In the five decades I coached high school basketball, I felt the pressure that was always present in big games. It’s difficult to define but I can tell you that we coaches know that when the stakes are raised, the game takes on a different meaning and that can affect everything from our preparation to in-game decisions. The pressure in those high-profile games was always sitting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear.
It’s in the postseason tournament that games have the most at stake because one false step can mean the end of the basketball season, creating a more intense kind of pressure. And, for those coaches and players who get there, I believe the most extreme pressure shows up in the regional championship basketball game.
There is so much at stake in the regional final game because a trip to state is the reward for a victory and that is a dream that every player and coach fantasizes about. Of course, winning state has more prestige and rewards, but advancing to the prestigious final four is a memorable victory in itself.
The Shawnee Indians, Ottawa-Glandorf Titans and Columbus Grove Bulldogs all faced that pressure this past weekend and passed with flying colors. Lima Senior fell in the final but coach Quincey Simpson’s Spartans were the feel-good story this season, losing 10 seniors to graduation last year and not losing a step this season in winning the TRAC and bringing home sectional and district titles.
I lost two regional finals in my coaching career and they were heartbreakers. Both of those games were decided in the final moments. In the regional final against Springfield Catholic Central at UD Arena in 1990, we scored on an out of bounds play to take the lead with just seconds on the clock. In the proceeding timeout we decided to jam the inside and prevent our opponent’s outstanding post player from catching the ball on the block. It worked and we forced SCC to attempt a long three-point shot at the buzzer. All net. I found myself second guessing and questioning every aspect of those two regional final games, sifting through all of my coaching decisions, wondering if I could have guided my team to a win with a different approach.
I see and feel the game through a coach’s eyes and understand the relief and pride that Mark Triplett (Shawnee), Tyson McGlaughlin (OG) and Chris Sautter (Columbus Grove) were feeling following their big wins over the weekend. The pressure of the moment brought out the best in them and their teams.
I believe there is also a kind of psychological barrier that exists for many high school basketball programs as they attempt to move up the ladder to higher levels of tournament play. Early in my career it took several attempts before we able to win a district title, but once that was accomplished it became more doable. It was as if the experience of winning the district opened the door for our teams that followed and allowed them to imagine and believe it wasn’t just possible, it was expected.
The same dynamic often happens at the regional level of play. We lost at the regional level three times before we broke through for LCC’s first trip to state. One of those losses was to a Bellevue team coached by Mark Shine. Once we crashed through the barrier of winning the regional crown, it became easier for our program to see and believe that state was in our wheel house. We won the last five regional finals that we competed in.
I remember two years ago consoling a distraught Mark Triplett, Shawnee’s head basketball coach, following their loss in the regional final to Columbus South at BGSU. I told him that Shawnee had broken through a difficult barrier to advance to the regionals and now they would find their way back again and it would be easier the next time. They were denied that moment last season by COVID, but when opportunity came knocking this year, the Indians were simply not going to be denied. I couldn’t be happier for coach Triplett, now making his first appearance at state.
A few thoughts:
The biggest individual story in high school basketball this season has to be the play of Shawnee’s George Mangas who scored his 2000th career point in the regionals. When asked to compare him to other past greats in our area, I come up blank. Mangas stands alone in his style and competitive nature. His passion for the game and relentless attacks to the rim are a joy to watch. And he doesn’t just play with a chip on his shoulder, it’s the Rock of Gibraltar. Enjoy him while you can, there may never be another quite like him. I believe Mangas is deserving for serious consideration for Ohio’s Mr. Basketball Award as the best player in the state.
A special mention to Sean Powell, for leading Botkins to a berth at state. The ’99 Shawnee graduate was a 1,000-point scorer for the Indians. After serving as an assistant coach for Shawnee and Perry, Powell took over a struggling program just three years ago and quickly brought them to high school basketball’s biggest stage.
And finally, I loved Columbus Grove’s Tayt Birnesser’s comments following his dramatic three point shot in the closing moments of their regional final that propelled the Bulldogs to state. In his interview with WLIO-TV sports immediately after the game, Tayt described what was going through his mind in that tension filled moment: “I didn’t think we’d get a better look, so I thought, “This one’s going up.” And up it went, and down it went, right through the net. A shot and quote for the ages.
Good luck to Shawnee, Ottawa-Glandorf, Columbus Grove and Botkins this week at state.
Remember to take the time to enjoy the moment.