Anyone in the business of coaching basketball for an extended time has tales about losing critical games on dramatic last second shots. In the business, we call them “daggers,” because I assume the feeling that accompanies the experience is close to what it feels like to have a knife plunged directly in the heart. That may be a bit of an exaggeration but don’t judge me unless you’ve been there.
Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit one of my most memorable daggers when I traveled to Springfield to take in a basketball game between Springfield Catholic Central and West Jefferson High School, a team coached by my nephew, Sam Seggerson. Walking back into SCC brought back memories of a heartbreaking game we lost to the “Irish” decades ago.
The stakes were high In March of 1990 when LCC met SCC in a regional final game at UD arena in Dayton. The winner would advance to Columbus, one step closer to capturing a state championship. It was the only time in my career that we competed in the southwest regional. With SCC down 2 points and only seconds remaining in the game, Matt Mullen fired up a long 3-point jumper and drained the game winning shot. Thus, the dagger.
Any game against Springfield Catholic Central had special significance for me. My father, Jack Seggerson, was a very proud graduate of SCC in the class of 1934 and I don’t think his heart ever truly left the city. Whenever he got his hands on the Springfield Sun Newspaper, he read it front to back. His good friend and classmate, Ray Meyer, introduced my dad to his girl-friends sister, a Lima girl. Dad was hooked, and the rest is history. Our family had a connection to Springfield that included a boatload of cousins and friends and athletic memories.
In the 1990 game, both Lima Central Catholic and Springfield Catholic Central were attempting to return to state for the second year in a row. LCC had to replace four starters from the previous season and finished the regular season with a bland 11-9 record. But we were a solid defensive squad and Matt Carder and Shawn Foster got hot in the tournament. A win in the regional semi-final against a tough Fort Loramie squad set up the showdown with SCC.
The game was played on St. Patrick’s Day which I took as a good omen because we had won a couple of big tournament games on that date in the past. The fact that Springfield Catholic Central’s nickname was the “Irish” escaped my optimism.
The game was a nail-biter. Both teams traded the lead throughout the game. There were ten lead changes in the fourth quarter alone. In the last minute, sophomore Anthony Hutchins nailed a shot on a baseline out of bounds play to give LCC a two-point lead.
The Irish coach, Tim Sullivan, immediately called a timeout with 45 seconds remaining in the game and set up for the final shot. Everybody in the arena knew where he wanted to ball to go. The “Irish” had two terrific post players, Jim Roediger and Jon Vollmer. We had held them reasonably in check for most of the night but they manhandled us on the boards, pulling down 14 offensive rebounds. My focus in our huddle was simple. No post entries and everyone goes to the boards to rebound any missed shot.
Once back on the floor, SCC moved the ball from side-to-side probing for an entry pass to the post but our defense was solid, in many ways our most impressive stand of the season. With only seconds remaining, Brian Whalen found Matt Mullen parked on the right wing, 23 feet from the basket. No stranger to the three-point shot, Mullen knew what he had to do. “I looked around and there were only a couple seconds left on the clock and we were running around like we were crazy and I thought I better put up this shot,” Mullen told reporters in the press conference after the game. Coach Sullivan added, “that was not what we designed, not even close. That was just an incredible shot.”
On Mulen’s delivery of the shot, I was thinking we were going to state, but following the flight of the ball, halfway to the rim, I knew it was in. As a coach, when you spend a lifetime standing on the sideline watching shots, you just know. One second remained on the clock after the score but we had no miracle in our pocket. SCC was going to state.
Thirty-three years later I walked into the Springfield Catholic Central gymnasium to watch my nephew’s game and was met by a familiar group of cousins and friends who ushered me to a front row seat directly across the floor from the Irish bench. I was advised to take a close look at the Irish coaching staff. The head coach Matt Mullen (the shot) his assistants Jim Roediger and Jon Vollmer (the focus of our defense) were the three principal players in the last play scenario of our regional loss years earlier. I was reminded of that little anecdote by just about every person I talked with that night.
I can tell you that the pain lessens over the years, more like a pin-prick maybe. Most of the memory fades out of consciousness but when you are connected to the event like I am, it can reappear magically. Indeed, a couple years ago I was invited as the guest speaker for the Springfield Irish Fellowship Society that meets once a year on St. Patrick’s Day. I was advised that during my introduction, the tape of Mullen’s last second shot would be playing on the large screen behind the podium. Mercifully, COVID postponed the event.
I did get the opportunity to meet with all three SCC coaches after the game and we shared our memories of the 1990 regional final. A great bunch of guys and terrific young coaches.
In athletics, I believe there is a special bond formed between competitors that evolves over time. The sting of a loss and the fire provoked by competing is often replaced by a respect and appreciation for having shared the experience. I see this dynamic at work all the time in my own life.