The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Sports

March 18, 2014

ACBF HOF Series: A Spartan, a Laker... a Hall of Famer

Sean Freeman started at Conneaut, but he really blossomed at Pymatuning Valley

— Pymatuning Valley star Sean Freeman’s love for basketball came at an early age. But it was at Conneaut, not PV, that it first blossomed.

The son of Conneaut principal Paul Freeman, a basketball legend in his own right and a member of the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame, Sean loved attending the Spartan basketball games as a youngster.

“I have a lot of respect for Ashtabula County high school basketball,” said Freeman, who will join his father in the Hall of Fame on April 13 at the foundation’s banquet at the Conneaut Human Resources Center. “My brother, Brett, played three varsity years at Conneaut and was kind of my childhood hero. I was probably the last child of the pre-technical era.”

College and pro basketball weren’t televised to the degree that they are today, so most of the basketball Freeman watched at an early age was the high-school variety, in person. Too young to be a member of Conneaut’s famed (or notorious, depending on one’s viewpoint) “Stage Crew,” Freeman watched from the stands.

“High school basketball was a big deal for me,” he said. “My brother liked to hit those 20-footers before the 3-point line was introduced. I’d always ask my dad who to watch (from the opponent). He’d say Andy Juhola (from Harbor) or Ralph DeJesus (from Geneva.”

As he grew up, Freeman loved to play on those old courts on Broad Street in Conneaut, where, in their heyday, up to 60 youngsters competed in pickup games.

Sometimes, Freeman stayed so late into the evening that his father would have to come to get him, saying that it was too dark to play basketball.

“My dad would say, ‘Get home,’ and I’d tell him I had to make three shots in a row before I could leave,” Freeman said.

Growing up, Freeman would play with the likes of future Spartan stars Matt Zappitelli and Mo Wofford. That was before the family moved to Andover after his eighth-grade year when his father became principal at Pymatuning Valley.

He had played junior high ball at Rowe in the seventh and eighth grades. As a freshman at PV, he started on the varsity team from his second game on. That PV squad started 0-5, the last loss of which saw the Lakers blow a 22-23-point lead to Jefferson.

“I remember Coach (Bob) Hitchcock just sitting and looking at us afterward,” Freeman said. “He didn’t have a lot to say. But it was a bad feeling knowing we had let something get away.

“From then on, we had a terrific year, winning 12 of our last 16 games to win the (Grand River Conference) after a slow start. We were young at the time, just one senior.”

That season paved the way for one of the school’s best years ever, Freeman’s sophomore year, when the Lakers won their first 22 games before being beaten in the district by Hawken in overtime.

The team had size with Freeman (about 6-3 at the time), ACBF Hall of Famer Steve Oman, Jason Poole and Gordy Hitchcock. It had the shooting of Doug Hitchcock and Rod Brown and the playmaking of Hitchcock.

Doug Hitchcock was the team leader.

“Doug was an unselfish player for a great player,” Freeman said. “We knew we had a chance to be decent. We were ranked as high as fifth in the (state) polls. The loss to Hawken was a tough loss.

“We were a very unselfish team who played well together. An undefeated team doesn’t happen very often.”

It certainly didn’t happen his junior season, when the Lakers lost Oman to Grand Valley and most of the other starters graduated.

“We were barely over .500,” Freeman said. “We started 2-7 before we started to put things together.”

PV moved to the East Suburban Conference Freeman’s senior year (1989-1990), where they faced tougher competition in the likes of Berkshire, Kirtland and others. Still, the Lakers wound up second.

“That team didn’t have a lot of height,” Freeman said of a group that included Brad McNeilly, Andy Brown, Paul Hochran, Matt Spellman and Mark Pitsinger. “With my being the leader, the ball was in my hands a lot. I led the league in rebounding and was second in scoring. I took pride in rebounding. I could have 25 or 26 points, but if I didn’t have 12 rebounds, I felt I didn’t hustle.

“I always said if I couldn’t get three rebounds in an 8-minute period, I wasn’t getting after it. That’s the fun part of the game.”

Freeman scored 1,301 points during  his high school career, still the seventh-highest total for all boys players in county history, the fourth-highest total when he graduated.

Among his honors were special mention All-GRC and honorable mention All-Ashtabula County as a freshman, first-team All-GRC and honorable mention all-county as a sophomore, first-team All ESC and all-county as a junior and senior and first-team All-Northeast Ohio and all-state as a senior. He started on league championship teams in his freshman, sophomore and junior years, was the team leader in assists, points, rebounds and steals as a junior and senior and won the 1-on-1 tournament for four consecutive years. He was also selected by the Star Beacon as a player on the Dream Team of the Decade for the 1980s.

“I was very honored to be named as one of the top 10 basketball players in county history by the Star Beacon,” Freeman said. “I was very humbled by that mention.”

One of his proudest accomplishments was being runner-up to eventual Ohio State football star Robert Smith as Northeast Ohio Athlete of the Year.

He really enjoyed playing under Hitchcock.

“He was a great coach,” Freeman said. “He always stressed unselfish basketball, making the next pass. He stressed defense and was always calm and collected. He was like family; my dad had played with him. He expected a lot out of us.”

Freeman was also a standout on the baseball diamond and the gridiron at Pymatuning Valley. As a quarterback in football, he led the Lakers to a 9-1 record under coach Ken Parise in 1989 and was named Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County Offensive Back of the Year as a junior and senior. He shattered the school passing record (formerly 1,017 yards) as a senior with 2,091 yards and had a punting average of 42.2 yards. For his career, he threw for 4,641 yards (a county record) and 48 touchdowns. He had a chance to play Division I football, but didn’t really consider it.

In baseball, he had set the career highs for home runs (21) and RBI (90) after his junior year.

“I didn’t play junior high football and had no intention of playing football,” he said. “I played on the golf team as a freshman. But (Parise) saw me there and I eventually went out for football.”

College coaches wanted Freeman to play football exclusively. Freeman wanted to play baseball.

“It was a stressful time,” he said. “Ohio State was involved. So were Bowling Green and Georgia Tech. It was a crazy time.”

One of the deciding factors was the college football itself, which was larger than the high school version.

“I didn’t have big hands for my size,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I could throw the college ball 50 or 60 yards. And I really wanted to give college baseball a shot.”

Kent State wanted Freeman as a baseball player. Eventually, that’s where he wound up.

He had pitched and played first base in high school. At Kent, he became a full-time first baseman.

“I ended up playing first base all four years,” he said.

He was inducted into the Kent Baseball Hall of Fame.

Over his career at Kent, Freeman had a batting average of .333 and held the doubles record in addition to the record for most games played.

He was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1994 and wound up five or six classes short of a degree, spending four years in the Tigers’ system, five overall in the minor leagues.

In Class AA Jacksonville in 1996, he was part of a team that won a championship. The following year, he went to spring training with the Tigers, but was injured and never played in a major-league game.

Freeman then went to work for Tony LaRiche Chevrolet in Willoughby as a salesman and spent seven or eight years there. From there, it was on to Quicken Loans as a banker for six years.

But he had been having back problems for years and finally wound up having intensive back surgery.

“It was a five- or six-hour surgery,” he said. “It’s been a couple of tough years for me. I had a tumor pressing against a major blood vessel.”

His back won’t allow him to sit for any length of time, so working has been impossible for the past couple of years.

“I’m not in a wheelchair, but at times ,it gets so painful I have to lie down,” he said.

Now divorced, Freeman has a son, Daniel, 5. He moved back to the Andover area about a year ago.

Larick, a retired Star Beacon sportswriter, is a freelance writer from Geneva.

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