COLUMBUS GROVE — Only a few high school basketball coaches get a chance to lead a team to a state tournament twice.
Even fewer get to coach in two state tournaments while at two different schools. So Columbus Grove boys basketball coach Chris Sautter joined a very small group when he coached the Bulldogs in this year’s state tournament 12 years after he was in the coach’s box for Ada in the 2009 state tournament.
“I didn’t think about it until somebody asked if there has been another coach in the Northwest Conference who has taken two different teams to state and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t think about things like that.’ And then I did start to think about it,” Sautter said.
“There are a lot of guys out there way better than I am who unfortunately have never been able to take a single team to state. So I just feel pretty blessed that I’ve been around some pretty amazing kids who have bought in to what we were selling and we were able to accomplish some good things in Ada for a four or five-year stretch. And now at Columbus Grove we’ve been able to accomplish some pretty special things,” he said.
Those special things, led by a Division IV state runner-up finish this season, three straight trips to a regional tournament and at least a share of the last three Northwest Conference championships, have made Sautter the Coach of the Year on The Lima News boys basketball Dream Team for 2021.
Sautter, a 1991 Columbus Grove graduate, has 24 years of coaching experience, 19 years of it at the varsity level. He spent one year as a seventh grade coach and four years as a JV coach before becoming Ada’s head coach for 14 years. He has been Columbus Grove’s head coach the last five years.
Columbus Grove had a 51-3 record over the last two seasons. Its 2019-20 season ended when it was 26-0 and getting ready to play in the regional championship game at Bowling Green when COVID-19 shut down high school basketball.
The pressure to match or exceed last year’s tournament success wasn’t the biggest obstacle the Bulldogs faced, though.
Injuries and illness were a more persistent challenge. Point guard Gabe Clement missed the first seven games of the season after a knee injury in a football state semifinal, then was sidelined for several games later in the season because of an ankle injury.
No. 2 scorer Tayt Birnesser missed several games because of a high ankle sprain. Ethan Halker was recovering from mononucleosis early in the season and the Bulldogs did not play a game in a two-week stretch because of COVID-19 concerns.
“I think our kids this year did an amazing job of dealing with adversity. There were just a lot of challenges and our inexperienced kids had to grow up early. For us to get where we got says a lot about our kids and how well they came together as a group at the end of the season,” Sautter said.
Sautter’s son, Trey, was one of Columbus Grove starters, which was just one of many things that made this season exceptional for him.
“That’s just special from a parent’s standpoint. No. 1, just to see your kid play in that (state championship) game, and then to have the opportunity to coach him, that’s a pretty cool thing as a dad. This has just been a pretty cool experience personally. To be successful as a coach is cool. To do it at your hometown school is really cool. And to have your kid be part of it that just makes that much more special,” he said.