ALBION, Ind. – John Bodey has attended or watched the IHSAA Men’s Basketball National Finals in person or on TV every March since he was 10 in 1977. He has watched and idolized players like Steve Alford and James Blackmon , wondering what it would be like to walk in their shoes.
“A basketball addict,” Bodey thought to himself.
Bodey, in his sixth season as Central Noble manager, is one step away from experiencing what it’s like to step onto the pitch himself in the National Finals. And he would do it with a player who passes the names of his childhood, including Alford and Blackmon, on his way to the state’s all-time scoring list.
“It was fun knowing that most games in his four years I probably had the best player on the pitch,” Bodey said.
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Connor Essegian needs no introduction at Albion, although he might need a PR assistant. After the games, elementary school children crowd around him and ask for autographs and photos. He is not the only one. The Cougars, ranked No. 3 in Class 2A and boasting a sparkling 27-2 record, will play in the halfstate for the first time in 21 years and the second time in program history.
“It’s hard to describe that feeling when you’re out in the community and everyone knows who you are and what you’ve done,” said Central Noble senior Logan Gard. “You feel like some kind of celebrity.”
Four years ago, the women’s basketball team became the first Central Noble team in any sport to win a state championship. The following year, early in the season, David Bremer began hearing stories about a freshman star from his daughter, Maddie, who was working as a student manager.
“I kept hearing from her about this Essegian kid,” said Bremer, who was then a sixth grade teacher and is now athletic director of Central Noble. “I saw him later that season and he had a phenomenal first year. He just kept running past and past him.
Essegian, a 6-4 shooting guard with an easy rebound and soft jump shot, will enter Saturday’s 2A half state against Carroll (Flora) (24-1) ranked sixth with 2,483 points to rank him No. No. 11 all-time on the state’s career goalscorers list and a good shot at reaching the top 10 with Cloverdale’s Cooper Neese (2,496) within reach.
His stat line this season: 26.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.6 steals and 2.3 assists per game. Essegian is shooting 43.2 percent from the 3-point line and 55.3 percent overall from the field. In an 80-61 victory over Hammond Noll on Saturday at North Judson, the Wisconsin rookie scored 47 points (one career-high point) on 19 of 25 shots, including 8 of 12 from the 3-point line. .
“You put him in big places and he shows up even more,” said his younger brother, second Sam Essegian. “That’s what he does.”
Those numbers and those moments resonate in Albion, where people have seen Essegian rise to the occasion time and time again in four years. It’s the kind of small town where the Central Noble basketball program is pinned to the wall in the Albion Ale House and every player’s numbers and names are written on the windows of downtown businesses, in face of the three-storey Romanesque brick. Noble County Courthouse.
Essegian behaves confidently. But recognition outside of Noble County has sometimes been harder to come by, whether in recruiting or accolades. When last year’s 12-man Indiana Junior All-Stars team was announced, Essegian was not named to the team by the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association. “We felt like he was snubbed,” Bodey said. It wasn’t until June of last year that his recruiting resumed with major offers from programs like Wisconsin, Butler, Creighton, Minnesota and Wake Forest and several mid-grade programs.
But Essegian isn’t shy about playing the underdog role.
“It fuels who I’ve been all my life,” Essegian said. “It’s something that I take to heart and makes me work harder to be who I am – working hard below the surface and breaking through at the right time. I feel like everything I’ve done starts to pay at the right time. Being in high school here in a small town, we have in mind that we want to prove everyone that we can be wrong.
Saturday night, after Essegian’s 47-point outburst against Hammond Noll, the Cougars were in a hole against Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian, the defending 2A state champions.
Ten minutes into the game, Essegian was scoreless and had three turnovers. Two minutes into the second quarter and Central Noble trailing by five points, Bodey replaced him. Essegian sat on the bench, towel in hand, for a good three minutes.
“He didn’t lie down at all,” Gard said. “He pressed the reset button and kept that shooter mentality.”
Essegian returned to the pitch looking refreshed. He drained his first jumper from the 15-foot dribble, then drilled a 3-pointer off the top of the key, coming out of a screen set by his brother. He had two more free throws to enter the half with seven points.
“I was trying to get myself locked up again,” he said. “I wanted to get back on the court and do everything I could to win. The first trimester, I didn’t do that. My teammates supported me too. They took me aside and said, ‘Just be yourself, go out and play ball.’ I took a few minutes to refocus and that allowed me to get back into the game and finish strong.
After a slow start, Essegian finished with 30 points, five rebounds and three assists in a 58-53 overtime win over Blackhawk Christian. The game of the match was not an Essegian basket, but an assist. Late in regulation, Central Noble trailed by three points when the Blackhawk player missed the start of a one-on-one. Essegian dribbled down the left wing as the clock hit the 10-second mark.
“My first thought was to go for a quick basket,” Essegian said.
But Essegian noticed the 6-6 Gard goalkeeper sagging in the middle. Gard was wide open at the top of the sideline as Essegian fired a pass at him. The only problem? The Gard had only shot three 3-point shots all season.
“I’ve played with Logan for years, and he’s always had that knock on the outside,” Essegian said. “I trusted him.”
Gard did not hesitate. His second 3-pointer of the season took his season average to 50% and sent Central Noble into overtime, where the Cougars were ahead one point on a 17-footer from Essegian with 49 seconds left and clung from there. When the clock hit all zeros, Essegian tossed the ball in the air and joined his teammates in celebration.
After three years of trial and failure in the section (Central Noble lost to Westview in 2019 and Churubusco in 2020 and 21), it was a particularly therapeutic and fulfilling time for Essegian.
“I always had this dream of winning a state championship,” Essegian said. “But we’ve always had one of the toughest sections in the state. So it was something that we all took to heart and wanted to achieve.
Trying to keep Essegian in practice is like playing quarterback on the scout team. It can be a disheartening experience. It was largely the work of the younger brother last year as a freshman.
“Very tough,” Sam said. “This year we’re having different people go up against him depending on the weekend game.”
But the Cougars are far from a one-man team. Gard, who heads to Trine, is averaging 12.5 points and 8.1 rebounds and Ryan Schroeder (8.3 ppg, 4.2 assists), Conner Lemmon (8.1 ppg, 3, 4 assists), Jackson Andrews (5.0 ppg) and Sam Essegian (3.6 ppg) are capable of making teams pay if they want to try and win Essegian entirely.
“It’s a great group from top to bottom,” sporting director Bremer said. “There are superstars like Connor, but throughout the roster they are serious and hard working.”
Bodey said he saw every possible defense in Essegian’s four years, which made the Cougars a better long-term team. “It probably made me a better coach to understand how to deal with these different defenses and what to do in these situations,” he said.
In the hallway outside the Central Noble gymnasium, there are team photos of all six sectional championships starting with the first in 1977. The team photo of the 2018 women’s team that won the championship of State, with Sydney Freeman’s Indiana, is prominently displayed in the entrance. All-Star jersey. Essegian will most certainly join her as an All-Star and a team photo will go on the wall – the only questions are the number on the jersey and the inscription on the team photo.
But how he’s remembered here probably matters more to Essegian now than when he started his freshman year. Although he’s grown as a player over four years, Essegian has also come to appreciate his role with those young kids who ask for a photo or autograph after games.
To these kids, Essegian is what Alford and Blackmon were to his coach.
“It’s something I always try to keep in mind,” Essegian said. “Being able to inspire children is a huge blessing. If anyone wants an autograph from me, I’ll definitely take the time out of my day to give it to them. That’s the whole story.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.