Before this boys basketball season — a glorious one indeed for the 24-3 Linton Miners — coach Joey Hart was in a bit of a slump regarding the IHSAA state tournament.
His record for sectional title matchups was 0-6 over a career that included six-year stints with Shakamak (1996-2002) and Turkey Run (2004-10) before his last three seasons at Linton.
“My teams lost to A.J. Graves [White River Valley], Brody Boyd [Union] and R.J. Mahurin [Rockville],” Hart said, reflecting on some of his sectional heartbreaks.
But this season, the 40-year-old Hart is riding a hot streak that includes a 9-0 mark since Feb. 12.
On March 2, he finally got the sectional monkey off his back when his Miners defeated Sullivan 47-41 to capture the Class 2A North Knox Sectional crown.
Then they rolled through the Southridge Regional by downing Clarksville 65-62 and Perry Central 68-63 on March 9. Then they edged Speedway 76-75 in overtime last Saturday to survive the Richmond Semistate and earn a trip to the state finals Saturday inside Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
At 12:45 p.m., they’ll face No. 7-ranked Bowman Academy (17-9) for all the marbles in Class 2A. Linton was ranked No. 10 before the state tournament started.
For Hart, a former standout player at Union High School (1990 graduate), Vincennes University (1990-92) and Coastal Carolina (1992-94) and a former assistant coach at VU (2002-04), basketball has played a major role in his life. So winning a state championship would be a dream come true — not just for him, but for his players, staff, school and community — and he knows it.
“It would be an awesome thing, most definitely,” he told the Tribune-Star after Wednesday’s practice in Indianapolis. “More importantly, it would be something amazing for our kids. But as far as coaching, we’ll probably be thinking about our next team about an hour after Saturday’s game.”
Hart has tasted success at the high school level before, but most of it was as a player when his father Joe Hart coached the small-school Bulldogs.
At the end of his junior season, the 6-foot-4 Joey Hart helped Union claim the 1988-89 sectional championship and reach the Terre Haute Regional in Hulman Center, where it lost to a strong Tony McGee-led Terre Haute South squad.
“We missed a bunch of free throws in the first half and got behind,” he recalled. “We should have been right there.”
Joey’s senior year, the Bulldogs went 21-2 but lost to a good Mark Hisle-led Terre Haute North group in the sectional semifinals in Hulman Center.
“When Joey was a senior, it was like having a coach on the floor,” Joe Hart mentioned Wednesday.
At Coastal Carolina three years later, the younger Hart was able to play in the NCAA tournament as a junior. But his team was eliminated by Michigan.
“It was a blast,” he said of his Coastal Carolina career. “I started every game for two years.”
Once his playing days ended, Joey Hart returned to the Wabash Valley and earned a degree in mathematics education from Indiana State in 1995.
He also helped with his dad’s team at Union for one season and served as an assistant at Evansville North for one season before he landed the head-coaching job at Shakamak.
“I didn’t know what I was doing as a coach until 2001,” Joey said with a chuckle. “I really thought I got a lot better as a coach in 2001-02.”
After coaching at Shakamak, VU and Turkey Run, Joey’s wife Brooke — a Greene County native — convinced him to apply for the job at Linton in 2010.
Now Joey — who says he knew he would become a coach when he was in fifth grade — has an opportunity to lead a team to a state title. With this group of Miners, which includes seniors Austin Karazsia and Dess Fougerousse, nobody knew if it would ever reach its potential until recently.
“The talent was there the day they walked through the door three years ago,” Joey Hart pointed out. “We’ve had growing pains. We’ve had moments when we were really good…”
But Linton finished only 12-10 in 2011-12, losing to Bloomfield 45-41 in the sectional. That disappointment caused an increase in commitment from the players over the summer.
Describing a summer-league game from 2012, Joey said his boys led a “loaded” Columbus East team by 20 points at halftime and held on for the victory.
“We made a lot of progress this summer in terms of our maturity,” he noted. “We had some seniors who were pretty committed to what we wanted to do.”
According to Joe Hart, Joey’s coaching didn’t hurt the cause this season.
“He’s pretty knowledgable,” the elder Hart assessed. “I know he knows a lot more about basketball than I do. He really works at it. … He’s picked up things from different people.”
Joey Hart preferred to share credit for the Miners’ success.
“Things have to come together for a run like this and we’ve had all sorts of heroes,” he said. “There have been several key moments — big shots all over the place. These guys have earned it. They’ve prepared for good things to happen and now they’re happening.”
This week, Joey has received congratulatory texts and phone calls from a variety of coaches and former coaches, including Loogootee legend Jack Butcher, the state’s all-time leader in victories.
Regardless of what happens Saturday, Joey Hart will add to his memory bank full of court battles.
“It’s just so enjoyable to experience this with kids who worked so hard and gave of themselves for so long,” he said.