By Brady Extin | The Times-Post
PENDLETON — In the late 90s and early 2000s, Pendleton Heights experienced season after season of winning basketball.
The program saw sectional championships in ‘94, ‘95, ‘96, ‘00, ‘03, and ‘04, along with a semistate appearance in 2000.
After six straight seasons with a losing record, the Arabians have turned back the clock, and have brought back the coach who helped lead those winning seasons — Joe Buck.
Buck replaces former head coach Adam Ballard and brings with him a plethora of experience.
In his first stint at Pendleton Heights from 1993-2006, he won a program-best 189 games and six of the school’s first nine sectional championships. During the 13 years, he compiled a record of 189-105, a winning percentage of .642, and 11 winning seasons.
“I’ve always enjoyed coaching and never really lost the passion. I felt like I still had the energy, and the opportunity presented itself to be able to step in and try and help the players, the program and the school corporation,” Buck said. “The basketball program and South Madison Community Schools were always good to me and my family, so I’m happy to be able to step back in and pay back by trying to help them out.”
Buck inherits an experienced and senior-laden team. The Arabians enter the year with six seniors, five juniors, and two sophomores on the roster.
“A lot of people are looking at this year’s team because we return a lot of lettermen. Although there are a lot returning, this team has struggled to find wins in the past,” Buck said. “Physical and mental maturity, along with the player’s willingness to accept roles in the best interest of the team is going to be a key to this team’s success.”
The group of returning players will be led by 6’7 senior forward Josiah Gustin.
Gustin led the Arabians in points, rebounds and blocks last season. He averaged 13.3 points per game, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. He added 2.1 assists per game and shot 54% from the field.
He finished last season with five double-doubles and had multiple blocks in 18 of the Arabians 25 games.
A great offseason led to Gustin receiving multiple college offers, including two from Division 1 schools.
“We’re trying to take advantage of our strengths and play to our strengths, and Josiah would be one of them, but at the same time we’re trying to work on our areas of weakness that we have,” Buck said.
Along with him, Evan Mozingo, Aaron Cookston and Isaac Wilson are all returners who played in all 25 games last season.
Mozingo, a junior, was second on the team in scoring, averaging 11.3 points per game. He added 3.9 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game.
Cookston, a senior, averaged 7.5 points, pulled down 1.8 rebounds and had 1.1 assists per game.
Another senior, Wilson was a defensive presence for the Arabians, leading the team with 1.4 steals per game. He added 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists.
Dontrez Brazton and Reese Caplinger round out the group of seniors who played key minutes for the Arabians last season.
Braxton, a guard, averaged 4.4 points and 2.4 assists, while Caplinger averaged nearly two points and two rebounds per night.
Along with them, Pendleton Heights brings in senior transfer Seth LaRavia from Westfield.
Last year, the 6’5 forward averaged 5.0 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
“Seth brings size, and he’s an intelligent young man,” Buck said. “He anticipates well and could end up helping the team this year.”
Rounding out the Pendleton Heights roster are juniors Joe Estes and Ethan Hannaford, and sophomores Hayden Fox and Cooper Sims.
Estes appeared in eight games, while Fox made one appearance as a freshman.
“Everyone is learning what we’re implementing, and everyone is trying to find their roles in the team,” Buck said. “Our practices are very competitive, and that’s the way we like it.”
The Arabians ended last season 8-17, and went 0-7 in the Hoosier Heritage Conference, but closed out the season 3-3 before a loss to New Palestine in the sectional semifinals.
Buck’s hoping to build off of that and to have the team playing some of its best basketball by the time postseason play begins.
“The players are excited. They’ve responded well to the things we’re trying to do and they’re working hard and we’ve seen some improvement. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’re all looking forward to the challenges ahead,” Buck said. “We need to develop good habits and establish a good work ethic. The goal has always been to work hard and improve each week to be able to peak and play our best when March rolls around. That’s the way I’ve always approached things, and that’s what we’re going to do with this team.”
They open the season on Tuesday at Anderson with tipoff set for 7:30 p.m.