Beech Grove carries the memory of Matt English to the semi-state

BEECH GROVE — There’s a photo of Mike Renfro in the final seconds of Saturday night’s Regional Championship win over Danville that shows the Beech Grove coach with his arms around senior Damon Thompkins and junior Jeremiah Tate.

There are tears in Renfro’s eyes. Yes, real tears.

“He cried like a crybaby,” Thompkins said, flashing a broad smile.

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Renfro can withstand the ribs for a few days. Saturday night’s win at Greencastle was the culmination of a journey that began when Renfro coached Matt English, who died in December 2018 after a battle with brain cancer. Starting that season, Renfro led the Hornets to four straight Class 3A sectional titles. The program had never – in its history – been able to win a regional title, until Saturday night.

It is a program built on tenacity and altruism. A “hard hat mentality” is what English calls it. “We before me” is a common refrain around Beech Grove, which comes from both English and renfro. But there was another oft-used English quote Renfro was thinking about on Saturday morning before Beech Grove played Brownstown Central in the regional semi-final.

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“‘Win the day,'” Renfro said. “Matt was in my head earlier in the morning when I was talking to my dad. Matt always said, ‘Win the day.’ I couldn’t get that out of my head. Not the game, but the day. “What are you going to do to help your team win the day? We talked about it. When we won the first game it was always ‘Let’s win the day’. He was definitely on the mind.

Streaking Beech Grove (20-6) has won nine straight and 13 of 14 heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. semi-state game against fourth-placed Sullivan (25-2) at Washington’s Hatchet House. The Golden Arrows make their first half-state appearance in 21 years, riding the hot hand of senior Randy Kelley, who hit game-winning shots in overtime wins over Washington and Pike Central and in a half-time win. regional final 52-49 against North Harrison. In an 89-85 win over Evansville Bosse, Kelley scored 33 points.

“I know we can’t let him touch the ball late in the game,” Renfro said of Kelley. “But as I’ve been saying (to our team) for the past four weeks, it’s us against us. If we sit down and keep and play the way we can, we’ll give ourselves a good shot at winning.

Beech Grove has a sharpening iron philosophy. The Hornets have a 10-man rotation, which makes practice an extremely competitive environment.

“They get tough,” junior Jeremiah Alexander said of practice. “That’s what (Renfro) likes. He likes this competitiveness. He likes to get under your skin and see how you will react. You have to be strong mentally. If he says something, you don’t take it as he says it, but listen to what he says.

For Alexander and most Hornets, Renfro’s style was business as usual. For Southport newcomer Anthony Ball, it was an adjustment. Renfro compared him to “two alpha male bulls butting heads” at the start of the season. Ball too often tried to force the action instead of switching to open players. This resulted in the guards not looking for Ball as much.

“It was, ‘OK, you did it your way and it’s been OK but now let’s do it my way,'” Renfro said of the post. “’Let’s do it our Beech Grove way.’ I think it pays off for him. He’ll hit a cutting guy to the basket and they all trust each other now. The guys were reluctant to throw the ball to him at the start of the season because they might not get it back. The sky is the limit for him. His second jump is about the fastest I’ve seen. You can’t teach that. I love it. There was a photo in the Star and you can see that glow on his face and how happy he was. I love seeing these kids win.

Ball leads the team in scoring (15.4 ppg) and rebounding (8.5) and shooting 67% from the field. Juniors Tate (9.3 ppg), Alexander (9.2 ppg, 4.3 assists), Cam Brown (6.5 ppg), Jaleel Edwards (6.2 ppg), Adrian Hollard (5.0 ppg), Rylan Horen (3.7 ppg) and Skylar Thacker (2.7 ppg) are key contributors, along with seniors Thompkins (4.5 ppg, 3, 5 assists) and Damonte Henderson (4.7 points per game, 3.7 rebounds).

That kind of balance and depth is a luxury that most high school teams don’t have.

“Anyone can score,” Ball said. “We are not limited to a few people, everyone can score. It also makes us better in practice. When everyone is going strong, we are a bit used to when we face other teams.

Ball said Renfro’s self-proclaimed “tough love” style benefited him. He said Beech Grove feels “100% like home”.

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“He helped me so much,” Ball said of Renfro. “He helped my attitude and my composure. I definitely needed it. It was positive.

Renfro, a 1995 Beech Grove graduate, was a star player for the Hornets, averaging 27.4 points, 8.4 assists and 7.6 rebounds as a senior on a team that went 18-5 but lost. lost in the Sectional Championship to Shelbyville in the One Class Tournament. Before the recent streak of four straight section titles, the Hornets had only won three previous section titles (1966 and 1992 in singles class and 2008 in 3A).

Within 48 hours of the program’s first regional championship, Renfro received a stream of “congratulations” text messages and calls for former teammates and players, even from opposing coach Brian Barber of Danville. English’s widow, Angela, and his mother, Beth, attended the game in Greencastle and greeted him with hugs. English’s sister, Jill Muegge, called him the next day.

“He’s a big reason why I’m here,” Renfro said of English. “The things he and I talked about – how far we could go in the tournament, getting the kids to graduate and be good people – those are things we’re still talking about now. In the locker room, there is always an “Us before me” on the board. It’s him.”

Beech Grove High School players and fans celebrate an IHSAA Boys Regional Basketball Championship game against Danville High School, Saturday, March 12, 2022, at Greencastle High School.  Beech Grove won, 66-50.

Over the years, there are fewer and fewer players in the program who know English personally. Thompkins was a freshman the English season died. Alexander was in eighth grade and knew English from his time in the program. But even for those who didn’t know English, they have a good idea of ​​who he was as a person.

The attitude of blue collar workers. Total effort, 100% to practices. The global, team-oriented approach. These are all philosophies English and Renfro shared as coaches.

“He was a really smart guy,” Alexander said of English. “I know Coach Renfro looks up to him and loves carrying on his legacy.”

Renfro would like to continue this run for two more games. One of the mission statements they shared was to strive to “be the best team in the state of Indiana.” Now they are almost there.

So excuse Renfro for crying.

“They’re breaking my chops on this,” Renfro said with a laugh. “But we talked about dreaming big and they bought into what we’re selling. They worked for it.

Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.