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Promise for Portage: Connected Indians looking to build on foundation of young talent

WESTVILLE -- When Kamari Slaughter transferred from Portage to Indianapolis Cathedral, it left the Indians without their leading scorer from last season.

It also left a chip on the shoulder of the returning cast who didn't care for the skepticism that the young roster wouldn't be able to sustain the hit.

"That motivated us," junior Jaelyn Johnson said. "Over the offseason, I was hearing, my teammates were hearing, you guys aren't going to be as good without so and so. You guys are definitely going to go down, this, that. That definitely motivated us to be a lot better. I love my team. I feel our chemistry's getting better every day."

Time will tell as the schedule toughens and the Indians get into Duneland Conference play, but the early returns, a 3-1 start after Saturday's 56-32 win over Westville, have been favorable.

"We're pretty young, so hopefully we're going to continue to get better," said coach Bryon Clouse, who starts three sophomores. "We've got a great group of kids. They're buddies, they hang out, they run for each other, they work for each other. It's extremely enjoyable to be around these guys every day. We crack jokes with each other. When it's time to be serious, they know it's time to be serious. We don't have to worry about someone being late or not cheering for someone. We know if they do the right thing, everyone is cheering for them. I'm really happy with the way we're forming."

A JV player who only saw mop-up time on the varsity level as a sophomore, the 6-7 Johnson has had a breakout start, bullying the Blackhawks the the tune of 22 points and 16 rebounds.

"Over the summer, I was putting in a lot of work," Johnson said of his personal training and AAU time with 94 Feet Elite. "It was really just my mentality. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself, keep myself motivated, tell myself that I should be up there, I should be that guy. You start playing with more confidence. My confidence came from my preparation. The first quarter, I came out a little iffy. I had to change my mindset. I couldn't worry about the people in the crowd. I had to stay disciplined with my game."

Johnson scored the first three baskets of the third quarter with a third-try putback, another rebound hoop and a dunk on a Jaelon Hollies lob.

"He just wasn't as nasty as he is now. We had to talk him into getting rebounds and doing stuff like he did tonight," Clouse said. "He's done it in three of the four games. He does work his butt off. We were in the gym, doing our stuff, and he was there every time. He comes early and stays late. He's been in the weight room. A lot of credit goes to him for doing what he's had to do to get where he is. It didn't happen by accident."

A program that historically lacks size, Portage has a physical presence about it with its sophomore trio of 6-1 Sam Wellman, 6-3 Garrett Clark and 6-5 Michael Wellman and 6-4 senior bruiser Dennis Mitchell. Their attributes mesh well with Clouse's blue collar philosophy.

"That's cyclical," Clouse said. "I hope I have a long tenure here and I'll probably have some smaller dudes. Right now, we're blessed with what we have. (Mitchell)'s a big, powerful dude, another great kid. You saw the charge. Everyone was going crazy. Michael was happy as hell. That's his first one ever. Garrett took his first one this season. I try to tell these kids the dunk in the most exciting play in basketball and the second most exciting play in is the charge. It hurts, but it gets everybody going."

After a slow start that saw the Indians trail 16-15, it held Westville scoreless for a span of over eight minutes, putting up 20 straight points to take full control.

"We gave up 12 the first quarter, then the next three quarters, after I had to do some yelling, we only gave up 20," Clouse said. "The first timeout, I was OK, calm down. That's not the Bryon Clouse everyone's used to. I told them at halftime, I'm done with that. I'm back to yelling and screaming, so you guys better do what you're supposed to do if you don't want to hear me yell. We've just got to keep building and moving forward."

Clark scored 11 points, showing a nice inside-outside game.

"Jaelon had a meniscus (injury) in the summer, so we're really just now getting where those five are playing together every day," Clouse said. "The play Jay had him for (Johnson) for the dunk was pretty sweet. We're all starting to feel each other out, know their tendencies. We're not going to let them say we lost because we're young. We're looking forward to the rest of the year. You never know what the next year's going to bring."

Westville is in its fourth season playing Portage, and Blackhawks coach Drew Eubank likes the cut of these Indians.

"They're a difficult matchup for anybody," he said. "Hollies had that open 3 in the corner and before he released it, the whole bench is up cheering. There's definitely a different vibe with that team. We beat them two years ago when they were probably more physically talented than this team. That doesn't matter if you're not a team. That's a team and they're going to be really tough. I would be shocked if they're not in the top half of the Duneland. They've been to back-to-back sectional championship games, and I wouldn't be shocked if they do it again. I think they could beat anybody on a given night."



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