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Lake Central girls hoops going 'Hupp,' 'Hupp' and Away to the 4A state final

COLUMN BY STEVE HANLON

 

ST. JOHN – The hallway was dim inside Gary West Side’s facility. The noise of a packed gymnasium emanated from far behind. 

Perspiration and pain huddled at the end of the tiled lane.

Joe Huppenthal was almost without words on that night, which is a rarity. The head girls basketball coach at East Chicago Central had just experienced the gut punch to end all belly blows.

His Cardinals, ranked No. 1 in the nation, had just lost the 1995 regional championship to rival Lake Central 37-35 in front of 5,000-plus fans. In the final 30 seconds, at least seven shots had rolled around the rim for what seemed like an eternity before spinning out. The orange ball was in the air when the buzzer sounded but never touched the nylon.

Oh, the humanity.

Lake Central advanced to the state finals, the Final Four in those days.

While Coach Hupp just pondered what could have been.

I had gotten to know him the past year and went to share condolences on that dramatic night. He expressed time and time again the concern that such an opportunity might never come again. He wondered if he’d ever get to Indianapolis in late February.

I remember telling him, “Yes, you will, Joe. And I’ll be writing a story about it.”

That was 29 years ago. But that promise is why I’m crawling out of the writer’s grave to let my fingers dance on the keyboard again.

Oh, the humanity.

Huppenthal coached at E.C. for six years before moving to South Bend. He coached Clay’s boys basketball team for 19 seasons and Clay’s girls for one winter. And every summer, especially the last decade, he’d give me a call and ask about any openings in the Region, his home.

I would tell him what I’d heard and what was going on. And it all came together eight years ago when Lake Central, yes, those Indians, gave him a job to coach girls hoops.

Irony in a pair of blue Nikes is really cool sometimes.

“I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Huppenthal said of getting hired at L.C. with so many years of teaching/coaching experience on fiscal grounds. “But I am so glad they did.”

Tri-Town is smiling about the move, too, these days.

On Saturday, Huppenthal will be coaching in his first state championship game when his Indians (26-4) will battle Lawrence Central (29-0) in the Class 4A title game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

“When I wake up in the morning, I sort of have to pinch myself,” Huppenthal said with a stare and a smile. “This isn’t about me. One person can’t do this alone. The athletic department, my coaching staff, the community and the girls, we’ve all come together to make something like this happen.

“I’m trying to enjoy the moment. But we’re not just happy to be playing in this game. We’re going down there to win.”

If it happens, he will join his little brother Chris, also a Highland native, in cutting down the nets on the biggest of stages. Chris also left the Region after a great run at Highland and went to Hamilton Southeastern, leading the Royals to the 4A state title in 2019.

Joe is now trying to make Indy the city of Brotherly Love.

Joe was a graduate assistant for Gene Keady at Purdue. His story is pure Indiana, the state, basketball. Like many throughout the years, he’s chased this dream all over. But now, the fiery guy working his magic on the hardwood gets a chance, which is all any coach could ever want.

At East Chicago, he had All-Americans on the roster. Monica Maxwell took Louisiana Tech to two Final Fours in college. Tennille Adams led Arkansas to a Final Four. They were heartbroken as well back in ‘95.

This Lake Central team does not have that kind of individual talent. Not one Indian is scoring in double digits.

But there is one thing that links these two teams separated by the years and that’s a love for Joe Huppenthal.

“I was terrified the first time I met him,” said L.C. senior Nadian Clayton, laughing as she spoke. “He would come to our (middle school) practices and we were all so scared. But we’re used to him now. He’s almost like a father figure to us now.”

“He’s so emotional,” junior Ayla Krygier added. “He’s a yeller. But we know how to handle that by now.”

“Sometimes, we don’t understand what he’s saying, or yelling,” said senior Vanessa Wimberly. “But he’s the only coach we’ve ever had. He is such a big part of what we’ve done and what we’re planning to do.

“We love him. We really do.”

Can you see the team picture hanging in the hallway of the school with the theme music from “Hoosiers” playing in the background?

I am almost getting goosebumps thinking about such a thing.

Lake Central girls hoops hung a team photo in 1994 when the Indians won the single-class state title. They returned to Indy the next year, losing in the semifinal. In 1998, L.C. was the state runner-up.

But it’s been awhile, proving how difficult it is to play in the last game of the year. Huppenthal fully gets it.

“I can still see those balls up around the rim and I kept thinking one of them's going to drop in and we’re going to win this. But it didn’t happen. We were so close,” Huppenthal said of the ‘95 game. 

Well, he’s close again, as is the school that used to be a rival for the coach but now is home.

There is no one else I can think of to coach in this game.

The perfect leader for the perfect team.

This time, no matter what the experts believe, Huppenthal is going to see the ball drop through the net.


Joe Huppenthal has led Lake Central to Saturday's Class 4A state championship game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (Photo by Steve Hanlon)

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