Benton Harbor boys primed to defend state title
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. - "These are tune-ups for us," Carlos Johnson said after practice at Farnum Gym. "This is preparing us for 7-0 or whatever the case may be."
That 7-0 run is the focus this time of year at Benton Harbor's high school gym.
The boys basketball team is using the final few weeks of the regular season to prepare for another run to the state finals at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. The Tigers know just how tough that path can be after finally breaking a half-century drought last year.
“Winning the state championship here at Benton Harbor was a special day, an emotional day," said head coach Corey Sterling. "Everybody was proud to be a Tiger. It was easy to get guys in for workouts – weightroom, conditioning, cross country and fall league. Everybody bought in over the summer to get back to this point.”
Sterling's team was the talk of last year's finals after beating Grand Rapids Catholic Central in overtime. But despite most of the veteran leadership from that group graduating, there was still plenty of talent returning.
Tigers junior Carlos Johnson burst onto the scene with the game-winner in that OT thriller, and is now one of the state's most sought-after recruits with several coaches visiting Benton Harbor to see practices and games.
“It’s been busy," Johnson said of his recruitment picking up steam. "A lot of coaches texting, wanting to come down to see a game, wanting you to come to them to see a game. But at the same time you have school and other things you wanted to do."
While Johnson's game had already caught the eye of several midmajor programs, larger schools have now joined the mix. His latest offers include the likes of Butler, Missouri, West Virginia, and now Michigan.
"I try to limit my activities as far as going places and seeing other stuff to keep my focus here," he continued, "It’s only about four or five months here and then I'll try to get everything going in the springtime to see what’s really up.”
As for right now, the biggest focus for Johnson and the rest of the veterans is stepping into a leadership role to bring this young team back to defend its state title.
“I tell them not to hang their head on bad mistakes or missed shots. It’s part of the game and everybody does it. The young dogs gotta be prepared for their run. They’re next up next year.”
“We get better each game," said senior Christopher Kyles. "We start off the day 0-0. We win the day and go on to the next game and develop each game that we play.”
So far, the Tigers have won all but one game. The lone loss came at the hands of state power Detroit Edison. This weekend, they face River Rouge, another top team and another challenge to show the Tigers as much adversity as possible.
“Our schedule this year is probably our toughest schedule since I’ve been coaching here," said Sterling, "and the guys have really responded. We’ve been playing Division-I players and in sold out arenas."
And while their play on the floor speaks for itself, the other motivation is to continue disproving whatever narratives may surround Benton Harbor from the outside.
"They say Benton Harbor is a bad city, but I don’t think it is," Kyles said. "We’re talented and we’re active. What we show on the court is no bad example at all.”
It's clear the Tigers view theirs as a city full of talented people who work hard. And with another good run, that belief and mindset might pay off once again.
“[The city] comes out and supports," Sterling said. "Benton Harbor’s always been a sports town. The success of the program has been successful all the way around for the city and the school.”