Switzerland County junior forward Austin Clark led the Courierarea in scoringat 18.2 points per game on a Pacers team that went 18-5 and won its first sectional championship since 2006. (Courier file photo)
Switzerland County junior forward Austin Clark led the Courierarea in scoring

at 18.2 points per game on a Pacers team that went 18-5 and won its first sectional championship since 2006. (Courier file photo)
Juniors Austin Clark of Switzerland County and Landon Perry of Madison share a friendly rivalry on the basketball court that began when the two were just kids.

So when Perry won The Madison Courier's Player of the Year award last year, Clark knew that he had to step up his game.

"Me and Landon have been going back and forth talking about this all year," Clark said. "There has been a little controversy between us because he won it last year. This year he was injured and that's his excuse for not winning it again. It's been a lot of fun."

Perry missed more than a month of the season with a knee injury but even if he had been healthy, he may still not have been able to pass his friend in 2012-13. Starting in mid-season, Clark took his game to the next level and led Switzerland County to its first sectional title since 2006.

As a result, it wasn't difficult to name Clark our 2013 Madison Courier Player of the Year. He led the area in scoring at 18.2 points per game and was at his best when it counted most, including a 24-point, 7-rebound performance in the Pacers' regional loss to Perry Central last week.

"It's a great honor. I've been excited ever since I found out," Clark said.

Clark played well enough to win the award last year but was edged out by Perry in a close race that also included Carroll County's Dallas Gibson.

All three players were back this season but Gibson suffered a season-ending knee injury in early January and Perry missed six games with a similar if less severe injury.

In a year when injuries seem to run rampant, Clark wasn't immune to physical problems. He hurt his wrist early in the season and missed two games, but it could have been much worse.

"I thought I had broken it and I had to miss our big rivalry game with Rising Sun," Clark said. "But I wasn't playing all that well before the injury. When I came back I was determined to play better."

Play better he did. Clark raised his scoring average nearly eight points over the final two months of the season and seemed to get stronger and better each game out.

The signature moment of Clark's season had to be a 56-30 win over Jac-Cen-Del at home on Feb. 15. Clark outscored the Eagles by himself in the game, finishing with a career-high 33 points in the Ohio River Valley Conference win.

Part of the reason for Clark's breakout season was that he added a 3-point shot to his arsenal, a weapon that he grew more and more comfortable with as the season wore on. At 6-foot-6, Clark is nearly unstoppable in the low-post and the ability to shoot from outside made him all the more of a threat.

"Last year I was more of a pure post guy and during the summer I started working on it," Clark said of the extra range. "I think it makes me more of a complete player. Now, if a big guy is on me they have to come get me and it opens things up."

Switzerland County tied the school record for win with 18 this season and not all of it was Clark. Fellow junior Chase Ritch had a terrific season shooting the 3-pointer and seniors Alex Curran, Trevor Smith and Clint Swanson provided the kind of leadership that fuels guys like Clark.

"I couldn't have asked for a better team. Alex, Trevor, Clint and Tyler (Queen) are great guys," Clark said. "And we have some great guys coming back. I've already had the seniors talking to us about how we can improve and how we can get back to the regional. We're already ready to go."

Clark is not about to rest on his laurels and is already trying to figure out ways to improve his game. He has not yet settled on a college but has taken visits to Division I schools Radford and IUPU-Fort Wayne.

"I need to work on my defense and my lateral footwork. I need to get quicker," Clark said. "That's what the summer will be for and I'm excited to get started."

The 2013-14 season opener is still eight and a half months away but Clark is ready to return to the court and ready to resume his rivalry with Perry in what could be a Player of the Year rubber match. It's a matchup he's looking forward to.

"After the (Madison) game I had a bunch people ask me what the deal was with me and Landon. I was talking trash to him and he was talking trash to me," Clark said with a laugh. "But then afterwards we're getting our picture taken and we're joking around and they realized what was going on. It's been a lot of fun."