Whitko Heads Into “Meat Grinder” Sectional The Most Improved Team In The State

February 27, 2024 at 5:40 p.m.

By Anthony Anderson

Whitko’s already a 2024 boys basketball state champ in at least one context.
The Wildcats made the No. 1 regular-season won-loss improvement in all of Indiana this winter, and actually, it wasn’t close.
Whitko stands 18-4 after landing at 5-17 a year ago, an enormous 13-game ascension and three games better than the state’s next-best improvement.
“We returned four starters — with a really good junior becoming a really good senior (in Kyler Krull) and three sophomores becoming juniors (in Jaylen Gibson, Easton Grable and Riley Harman) — and then we had a transfer (in Sam Essegian) who’s given an extra piece to our puzzle and solidified the group,” Wildcat coach Chris Benedict said matter of factly in explaining the surge. “Then Logan Hoffman off the bench as well, so six very solid players contributing night in and night out.”
Still, this is no standard rise. Plenty of teams statewide return four or more starters. A few pick up transfers. It helps, of course, that there was expansive room for improvement, but it’s a monstrous movement nonetheless.
“We did talk about it a little bit at Christmas break,” Benedict acknowledged of his team being aware of its reversal in fortune. “We didn’t want it to take away from remembering the work in the offseason, when everybody made these improvements.”
Now comes the next challenge, the seven-team Class 2A Bluffton Sectional, “a meat grinder of a sectional,” as Benedict describes it.
It’s the best 2A field in the state in terms of cumulative winning percentage, and Whitko could have the most daunting path based on at least state rankings.
The Cats open with a 6 p.m. Wednesday quarterfinal against No. 6-ranked Manchester (18-4), the same opponent they denied an outright Three Rivers Conference crown last week by virtue of a 56-51 road win. No. 5 Fort Wayne Luers (18-5) looms as a possible semifinal foe, while No. 7 Fort Wayne Blackhawk (18-6) or best-record Adams Central (19-4) should emerge from the other half of the bracket for Saturday’s championship.
The 6-foot-7 Krull is leading the Cats in scoring for a second straight year and has 1,173 career points He’s at 19.1 per game on the season to go with 6.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.4 blocks.
The 6-5 Essegian, who transferred from Central Noble, is averaging 13.7 points, 7.8 boards, 4.9 assists and 1.5 steals.
“They’re both inside and outside players,” Benedict said of a duo drawing college interest on multiple levels. “Kyler hasn’t had to shoulder the scoring burden every night like he had to last year, and Sam’s brought a competitive streak that’s rubbed off on everybody.”
Essegian enrolled last May and was with the team for summer workouts, but it wasn't until October that he was ruled eligible.
“It was a big risk on his part moving his senior year,” Benedict said, “but it worked out for him. … We were all kind of on pins and needles. Our other guys were already primed to be better, but he was the icing on the cake.”
Harman is averaging 8.6 points and 4.0 rebounds; Grable 5.9 points; Gibson 4.7 points and 2.9 assists; and Hoffman 3.4 points.
Whitko’s team shooting from the field has been superb, including 59.4% on 2s, 38.6% on 3s, 52.2% for all shots and a net effective percentage of 58.9.
The Cats enter the sectional with 13 wins in their last 14 games, the exception a 44-36 loss to Three Rivers co-champ Wabash.
As for the other co-champ, Manchester, “we did some things well,” Benedict said of last week’s win over the Squires, but “we had 20 turnovers, so we need to clean that up. We need to take care of the ball against their pressure and finish against it, which is sometimes tough to do. You have to be in attack mode and still pick your spots. They’re also very good offensively. (Gavin) Betten’s a great player, their guards can shoot and they’ve got some depth.”
Whitko’s already clinched its best winning percentage in at least 34 years (since going 21-4 in 1989-90) and its most wins since finishing 19-6 in 2008-09.
The Cats own 14 sectional titles, but are trying to end the longest dry spell in program history, the last coming in 2009.

