My first day as Sports Editor at the Register is one I’ll never forget, for a number of reasons.
But the biggest reason above all came at the conclusion of Saturday’s Division II state championship game at the Schottenstein Center on the campus of Ohio State University.
A label put on multiple area players from several schools had been justified at the highest level in Ohio.
My first day ‘in charge’ of the sports section was Dec. 2, 2011. And in the print edition that morning to tip off the 2011-12 season later that night was a massive centerpiece story on area boys basketball.
The story focused on reasons why area boys basketball was on the rise, and how underclassmen were going to take the level of hoops around here to new heights.
For the photo of that story, we rounded up 11 area players from six schools, and got them to meet up at Perkins High School the night before Thanksgiving in 2011.
How about this list of names: Perkins’ Nic Williams, Brandon Smith and David Doster; Norwalk’s Jeff Thomas, Ben Haraway and Jake Fetherolf; Huron’s Cody Thompson and Zach Souter; St. Mary Central Catholic’s Denarius Harris; Bellevue’s Jalen Santoro and Clyde’s Derek Gray.
They were all either entering sophomore or junior seasons at the time the photo shoot was taken. In a quick glance, seven of those 11 players who gathered that November night finished with more than 1,150 points. Five of those seven are in the top four in all-time points at their respective school.
Eight league championships were won in the last four seasons between Norwalk, Perkins and Huron, as were six district championships and two Elite 8 appearances among the three programs.
On Saturday, Norwalk put the feather in the cap of the area contingent with the Division II state championship, capping a 29-1 season with a 65-58 win over Columbus Bishop Watterson.
Not bad, huh?
“All those kids played AAU together too, which kind of makes it even more special,” Huron coach Bobby James said.
I talked to James before the regular season ended. But he knew then, these players in question had lived up to the hype. Huron went to back-to-back regionals for the first time in program history last season and this year.
“And I know this class had another group ahead of them with some pretty good players,” James said. “You don’t find that a lot, with two back-to-back classes that are so good among four or five teams. You’re talking three teams in the regionals, and one of them didn’t lose a game for basically three years. They turned some heads.”
Norwalk coach Steve Gray also reflected on the string of success those players had on area basketball.
“I think when you look back on those 11 kids, they are all good basketball players, obviously,” he said. “But I know most of them, and they are just outstanding young people. The schools they represent should be very proud of them, because I know I am.”
It was interesting on Saturday to look back on that conversation I had with Gray on this subject. It was after his team had beaten Sandusky on Jan. 10, nearly three weeks before the ninth-longest winning streak in Ohio history ended at 57 games.
After reaching the Division I regional semifinals in 2011-12, the Truckers had taken a 24-0 record into a district semifinal rematch with Mansfield Senior last season, but lost 44-42.
With a quarter century of head coaching experience, Gray knew in mid-January what the whispers were about not only his team, but area basketball as a whole.
“I think this group has improved the level of play around here,” Gray said at the time. “And I also think people are mistaken about the quality of play in the area. Quite frankly. I don’t think my kids get enough credit for what they’ve achieved.
“Everyone wants to make excuses,” he added. “But they are a special group and have done some amazing things. Their legacy, unfortunately, will be tied to the end of the season.”
How did that whole legacy thing turn out for you, Steve?
“If we would have gotten beat in the districts, it would have been a great disappointment, and these kids wouldn't have been appreciated as much as they should have been,” Gray said at Saturday’s press conference, with the clipped and tattered championship net sitting next to him. “Win or lose, these kids are people of great character. They represent themselves so well.”
Hey, the big guy is right. We’ve been spoiled to watch these players on the basketball court in the Sandusky Bay Conference and Northern Ohio League the last three seasons. It’s only human nature to take it all for granted, but I know I certainly won’t.
And while it remains unclear what the future holds for area hoops, one thing is certain - it was a joy to watch it all play out so well, because hype and chatter often falls on deaf ears in all walks of life.
“I look at this picture and just think about how we all basically played AAU together in grade school,” Haraway said when handed a copy of that 2011 newspaper. “Man, we really did have some great players come together at the same time. It was fun … real fun.”