NEW PALESTINE — Next man up.
It’s a sports philosophy that applies not only to players, but, in the case of the New Palestine High School boys basketball program, coaches as well.
Trent Whitaker was hired Monday as the Dragons new varsity head coach by the Southern Hancock Schools board.
Whitaker replaces Adam Barton, for whom Whitaker was an assistant during Barton’s entire 10-year tenure. Barton, likewise, was a longtime assistant for his predecessor, Brian Kehrt.
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In fact, Whitaker also was an assistant for Kehrt, during the last of Kehrt’s 10 years at the helm.
It’s a continuity that has served the program well, and Whitaker’s ascension to the head coach’s seat was welcome news Monday.
“You could just see the thrill on the kids’ faces in the gym when they were told he was named coach,” said Jeff Wright, Barton’s other 10-year assistant alongside Whitaker. “He’s got a relationship with them. They have a trust in him. So, we’re not starting over. We’re just continuing our program, which is awesome.”
Barton (120 wins) finished second behind Kehrt (126) on the Dragons all-time win list, with Barton claiming three sectional titles since 2009. Barton, who resigned to pursue an administrative career, often credited Wright, Whitaker and fellow assistant Jeremy Large with his success.
It seemed only natural that one of the group would slide one position over on the bench. Such is their mutual respect, Whitaker didn’t want to apply for the head coach job without checking with Wright.
“Jeff was the first person I talked to,” Whitaker, 39, noted. “I said, ‘What are your thoughts?’ And as soon as he said, ‘Hey, I’m in if it’s you.’ I knew right then that I was going to do it.”
Neither Large, who plays a large role on the football staff, as well, nor Wright, applied to take Barton’s spot. Both will return to the basketball sideline to assist Whitaker.
“I am absolutely thrilled,” Wright added. “I told him if he wanted it and pursued it, I would be more than happy to assist him. I think he’ll do a great job. His enthusiasm is off the charts.”
Whitaker inherits a team that went 13-12 this season, falling to Franklin Central in the 4A Sectional 13 championship. Following a recent IHSAA enrollment reclassification, the program will play in Class 3A for at least the next two seasons, although it is losing two-time Hancock County Player of the Year Ryan Curry to graduation.
Barton, who will leave the classroom next school year to assume a Dean of Students position, has faith in his replacement.
“Trent’s relationships with the players throughout our program has always been his strength, and will be a huge advantage as he gets started this spring,” Barton said.
“I am excited for him and I am excited for the basketball program. Trent has done everything a coach can do to be ready to be a varsity basketball coach.”
A 1994 graduate of Eastern Hancock, where he played basketball for Terri Tillett, Whitaker later graduated from Ball State University in pursuit of a career in education. Now a Doe Creek Middle School counselor, Whitaker got his first taste of leadership with the Royals.
“I kind of considered myself a coach on the floor,” he said. “I was not the greatest basketball player, by any means. But the coaches always had a difficult time taking me off the floor, because I understood where to be and what to do. I was the hustle guy, kind of the glue guy to keep a team together.”
It’s that philosophy that will shape Whitaker’s teams.
“If kids understand their role, they’re going to get minutes,” Whitaker said.
In terms of on-court style, Whitaker would prefer to play at a relatively fast pace, similar to this season’s squad, and his defense will depend on the Dragons’ personnel.
“I’m not stuck on a certain system,” he said. “Your kids are going to change every year. I think you have to adapt to what you have and coach to kids’ strengths.
“Next year, it’s definitely going to be tough to replace a two-time Hancock County Player of the Year and all the accolades he got, but we’ve got a pretty good core of seniors returning.”
New Palestine High School boys basketball varsity head coach
Doe Creek Middle School counselor
Education: Eastern Hancock High School (1994), Ball State University (1998)
Family: Wife, Carrie; children, Devon (13), Luke (11)
Previous coaching: New Palestine basketball varsity assistant for Adam Barton, 10 years: for Brian Kehrt, one year; middle school coach, five years.