Whitko’s already a 2024 boys basketball state champ in at least one context.
The Wildcats made the No. 1 regular-season won-loss improvement in all of Indiana this winter, and actually, it wasn’t close.
Whitko stands 18-4 after landing at 5-17 a year ago, an enormous 13-game ascension and three games better than the state’s next-best improvement.
“We returned four starters — with a really good junior becoming a really good senior (in Kyler Krull) and three sophomores becoming juniors (in Jaylen Gibson, Easton Grable and Riley Harman) — and then we had a transfer (in Sam Essegian) who’s given an extra piece to our puzzle and solidified the group,” Wildcat coach Chris Benedict said matter of factly in explaining the surge. “Then Logan Hoffman off the bench as well, so six very solid players contributing night in and night out.”
Still, this is no standard rise. Plenty of teams statewide return four or more starters. A few pick up transfers. It helps, of course, that there was expansive room for improvement, but it’s a monstrous movement nonetheless.
“We did talk about it a little bit at Christmas break,” Benedict acknowledged of his team being aware of its reversal in fortune. “We didn’t want it to take away from remembering the work in the offseason, when everybody made these improvements.”
Now comes the next challenge, the seven-team Class 2A Bluffton Sectional, “a meat grinder of a sectional,” as Benedict describes it.
It’s the best 2A field in the state in terms of cumulative winning percentage, and Whitko could have the most daunting path based on at least state rankings.
The Cats open with a 6 p.m. Wednesday quarterfinal against No. 6-ranked Manchester (18-4), the same opponent they denied an outright Three Rivers Conference crown last week by virtue of a 56-51 road win. No. 5 Fort Wayne Luers (18-5) looms as a possible semifinal foe, while No. 7 Fort Wayne Blackhawk (18-6) or best-record Adams Central (19-4) should emerge from the other half of the bracket for Saturday’s championship.
The 6-foot-7 Krull is leading the Cats in scoring for a second straight year and has 1,173 career points He’s at 19.1 per game on the season to go with 6.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.4 blocks.
The 6-5 Essegian, who transferred from Central Noble, is averaging 13.7 points, 7.8 boards, 4.9 assists and 1.5 steals.
“They’re both inside and outside players,” Benedict said of a duo drawing college interest on multiple levels. “Kyler hasn’t had to shoulder the scoring burden every night like he had to last year, and Sam’s brought a competitive streak that’s rubbed off on everybody.”
Essegian enrolled last May and was with the team for summer workouts, but it wasn't until October that he was ruled eligible.
“It was a big risk on his part moving his senior year,” Benedict said, “but it worked out for him. … We were all kind of on pins and needles. Our other guys were already primed to be better, but he was the icing on the cake.”
Harman is averaging 8.6 points and 4.0 rebounds; Grable 5.9 points; Gibson 4.7 points and 2.9 assists; and Hoffman 3.4 points.
Whitko’s team shooting from the field has been superb, including 59.4% on 2s, 38.6% on 3s, 52.2% for all shots and a net effective percentage of 58.9.
The Cats enter the sectional with 13 wins in their last 14 games, the exception a 44-36 loss to Three Rivers co-champ Wabash.
As for the other co-champ, Manchester, “we did some things well,” Benedict said of last week’s win over the Squires, but “we had 20 turnovers, so we need to clean that up. We need to take care of the ball against their pressure and finish against it, which is sometimes tough to do. You have to be in attack mode and still pick your spots. They’re also very good offensively. (Gavin) Betten’s a great player, their guards can shoot and they’ve got some depth.”
Whitko’s already clinched its best winning percentage in at least 34 years (since going 21-4 in 1989-90) and its most wins since finishing 19-6 in 2008-09.
The Cats own 14 sectional titles, but are trying to end the longest dry spell in program history, the last coming in 2009.

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