Indians grow up fast: Van-Far boys defeat Mark Twain 78-47 after quick start

By Jeremy Jacob, Sports Editor
Posted 2/7/24

To the Van-Far boys coaching staff, the Indians have been growing up right before their eyes.

Van-Far Senior Night Photo Gallery

Three seniors who have been playing together since grade …

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Indians grow up fast: Van-Far boys defeat Mark Twain 78-47 after quick start


To the Van-Far boys coaching staff, the Indians have been growing up right before their eyes.

Van-Far Senior Night Photo Gallery

Three seniors who have been playing together since grade school were honored on Friday for Senior Night before coming together to defeat Eastern Missouri Conference rival Mark Twain 78-47. Nikos Connaway, Carter Jennings and Gage Gibson are scheduled to play at home some more this season, but the memories from the past four years came at them fast like they did at the Tigers.

A night after trailing 20-6 after one quarter and then losing 63-46 at Montgomery County, Van-Far (15-4, 5-1 EMO) made sure that didn’t happen again against Mark Twain (3-16, 1-5 EMO), who was without reigning all-conference player Sam Northcutt due to injury. The Indians sped to a 25-12 lead after one quarter and then 48-19 halftime to eventually provide the opportunity for each senior to be applauded off the court one-by-one. Head coach Pat Connaway admitted the emotions haven’t completely hit since the Indians are scheduled to be at home some more this season, but they were still there.

“To get them individual recognition in front of a great crowd, it meant a lot,” Connaway said. “Those three kids, not just NJ (his son Nikos), but Gage and Carter are like my own kids. I’ve coached them since they were in the first grade. They’re family.”

Connaway’s and assistant coach Brett Reading’s kids fought hard for each other as they outrebounded Mark Twain 28-5 after one half and 38-14 in the game. Along with his game-high 25 points, Nikos Connaway (who was named Courtwarming king on the same night) had nine rebounds, nine assists and four steals, Jennings followed with 13 points and seven rebounds, Pacey Reading had 11 points and seven rebounds, and Carson Huff and Evan Utterback each added eight points. Gibson hit a 3-pointer but tallied four assists and two steals.

Pat Connaway said he liked how the Indians were able to get out in the open floor much more than against Montgomery, thanks partly to 13 steals, and they definitely looked far from timid on the glass.

“They were hustling and getting after it,” Connaway said. “We’ve been doing a pretty good job for being undersized as a group. Even last night, we only lost the rebound battle by two. It shows how hard they battle and go after it. Gage was really active keeping things alive, Nikos cleaned the boards and Carter was banging in there.”

Jennings, Gibson and Connaway all said the experience on Friday and this season has been incredible, but it was even more worth it they did it together.

“It means a lot to be able to play with all your friends and be friends on and off the court,” Jennings said what being part of the Van-Far program has meant to him. “To be able to do things outside of just being on the court, being together as a team and playing together means a lot.”

“You go into every game and you know your guys have got your back,” Gibson said. “You’re in the middle of the play, things are moving fast, everybody in the crowd is against you, you know you got your boys.”

“It means a lot to play with all my friends, my dad and coach Reading, who is like a second dad to me,” Connaway said.

Connaway added that every member of the program is important like every family member is important, like Cody Gilley. He said Gilley is like the team’s sideline doctor, and Connaway and the rest of the team remembers playing for him in junior high. 

Not long after junior high, the three seniors were playing varsity basketball and had to quickly adjust to the general speed as well as the Van-Far system’s speed that they execute smoothly in the current day. Connaway and Gibson said they started as freshmen while Jennings became acquainted as a sophomore. The Indians have gone from records of 9-16 to 10-17 then 17-11 and finally 15 wins in their first 19 games this season.

“We three have probably played more varsity basketball than 95 percent than the kids in conference,” Connaway said. “We have a pretty big advantage on them of knowing what to do and when to do it.”

“We put in the work every day at practice to try and get better,” Jennings said. “We get as many guys as we can to do the best that they can to help us out and help each other on the team to be the best that we can together.”

Gibson believes there will be good varsity experience in future seasons based on how well the team has done this season.

“The sophomore group has really grown up a lot,” Gibson said. “They caught up to the speed of the game, and they’re comfortable on the floor now. That has helped us a lot.”

Pat Connaway said there were definitely some growing pains, as usual, when the seniors were freshmen and it was difficult also because a lot was expected from them from the opening tip.

“They were thrown into a bad situation,” Connaway said. “A good varsity program, freshmen don’t see the floor, but it was time of turnaround as we had a lot of seniors leave and we didn’t have a lot of sophomores and juniors. Nikos and Gage started as freshmen, and Carter played quite a bit. They’ve come in every day, put time afterwards and they are great kids off the floor. Another batch of kids like that would be wonderful.”

Indians lose 59-46 in shootout game vs state-ranked Illinois team

The Van-Far boys weren’t physical enough for Camp Point Central.

Coach Connaway said the Indians lost to the state-ranked Illinois squad 59-46 in Saturday’s Superfan Shootout in Quincy for that reason, falling behind by five points at halftime and by more in the second half.

Reading led Van-Far (15-5) with 18 points and seven rebounds, Nikos Connaway followed with eight points and six assists, and Jennings finished with eight points and five rebounds.