State champs a collection of stars without star mentality

<p><strong>M</strong>ost of the players who celebrated inside Market Square Arena that deliciously wonderful February night are now a couple of decades removed from their last drive to the basket.</p><p>As for the then-second-year head coach who pressed all the right buttons, he’s 68 and grandfather to four children ranging in age from 8 to 19.</p><p>Members of the 1996 Center Grove girls basketball team have had nearly a quarter century to relive the euphoria of a state tournament run culminating in what remains the school’s lone basketball state championship.</p>[sc:text-divider text-divider-title="Story continues below gallery" ]<p>In many respects, it’s still yesterday.</p><p>Two years later, Indiana switched to a multi-class postseason formula, making the accomplishments of coach Joe Lentz’s squad all the more historically significant.</p><p>“Winning a state championship when it was really a state championship, that was the highlight of my career,” said Lentz, who coached at Center Grove from 1994-2009 and recently stepped down after nine more seasons at Ben Davis. “Career-wise, it would be hard to top anything like that.</p><p>“You win a state championship, that’s a blessing.”</p><p>Tremendous accomplishments don’t happen without great players, assistant coaches, parents and community support. In the mid-1990s, Center Grove girls basketball proudly showcased these elements, starting with young ladies who grew up aspiring to be great.</p><p>Not individually, but collectively.</p><p>Three-fifths of that Trojans starting lineup finished their high school careers with 1,000 or more points. Jenny Martin, a tireless 5-8 junior forward who later played at Miami of Ohio, accumulated 1,275 and 5-6 guard Emily Butler wound up with 1,124. Butler, a freshman on that state championship squad, played at Northwestern.</p><p>Six-foot junior forward Liz Stansberry (Martin) ended her career with 1,112 points.</p><p>The floor general was 5-4 junior point guard Venus Harmeyer (Thorne), with sophomore Lisa Eckart the starting center.</p><p>Martin and Stansberry were members of the 1997 Indiana All-Star team. Butler earned the same honor two years later.</p><p>In terms of basketball talent, there could have been a continual clashing of egos in practice and games. The longstanding friendships that had been built to that point wouldn’t allow it.</p><p>“We were all just so focused and had the same goals. My class had played together since third grade,” said Thorne, 41, now vice president of Northpointe Engineering &amp;amp; Surveying. “Our fun thing to do on the weekends was to go to someone’s backyard and play basketball. I probably knew where Jenny was going to be on the court before she did.</p><p>“You could tell on the court that we were friends off the court.”</p><p>As eighth-graders, Thorne and others from her class went to Market Square Arena to watch the 1993 finals, won by Kokomo with a 70-60 defeat of McCutcheon in the championship game.</p><p>“We said we’re not coming back until we’re playing in it,” Thorne said. “We didn’t want to go sit in the stands anymore.”</p><p>Martin, 40, who works for Abbott Medical Devices as a sales instructor in the structural heart division, remembers it well.</p><p>“We were all good friends and we were saying how cool it would be to come back here as a team. We did end up there eventually, which was pretty awesome,” she said. “We grew up almost as extensions of each other’s families. When I think back to that team, we genuinely liked each other, and I think we all still genuinely care about each other.”</p><p>The foundation for state supremacy was laid years earlier. The Trojans won five consecutive sectionals (1989-93) under coach Dave Wilkerson before Martin, Stansberry and Harmeyer entered high school.</p><p>The 1994 Center Grove team lost to Connersville in a regional semifinal; the following season the Trojans made it to the title game of the Greenfield-Central Regional before losing a 90-84 double-overtime heartbreaker to Rushville.</p><p>Lentz’s squad wasn’t to be denied the following season.</p><p>Center Grove won its nine postseason games by an average of 28.3 points, along the way exacting revenge by disposing of Rushville and Connersville at regional. The Trojans handily downed Ben Davis and Noblesville at semistate and crushed Kokomo, 72-47, in a state semifinal.</p><p>Martin scored 13 points to lead her team past Valparaiso later that night, 55-44. Always a model of consistency, she had supplied 12 points, four rebounds and four assists in the semifinal earlier in the day.</p><p>With all five starters returning, Center Grove was favored to repeat as state champions in 1997, the final season of one-class hoops. It advanced to the Southport Semistate, but future Purdue University All-American and Indiana Fever player Katie Douglas led Perry Meridian to a 62-61 victory.</p><p>“I think our team that year was at least as good, but there were some injuries, and we didn’t necessarily peak at the right time,” Lentz said. “And the fact that Perry Meridian was really good.”</p><p>Added Martin, “We ran into a really good team, and sometimes the matchups aren’t in your favor. If we played that Perry Meridian team 10 times, we probably split, 5-5.”</p><p>Lentz wrapped up his head coaching career this past season by leading Ben Davis to a Class 4A regional, where the Giants lost, 38-31, to eventual state champion Lawrence North. He ended his 24-year head coaching career with 394 victories and enough fond memories to keep him smiling the remainder of his days.</p><p>Center Grove’s 1996 season is forever at the forefront.</p><p>“Those kids were good friends who grew up playing basketball together. Every team I’ve ever coached or seen that was really successful, they were close,” Lentz said. “They were just naturally unselfish. Even the two seniors who didn’t get to play a lot, Pam Eckart and Margo Atkerson, they were a great example of how to be a teammate. There was very little drama.”</p>