One of the teams that I focused on in Thirty-Two Minutes in March was Center Grove High School and their first-year coach, Zach Hahn. He was a head coach in one of the largest schools in Indiana, and only three years removed from playing in the NCAA championship game for Butler University.
Whenever we spoke, two things stood out. First, that he was a very intense young man. Second, that he was totally committed to building the Center Grove program for long-term success.
A few weeks ago I interviewed him again during an early pre-season practice for 2016-2017. Neither of my previous impressions have changed. Hahn is still all in on growing Center Grove basketball, and unrelenting in his belief that the Trojans can compete with anybody. But even Hoosier-state legends age over a couple of years, get a little older, a bit wiser, and more introspective.
“I’m working harder on reflecting more after games,” he said, with the sound of bouncing basketballs echoing off the rolled-up bleachers in cavernous Vandermeer Gym.”They all say ‘Coach, don’t criticize’, and there have been some times when I criticized more than coached. I need to do a better job of that.”
As I watch practice, I notice that the assistants are a lot more involved in the drills, instructing players, making their voices heard. Two years ago, Hahn never would have walked away to talk during a practice. Now he mostly stands or squats on the side, watching intently, only jumping in periodically to emphasize points or make observations. He’s only lost one assistant coach over the first two years, so they all understand what he wants.
As we stood on the sideline, Hahn spoke at length about the season and his players, but his eyes rarely left the court. “I can come over here now,” Hahn says. “I can watch the big picture while the assistants run the drills.”
He’s also made wholesale changes in the Center Grove youth league, binding it more tightly to the high school program.
“We run the evaluations for the youth teams now, and we pick the travel teams. Those guys are all a big part of what we do. The middle schools are much more involved now. Last year we hired a middle school liaison to help teach them our systems. I think people are excited about our program, because they see not only me, but our players and coaches out in the community, doing things like going out and watching youth league games.”
In his first year, Hahn said there were times when he thought referees were trying to set a tone and let a young coach know that he couldn’t get calls by being loud and assertive. He was consistently vocal with referees, but got only one technical foul all year. I asked him whether he noticed any difference last year with a full season under his belt.
“I’d say it was the same,” he said drily. “A lot of guys just want to come in and make sure I understand it’s gonna be what they want and not what I want. That I’m not going to dominate the game vocally. And that’s another thing I’m working on as a young coach who’s fiery and pretty passionate. I’ve got to adjust my coaching a little bit when I deal with referees.
“But I think the players this year have done a really good job of adjusting to me. It hasn’t always been that way. I think these guys are a little more tough-minded.
“It’s their third year with me now. After my first year I lost seven seniors, and we only had a couple of guys coming back with any varsity experience. We had three freshmen in our top eight last year. This year we have six guys coming back that will play in our top ten. So they have a better understanding of the process and how things work day in and day out.”
In that first season, Hahn was concerned about scheduling, especially on weekends with games on both Friday and Saturday nights. He couldn’t eliminate all of those scenarios due to the five-year lead time needed to change conference schedules. He’s got three weekends of Friday/Saturday games in December. And in January he’s got two very good teams – Ben Davis and Roncalli – on back-to-back nights.
Hahn shakes his head. “That’ll be a bloodbath weekend. That’s a very physical weekend for us.”
But he has had some effect on the schedule.
“We got rid of New Palestine and picked up Avon, who is more like a sectional opponent. We picked up Southport and got rid of Cathedral to try to create a south side rivalry. We didn’t make the schedule any easier, but we’ve created a level of play that we want to maintain all year.”
Hahn won’t project an expected number of wins. But he thinks Center Grove can compete in the powerful Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference. And as Assistant Coach Brian Keeton once said, “If you can compete in the MIC, you can compete with anybody in the state.”