CHESTERTON — Cutting the net. Raising the trophy. Hugs. Smiles. Tears.
From Whiting to Tri-County, big schools and small, all were iconic images of sectional championships Saturday.
Mine? The thought of Barak Coolman standing over a sink of soap suds, the sleeves of his white suit coat pulled up to his elbows.
"Win or lose, when I get home, I'm going to have to do the dishes," the Valpo coach said after the Vikings' 46-43 victory over Merrillville. "But I'm going to do them with a smiling face."
Coolman's point (other than confirming he's a domesticated husband) is that championships may define a career, but they don't define coaches and players.
"It's awesome, it's not what it's all about, but it sure is nice," Coolman said. "It doesn't change anything about who we are. It's about making a memory, a memory that they'll have for the rest of their life."
With 51 sectional titles entering the postseason, Valparaiso ranked 11th in the state, but the seven-year gap between championships was the program's longest drought since the '50s. Coolman embraced that history when he traded his orange suit for a green one three years ago.
"And now we've got 52," he said. "That was something I was driven to maintain. Nobody puts more expectations on me than me. Those aren't just Valpo expectations, those are my expectations. I expect to be the best we can be, to compete for a sectional every year."
Titles don't come easily. It takes talent, chemistry, a formula for success and a little luck. Valpo had them all. It has the best player in the Region in Brandon Newman, a role-playing mix of younger and older players, a grinding, defensive philosophy and its road to the finals didn't include a game with Chesterton, the only team in the field it had lost to, on its home floor. What it did have to do was beat a Merrillville team hungry for another crack at the Vikings after the controversial finish of the team's regular-season meeting. You remember, the Nate Aerts 3 after the buzzer that counted?
There was a tinge of irony that the rematch also ended with a 3-point shot, the Pirates' Rob Sanders' half-court shot banking off the glass and rim.
"We had a bunch of practices for this during the season, overtime, double overtime," Newman said. "We showed it here tonight. We knew what we had to do."
Merrillville coach T.J. Lux called Newman's play the difference in the game. Poor free-throw shooting and Valpo's defense on Johnny Bernard were also key points.
"He was relentless on the glass," Lux said of Newman."His second, third opportunities were kind of the difference really. They put a lot of guys on one side of the floor. They didn't want to let Johnny beat them. It's a good learning thing. Sometimes, you have to give it up and go to the other side."
Newman's play was good but not great in the first two sectional games. He wasn't great Saturday, he was elite.
"He was given all this pressure, we forget he's 17 years old," Coolman said. "He feels he's got to maintain it. We talked after the Portage game. I told him, just relax, be a basketball player, do what you're capable of doing, that's what's gotten you where you're at."
The Vikings junior didn't do it with flash, reflective of an atypical great Valpo team that's more about substance than style. Most of his work came around the basket rather than on the perimeter.
"I know I can't do it by myself," Newman said. "It was the third game of the week. I knew I wasn't going to have as much legs as Wednesday night. Coach told me to drive. That was first on my mind."
On the other end, Charlie Healy, one of only two seniors on the roster, helped bottle up Bernard.
"Coach always tells us, a man doesn't score, the ball scores," Healy said. "It starts with stopping the ball. Everyone stops the ball."
Valpo held three sectional opponents under 50 points, something it's done 11 times this season. It's 11-0 in those games.
"A sectional championship, especially in the Duneland Conference, is never going to be a high-scoring game," Coolman said. "Charlie's a great defender. He's a glue guy."
The Michigan City Regional is next for the Vikings. If they win it, I'll do the dishes.