For multiple decades, the area had a bad reputation when it came to not only qualifying, but winning at the boys basketball state championships, held yearly in Columbus.
But Port Clinton was able to help that reputation four seasons ago, and Norwalk officially ended it Saturday afternoon.
Since the 1979-80 season, 11 area teams from eight different programs reached the state’s Final Four. St. Mary Central Catholic opened the 80s on a good tone, winning the Class A championship and capping a perfect 28-0 season with a 62-56 win over Cincinnati Summit Country Day in the title game.
Monroeville then stormed through the area and tournament trail in the 1983-84 season, losing its opening game of the season before rattling off 27 straight wins, capped by a Class A championship in a 66-62 win over Columbus Wehrle.
But until Port Clinton’s run in 2009-10, the area was shutout of any wins on the campus of Ohio State University for the next 27 seasons.
Willard made four trips (1980, 1982, 1984, 2001), but came up empty each time in the semifinals. Prior to Monroeville’s title, Oak Harbor reached the Class AA title game in the 1982-83 season, but fell to Columbus Bexley, 75-58.
Clyde made a surprise run to the Final Four in the 1994-95 season, with current head coach Ryan Carter on the team. The Fliers also fell in the semifinals, falling to Cambridge, 66-46.
In the 1996-97 season, Mike Smith’s powerful St. Paul team reached the state semis for the first and only time, but ran into a buzzsaw named Van Wert Lincolnview, and fell 88-49 to the eventual state champions.
But then came the dominant run of the Redskins in the 2009-10 season. After reeling off 25 straight wins to reach Columbus for the first time, Port Clinton found itself down 11 points with nine minutes remaining in its state semifinal vs. Zanesville.
But the Redskins rallied, and won 51-50 on Allen Tigner’s running floater with 3.3 seconds left, which sent Port Clinton to the title game, where it fell to Dayton Dunbar, 64-50, to finish 27-1.
On Saturday, Norwalk then helped finish off the area drought that had reached 30 years by beating Dayton Thurgood Marshall (72-64) in the semifinals, and Columbus Bishop Watterson (65-58) in the championship game.
With Norwalk and Port Clinton’s victories, Huron and Ottawa counties have recent victories at state. SMCC’s win in 1980 is still the last time an Erie County school claimed victory at the championships.
Saturday’s Division II championship game wasn’t the first time Norwalk coach Steve Gray and Watterson coach Vince Lombardo crossed paths on opposite benchs.
But the result was a familiar one.
When Gray was the head coach at Morral Ridgedale for four seasons from 1989-92, Lombardo was in the middle of a 10-year run as the head coach at Marion Catholic.
The two Marion County schools located just 15 miles apart faced off yearly. In the four meetings, Gray and his team had the edge in three of the four games.
Lombardo and Marion Catholic won 63-58 in the 1988-89 season, but Ridgedale and Gray reeled off wins of 73-33, 90-57 and 81-53 in each of the next three seasons.
Gray compiled a 56-34 record at Ridgedale, and took the Lexington job prior to the 1992-93 season. Lombardo’s Marion Catholic teams were just 31-56 in that same period.
Both Norwalk and Watterson entered Saturday’s title game using stingy defenses.
Norwalk was allowing 50.6 points per game entering the championship, and Watterson just 44.7.
With the 65-58 win, Norwalk equaled the most points the Eagles gave up all season, which happened to be in a 68-65 win vs. Div. III runners-up Cleveland Villa-Angela St. Joseph.
Saturday’s title game between Norwalk and Watterson in Division II was the highest attended game of the 12-game state championship slate over the weekend.
But it also had all the necessary ingredients to be the most attended.
Bishop Watterson High School is not only located in Columbus, but just five miles from the Jerome Schottenstein Center, about a 10-minute drive.
Meanwhile, Norwalk was making its first-ever trip to the Final Four, and had a passionate fan following that bought more than 3,000 tickets total in advance of both the semifinal and championship games.
The final tally of fans who watched Norwalk beat Watterson was 14,642. That figure is just ahead of the Lakewood St. Edward-Upper Arlington title game in Div. I, which was 14,234.
More population numbers
It was well-documented that Norwalk was the small fish in the Div. II Final Four field, at least in terms of city populations each school can draw from.
But of the 16 teams in this year’s state championships, Norwalk was also just the 11th-largest city represented.
Only Louisville (St. Thomas Aquinas), Canal Winchester (Harvest Prep), St. Bernard (Roger Bacon), Convoy (Crestview) and New Madison (Tri-Village) were smaller cities than Norwalk in the 16-team field.
In Div. II, Norwalk (16,931) had three possible opponents drawing from Columbus (809,798), Akron (198,549) and Dayton (141,359).
OHSAA commissioner Dan Ross has always considered himself ambitious.
Which is why when he became the leader of the OHSAA prior to the 2004-05 school year, he set a very steep goal: to see every single member school compete in a sport.
With 820 member schools, it would seem out of reach, but in 10 years, Ross is actually almost there.
With this weekend’s first-time basketball appearance, Norwalk is crossed off Ross’ list.
“I’m down to 149 more to go,” Ross said before Saturday’s game. “You never get there as quick as you’d like, but I’m going to get there.”
Final AP poll glance
While often criticized for blind voting, the final Associated Press poll released on Feb. 17 wasn’t terribly far off when the dust settled on the 2013-14 season.
Div. I champion Lakewood St. Ed’s finished No. 3 in the poll, while Norwalk was No. 2, Lima Central Catholic was No. 7 and Convoy Crestview was No. 1.
Div. II and III runners-up Watterson and Cleveland VASJ also finished fourth and second, respectively.