s going to have to do a lot.”
Addai Lewellen is a senior who received minutes as an undersized post last year but may see time as more of a wing or as a shooting guard this year.
“This year, I think we’ve got some bigger guys, so he is going to play more of a wing or maybe even a 2-guard some,” McKaig said.
Hunter Klepinger is the team’s tallest player at 6-4 and can be a versatile scorer, according to McKaig.
“He can score inside and outside,” McKaig said. “We basically play four players out and one post player, so sometimes he’ll be that post player, and sometimes he’ll step out, and he can shoot a little bit also.”
Christian Scott, Oscar Solano and Gavin Clem are others with previous varsity experience who are back. Scott is a 6-0 guard. Solano has a similar inside-outside skill set to Klepinger, according to McKaig. Clem will help with shooting and ballhandling.
In addition to Drew McKaig, other newcomers include freshman Cayden Hill, sophomore Caleb Sweet and junior big man Jacob Zeigler.
Pioneer closes the regular season with four consecutive road games against Maconaquah, Winamac, North White and Tri-County. Pioneer will close the regular season at Tri-County on Feb. 26 and then return to Tri-County for the sectional from March 2-6.
The stretch of seven games in three weeks to start the season includes conference games against Triton (home on Dec. 11) and LaVille (away on Dec. 18).
Pioneer will play nine home games and 13 games on the road or at neutral sites.
Pioneer plays Caston at Logansport at 8 p.m. Wednesday as part of the Cass County Invitational. It’s both their season opener and a rematch of last year’s sectional final, which Caston won 44-40. Pioneer has lost their season opener in four straight seasons and eight of the last 10 seasons. Pioneer will host Caston Jan. 29 in the game that will count in the conference standings.
McKaig said he hopes to have Brock Robinson back “towards the end of December.” Robinson suffered a collarbone injury in a sectional football game against Bremen on Nov. 6. Once he’s back, he will help with the ballhandling, according to McKaig.