The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Sports

February 15, 2013

A Don McCormack column: Heartbreak Highway... you can check in, but you can never leave

One of the most bittersweet times for high school winter sports athletes will tip off today as the wrestlers from across the Buckeye State begin sectional competition.

They will be joined by most of the state’s girls basketball players, most of whose sectional-district tournaments kick off Saturday, though tournament play began earlier this week at a few spots around Ohio.

As old friend Tim Mizer termed it, it’s Heartbreak Highway.

In other words, for all but a precious few (the great majority, at least percentage wise, coming from private schools) who are blessed enough to be part of state championship squads or, in the case of wrestlers, win an individual state title, sometime in the next week or two, their seasons will come to an end.

And, especially for the seniors, it will hurt.

A lot.

Regardless of the record of the team or the individual, when a senior plays his or her last game or competes in a last match, it’s another end game.

And winter sports are a different animal. In wrestling. The whole world is watching two competitors go at it toe-to-toe in one of the most iconic sports in history, the recent ridiculous decision to eliminate wrestling from the Winter Olympics in 2012, not withstanding.

In basketball, the game’s ebb and flow is on display for all to see. With crowds pretty much right on top of the action and the competitors’ faces not covered by a helmet, cap, etc., their expressions of aggression, timidness, fear and exhalation as they shift from offense to defense in a blink of an eye make for great drama.

All of which will paint a vivid canvas of emotion, starting today. For all the smiles, hugs and high-fives that accompany every victory, there will be even more tears, pain-filled expressions and slow-moving feet as the conquered trudge off the arena floor.

For yours truly, it was in basketball. While I also played football and baseball, not being much physically ended by gridiron days after my freshman year and the curveball — the only pitch I could throw for strikes and the pitch I could never end — made me anything but a diamond king.

But basketball... wow, that was it, for me. While I was vertically challenged (OK, I was short), I had decent quickness, was ambidextrous, so I could handle the basketball with both hands and, most of all, I played hard.

In other words, I was pretty much a ham and egger.

However, I was fortunate enough to be in the same class with a true star, Rick Berrier, a 6-foot-3 jumping jack could touch the rim with his elbow and was named All-Ohio twice, and a bunch of guys similar to me in ability, but of different shapes and sizes.

Randy Roach was a 6-5 center. John March was a bruiser at power forward. Bob Carlson started in the same backcourt with me for years and, as a coach’s son (Larry, a former Jefferson star player himself and our eighth-grade coach) could do it all. Scott Brainard had a picturesque, long-distance jumper. Hugh Goodale provided an athletic, physical complement.

In junior high, we whipped everyone.

But, that was when we were still whole as a group.

Guys like guard Steve Mehalic were a standout for us. Steve Holloway came to us as a freshman. They never played past the freshman level.

But the unquestioned best athlete — in every sport — in our class was the late John Knight.

Like Mehalic and Holloway, he never played past the freshman level. Falling in with the wrong crowd, combined with us growing up in an era when those who did so were shunned as opposed to the way things are now when they are comforted, supported and encouraged to keep fighting the good fight and stay with, proved to be his undoing.

John, whose life ended prematurely a few years ago, was the one guy I played with who should have been a professional athlete.

He was that good.

As sophomores in 1978-79, we were part of coach Rick Nemet’s varsity team that won Jefferson’s first sectional championship since the 1946-47 season. And that team should have reached the district championship game, blowing a 14-point lead against Lakeview, which prompted the Star Beacon headline the next day that read, “The Falcon Fizzle.” And our junior-varsity team, coached by the great Bob Ashba, went 14-4 and won the Grand River Conference championship.

As juniors in 1979-80, we won the GRC title.

By the time we were seniors, our herd had been thinned to the point only Berrier, March, Roach, Goodale, Carlson and myself remained. And when Carlson chose not to play his senior season — despite pleading and, yes, begging, by the rest of us — it was devastating.

Still, we managed an 11-9 regular season, finishing second to a great Pymatuning Valley team that included the likes of future Ashtabula County Foundation Hall of Famer Maurice McDonald (who went on to play at Air Force), sharpshooters Jack Thompson and Eric Van Court, southpaw point guard Marlin Moschell and solid Dan Lautanen, falling in the conference title game in front of a packed-to-the-gills crowd at PV.

When the postseason came around, we again journeyed to the old Warren Western Reserve High School, where Ashtabula County teams routinely dragged themselves to die, be it from simply better teams or, in many cases, officials who could best be described as “three blind stripes.”

We were matched up with second-seeded Newton Falls, which came in at 14-4 and was heavily favored.

Though physically outmatched, we played one of our best games, collectively. Berrier exploded for 15 points — in the first quarter — and then my steal and pass to him led to a one-handed tomahawk dunk that could be heard in the Jefferson Diner.

We built a lead that reached double digits late in the first half. But in the waning seconds of the second quarter, yours truly attempt to throw a pass over the top against the press — a cardinal sin for a point guard, especially one who knew better — led to a halfcourt heave that banked in at the buzzer, and the air began to seep out of our balloon.

Still, I distinctly remember going to the scorer’s table to check in before the second half and having the official scorer look at me and say, “how in the (heck) have you guys lost nine games?”

Slowly, Newton Falls began to assert itself and coach Gene Zorn’s squad chipped away at our lead and eventually went in front. But, led by Berrier, we got off the canvas one final time and tied the game with less than 40 seconds to play.

A Newton Falls basket put it ahead, 44-42, and we had one more chance. Coach Nemet had us run the clock down to 9 seconds, and called timeout.

Our first shot at tying the game rimmed out... as did two tip tries.

We came up two points short, against a superior opponent, and I just fell to the floor, where I remained, for a solid 15 minutes during pregame warmups for the nightcap.

I sat there, expressionless though glassy-eyed, and no one attempted to make me move. Officials never came to escort me. The team warming up at that end of the floor did so around me.

For they all understood. They officials had all felt the pain that accompanies Heartbreak Highway and the team warming up for the next game feared it.

When I finally made my way to the locker room, Coach Nemet told us how proud he was of the way we had fought, scratched and clawed and pushed a better team to this close to its breaking point.

He told us he loved us.

After Coach took his leave, Rick, John, Randy, Scott, Hugh and myself sat there. The shadows in the dark locker room, combined with the tears that flowed from all of us, an eerie 50 shades of gray.

We sat there for a long time, talking about where we had started, where we had been, where we were then and, being together for the final time, where we were going.

We haven’t been back together — as a group — since.

Heartbreak Highway, indeed.

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at donmac@suite224.net.

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