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Rodney Williams retires as 21st boys basketball coach, assistant coach Larry Upshaw takes over
Boys basketball

Rodney Williams retires as 21st boys basketball coach, assistant coach Larry Upshaw takes over

Class A boys basketball sectional final: Kouts vs. 21st Century (retirement)

Rodney Williams holds up five fingers after guiding 21st Century to its fifth consecutive Class A sectional championship in March. He officially retired as the Cougars' boys basketball coach Wednesday.

Rodney Williams has been at 21st Century since the beginning. The school was founded in 2005, and he helped start the boys basketball program ahead of the 2008-09 season.

Mentally, it doesn't feel like it's been that long, but for a while, Williams' body has been telling him that he's nearing the end. After building the program up from scratch, alongside athletic director Ricky Haskins, Williams has officially retired as 21st Century's boys basketball coach.

The 1973 Horace Mann graduate knew before the 2019-20 campaign started that it would be his last year on the sidelines, and despite the abrupt end to the Cougars' dream season due to the coronavirus pandemic, he still hasn't changed his mind.

Williams finalized his decision Wednesday via a Zoom teleconference with Haskins and longtime assistant coach Larry Upshaw, who will take over the program.

"I'm really proud," Williams said of his tenure. "Me and coach Haskins started the program 12 years ago, and it's just grown. It's done all of the things we expected it to do."

The 2010-11 campaign was the first season that 21st Century competed as a member of the IHSAA. Williams and the Cougars ended the year with a 5-15 record, but it didn't take long for them to turn things around.

Two years later, 21st Century won its first Class A sectional title and hasn't looked back. Under Williams' guidance, the Cougars claimed six sectional championships and clinched consecutive regional crowns in 2016 and 2017.

This year, 21st Century may have had its best team yet. The Cougars, led by Indiana All-Star and Florida Atlantic commit Johnell Davis, had their eyes set on securing the program's first state championship. But after taking down Kouts on March 7 for the team's fifth straight sectional title, the COVID-19 outbreak forced the IHSAA to cancel the rest of the state tournament on March 19.

"We absolutely wish it would've gone a different way," said Williams, who ended his coaching career with a 160-101 record. "I'm still kind of shaken about it, but hey, it is what it is, man. Life is more important. I'm just glad that everyone (in the 21st Century program) is safe and healthy."

The Cougars finished the season at 22-3, which is the best record in program history. Although Haskins wanted Williams to end his coaching career in a more fulfilling fashion, as a fellow 21st Century elder statesman, he fully supports Williams' choice to step down.

"To take a program from where we took it, to being noted now all across the state of Indiana, it's been great," Haskins said. "But like Mr. Williams said, at our age, it's taken a lot away from us. We had to do a lot to get that program where it is."

21st Century led by Gary's elder statesmen (retirement)

Ricky Haskins, left, and Rodney Williams helped start 21st Century's boys basketball program after the school was founded in 2005.

Williams said he'll still hang around the team, though it will be more so as a mentor than a coach. Both he and Haskins think Upshaw will do an excellent job as his replacement.

Upshaw has been an assistant coach for the Cougars for the last seven seasons and also played AAU basketball for the Runnin' Rebels, which was coached by Haskins and Williams several years ago. As Upshaw tries to put his own stamp on the program, he said he's excited to use the "wealth of knowledge" Williams has shared with him to uphold the team's success.

"I've known coach Williams my whole life. I've been learning from him since I was a little kid," Upshaw said. "He's got that old spirit that helps keep the kids grounded. That was always easy for him. With me, they always try to relate to me because I'm younger, so I'll have to be a little firmer with them. But I don't think it should be an issue."

Bowman/21st Century boys basketball game (retirement)

Larry Upshaw, who was a boys basketball assistant coach at 21st Century for the last seven seasons, will replace Rodney Williams as the Cougars' head coach.

Williams will always wonder if this season would have ended with a trip to Bankers Life Fieldhouse and 21st Century's coronation as the top Class A team in the state. But even without the chance to punch their ticket to Indianapolis, Williams believes the Cougars' ultimate goal is still within reach.

"We'll get a state championship one day," Williams said. "Sooner than most people would probably expect, but we'll get one."

Gallery: Great Region athletes

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Lake County Sports Reporter

James Boyd is the Lake County prep sports reporter for The Times. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a proud native of Romeoville, Illinois. Before anything else, his main goal in life is to spread love and light.

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