Basketball’s postseason tournament is in full force this week with high school teams erasing win-loss records and starting all over with a clean slate. Visions of a magical run to state are on the minds of a lot of coaches, athletes and fans at this time of year. And while the top-seeded squads have the best odds of reaching their dream, history has proven that the postseason belongs to those teams that come to a boil at exactly the right time.
Coaches strive for consistent levels of effort and performance from their teams during the course of the basketball season but the truth is that most squads go through periods of up and down play. Rare is the team that can remain at the top of its game for an entire season. The trick is to make sure your team is firing on all pistons come late February and into March. And a team’s regular season record is not always an accurate barometer of how it is playing as the tournament unfolds.
Van Wert High School provides an example of how a team’s regular season record can be deceptive. The Cougars, under the direction of head coach Ben Laudick, opened their basketball season with seven consecutive losses and managed only one win in their first nine games. By mid-January not many would have blamed Van Wert for mailing the rest of the season in, but there was a reason for its slow start. The Cougars won a state championship in football in late November and nine of the top 10 players on their basketball roster played football. Regaining skill level, conditioning and dealing with the fatigue following a long, grueling football season are hurdles for every athlete who makes the transition from the gridiron to the basketball court. It takes time and patience.
Once the Cougars two-sport athletes found their groove, they won 10 of their last 11 games including a recent, stunning overtime win against Ottawa-Glandorf. They enter the postseason as a team that has come to a boil and their athletes recently acquired the DNA of state champions and have learned what it takes to reach that goal. The Division II tournament bracket is imposing and presents a very difficult challenge, but Van Wert is not a team to be overlooked.
It wouldn’t be the first time that an area team caught fire after a slow start, and is some cases, following a disastrous regular season.
The 1993 Coldwater team, coached by Jim Niekamp, lost its last nine games and entered the postseason with an unremarkable 4-16 record. Against all odds, the Cavaliers created a spark that ignited a Cinderella run all the way to the final four in Columbus. They rolled to surprising sectional and district titles before shocking a powerful Patrick Henry squad in the regional final to earn their unlikely berth at state. Coldwater got hot at exactly the right time. The Coldwater team also captured the imagination of basketball fans around the state with its ritual of spaghetti dinners and viewing the classic basketball movie “Hoosiers” the night before every tournament game. The Cavaliers lost at state in the semifinal to Belpre by three points but provided an example for future teams that anything is possible in the postseason tournament.
Delphos St. John’s had a similar experience in 1995 when it finished the regular season with a 5-13 record and little hope of any postseason success. Blue Jays head coach, Rick Reindel, was in the unenviable position of following in the footsteps of the legendary Bob Arnzen. But Reindel pushed the right buttons, Ryan Spieles and Brad Grothaus discovered their shooting touch, and the Blue Jays were off on a magical run through the tournament. That run included district wins against Midwest Athletic Conference foes St. Henry and Marion Local, two teams that clubbed DSJ during the regular season. Their tournament “tour de force” appeared to have come to its conclusion in their regional final game against Portsmouth East, played at the Columbus Fair Ground Coliseum. Down seven points with under a minute left on the clock, DSJ pulled what one long-time Blue Jay fan called, “the greatest comeback in Delphos St. John’s history.” The Blue Jays scrapped out the victory in overtime and found themselves in the final four in Columbus, where they fell in the semifinal game to Springfield Catholic Central. But they did manage to prove the point that, if you are hoping to find your mojo, late February works out just fine.
The amazing and unexpected success of Coldwater and Delphos St John’s unlikely tournament runs provide a valuable reminder to basketball teams in every generation that a spark of confidence can be the flame that ignites a memorable victory march to Columbus.
Even when facing difficult odds, never give up on a dream.
Reach Bob Seggerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.