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Coach Nick Reich Builds High School Basketball Team From Ground Up

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If you tuned into ESPN's SportsCenter a few weeks ago, you may have caught this incredible shot featured as the #1 pick on "Top 10 Plays of the Day."

That 60-foot buzzer-beater was just one of many remarkable moments in Indianapolis Metropolitan High School's run to the Class A state championship, one of the year's most improbable sports stories.

When Nick Reich was hired as a social worker at the school in 2007 and decided to take on the basketball coaching position in his spare time, he wasn't expected to lead the Pumas to a state championship.

Met High is a public charter school established in 2004 by Goodwill Education Initiatives and intended to give a second chance to some of the city's most under-served students. Eighty percent are from low-income families and most come to the school at least two grade levels behind. The school has no gym and, up until that year, had no basketball team either.

But Coach Reich and a few players decided to take a chance, practicing after school at public parks, and playing against freshman teams until they were ready to take the next step.

The early results weren't pretty. They lost their first two games in massive blowouts, 74-26 and 102-48, and notched losing seasons every year until this one. Some players gave up and quit the team. Others got into disciplinary problems at school and couldn't play. Last year, two of the team's best players got into legal trouble and the coach agreed they had to be suspended for the whole season.

"I believe in second chances so I didn't want to turn my back on them," says Reich. "Every kid on the team has been able to get where they are because of second chances."

As someone who made mistakes in his youth, Coach Reich used past experiences to guide how he coached his players both on and off the court. He allowed the two players to remain part of the team, although they weren't able to play in games for the entire season. This year, one of those players was the leading scorer and the other led the state of Indiana in assists, helping the team qualify for the state tournament.

"By this year, our team was a family," says Coach Reich. "We got to a point where we didn't care who scored the points but that we won as a team."

The state tournament games took place early on weekend mornings. Most of the players don't have cars and the city buses they take to school don't run regularly on weekends, so before tournament games they stayed with the coach and his wife.

Met High upset team after team in the state tournament. "The Shot" sent them into semi-state and they went on to win the Class A championship at Conseco Fieldhouse -- a long journey from the city park where they practice.

High school basketball is not taken lightly in Indiana and an upstart team like the Pumas winning the state championship is no small feat. But what is even more noteworthy is that all seven seniors are on pace to graduate with their class.

Many of the students at Met High are students who have been given a second chance. At the school, every student receives an individual learning plan and works at his or her own pace, in small classes, getting close instruction.

The approach has already paid dividends. The school's four-year graduation rate is higher than that of any high school in the state that has open enrollment and in which at least 80 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Ninety-six percent of graduates are accepted into post-secondary institutions.

During the season, Coach Reich spent many hours with his players on the road. But they weren't playing basketball; they were visiting colleges. All seven seniors came from single-parent homes and their parents or guardians weren't always able to take time off from work for college visits.

"The coaching team here has always had the mentality that we will do what needs to be done," says Coach Reich. "The expectations I have for the players are no different than my two children. I expect my kids to go to college, and I expect nothing less from these players."

Four out of the seven graduating seniors will be playing college basketball and one will be going on a mission trip. Most will be first-generation college students. With debates raging around the country about how much states and localities can afford to provide to education, the unprecedented success of Coach Reich's team -- both on and off the court -- should show that every child can win if they're surrounded by the right resources and people who believe in them.

Next year, Met High will have one more resource to work with. Goodwill Education Initiatives is spearheading a $2.6 million campaign to build the Pumas their very own gym, breaking ground on the new facility last week. It will be ready in time to graduate another class of seniors next spring.