“Once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot...
“Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
One brief shining moment ...
That was the story of the St. John boys basketball teams of 1988-89 and 1989-90.
Up to that point, the Herald teams were consistent — consistently bad. But, behind the leadership of their own King Arthur (coach John Bowler) and the heroic deeds of Steve Hanek, Jim Chiacchiero and Dave Golen (Lancelot, Galahad and Gawain?), they performed marvelous feats during those seasons.
And, to continue the metaphor, St. John’s basketball program fell back into the doldrums after their brief shining moment. Hanek, the center-forward on that St. John team, will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on Apri 7, joining Chiacchiero, his teammate.
But Hanek was the player hardest to defend on those teams, according to no less a source than rival coach John Higgins, who will himself be inducted into the ACBF’s Hall of Fame this year.
Long and lanky, Hanek stood 6-foot-4 and weighed about 190 during his high school days. He scored 1,111 points at St. John, the top scorer in Heralds’ history at the time (Chiacchiero would later surpass him).
It took a year for the St. John cast to gel. The Heralds went just 6-15 in Hanek’s sophomore season.
“We were a young team when I started there,” Hanek said. “But it only made us stronger, and we came together as a team.”
That group was developing a chemistry. With Hanek scoring and rebounding, Chiacchiero sniping from the outside and Golen battling inside, Bowler found the formula he needed to succeed. Joined by point guard Augie Pugliese, an outstanding ballhandler, Greg Andrego coming off the bench and Steve Koproski muscling inside, St. John became a force to be reckoned with.
“For those two years, it was like we were brothers,” Hanek said. “We did everything together. We found out we could compete. It was a good group of guys who meshed well into a team. Some teams that had more talent didn’t do as well.”
Leading it all was Bowler, who worked his magic more recently, reinvigorating the Edgewood program this year.
“If we did things right, he was easy on us,” Hanek remembers. “If we were screwing up, we did a lot of running.
“He was an awesome coach, like a second father to us. He knows how to motivate people, knows how far to push people. But he’ll push them to their limit.”
Hanek paid Bowler back a little this season, working with Bowler’s bigger kids on the Edgewood teams.
Though he could have been successful in other sports, basketball was the only sport Hanek played at St. John.
“When I was a kid, I played everything, but I just related to basketball,” he said. “I had the most talent in it.”
The Heralds’ best season was his junior year, 1988-89, when St. John went 18-3 and claimed a share of the Northeastern Conference championship (with Ashtabula), the only NEC championship the Heralds ever won.
The St. John crowds, never much of a presence to that point, reveled in the team’s success, packing the gym.
That was particularly true when the Heralds hosted Ashtabula’s Panthers in a game that would decide whether the teams would share the title or Ashtabula would win it outright.
“We pulled into the parking lot about 5:30 (JV games didn’t start until 6:30 in those days), and people were already lined up outside the building,” Hanek said. “They were lined up down to Station Avenue. We beat (the Panthers), something like 64-62.”
In Hanek’s senior year, the Heralds went 17-6, finishing second to Harvey in the NEC standings. But they did win a sectional championship.
It should be noted that in Hanek’s junior and senior years, St. John won a total of 35 games. In the next eight years, the Heralds won just 27 games.
By 1999, the basketball program had two wins, an improvement on the previous two seasons, when they went winless. The program was shut down for several years after that.
Though Hanek had taken over the school record for scoring during that time, he wasn’t aware of his total production.
“I knew when I set the school scoring record,” he said. “It was somewhere around 900 points, They presented me a ball, but there wasn’t a big deal made about it. They didn’t stop the game or anything.”
After graduating from St. John, Hanek went on to play at Lakeland for two years.
“I played everything from big guard to power forward, the 2-3-4 positions,” he said. “Small forward was probably my best position in college. I didn’t have the weight for the bigger matchups.”
When he left Lakeland, he went to Urbana University in Urbana, Ohio (between Columbus and Dayton) for a year.
But he blew out a knee in the fourth game and received a medical redshirt.
The following year, he transferred to Walsh College.
“I started all four years,” he said of his college career. “At Lakeland I was a double-digit scorer. I wasn’t the leading scorer on the team. I did a lot of rebounding, too. I was like a point forward. I didn’t bring the ball upcourt, though.”
When he transferred to Walsh, he adapted to another role, that of defensive stopper for the Cavaliers, taking on one of the opponent’s best players.
“I sacrificed my scoring a little,” he said. “I dropped down to 10-12 points a game.
“My junior year at Walsh, we were just so-so. We were a younger group. In my senior year (1995-96) we went 31-5 and finished in the Final Four in Division II. We lost our first game in the Final Four to the eventual national champions.”
After college, Hanek took a job at Fasson in Painesville, a company that makes pressure-sensitive films that are used primarily in business products such as Post-It notes. Hanek supervised a crew that made decals for cars and RVs.
At that time, he commuted back and forth from his parents’ house in Ashtabula.
He eventually took a job at Millenium, which more recently became Crystal, in Ashtabula. That company uses titanium tetrachloride to make titanium dioxide, used as a base in paint. He works a swing shift, 12 hours on and 12 hours off, 14 days a month.
“The overtime is pretty heavy,” he said. “I work either 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.”
Hanek married Mai-Linh DiDonato in November 2002. DiDonato and Hanek had gone to St. John together for a year and reunited at Walsh, where DiDonato was studying nursing.
The couple bought a house on Myrtle Avenue at the harbor, a few blocks away from the home where Hanek grew up on Union Avenue.
The Haneks have two daughters, Izabella, 8, and Lauren, 4. They are expecting a son in June.
His athletic endeavors now are limited.
“I tried for a time to play basketball, but I have horrible arthritis in the knee I blew out,” he said. “My basketball days are pretty much done, so I play golf and bowl.”
He does pretty well at both. A member at Geneva-on-the-Lake Golf Course, he shoots in the low 40s for nine holes. Bowling at ABC Lanes, he averages 218.
He also works out at the YMCA in Ashtabula, where he occasionally runs into Jim Chiacchiero or Golan, two old teammates at St. John.
“I really enjoyed playing with those fellows,” he said.
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.
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