The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


December 31, 2012

Half-century of hoops

Celebration of 50 years of boys basketball at Jefferson since consolidation a slam dunk

JEFFERSON — Thirty-two minutes for 50 years. Many coaches preach to their basketball players that they hard for four quarters to remember the result for the next 50 years.

There was a bit of a different meaning to those words Friday night at Falcon Gymnasium.

Jefferson celebrated 50 years of basketball since the school was consolidated into its current configuration as Jefferson Area High School prior to the opening tip of a 79-75 loss to All-American Conference foe Girard.

“It’s been a lot of fun (putting the event together),” event coordinator and former head coach Tim Mizer said. “It was nice to put faces with names (of the guys who were in the program before I came here). I was a little disappointed everyone didn’t come. In a perfect world, none of them would have passed away and they all would have been here tonight. I really wanted to fill the gym.

“It’s been fun watching some of the guys reconnect with former teammates.”

In a reunion that was designed to highlight the seniors from each team in the school’s half-century, 48 players and 10 coaches were introduced to the home crowd.

Four of the five starters who played on the first team after the consolidation were in attendance. Jim Golen, Jon Freeman and Ron Shore graduated were members of the Class of 1963 and Mick Zigmund, the lone junior starter on the ’62-’63 team, graduated in 1964.

“It’s a great opportunity for everyone to get together,” Freeman, who spends time living in Dorset as well as Wyoming, said. “There’s a lot of history here.

Most of the people I don’t know because I was gone before they were here. I know some just from being in the area.”

Golen, who lives in Rural Hill, N.C., was appreciative of the recognition.

“I’d like to thank all the teachers, coaches and the community for bringing us back,” he said. “(Fifty years of basketball) is more a reflection on the community, not us. As far as I’m concerned, this is about the teachers, coaches, community, everybody.”

Shore, who came in from Annondale, Va., was in full spirit of the event. He was the lone alumnus who wore his lettermen’s jacket. The fact that it still fit led to a few one-liners about expanding wastelines.

“It means a lot (to me that they brought us back),” Shore said. “It’s great to see the guys again. We shared a great year that year.”

Zigmund, who still lives in Jefferson and will forever hold the scoring record in the old Falcon Gym (41 points), was making the rounds and exchanging old war stories with his former teammates.

“There’s a lot of memories,” he said. “Fifty years doesn’t seem that long ago.

They remember things that I don’t and I remember different things.”

Golen recalled what Freeman was remembered for.

“(Jon’s) nickname was ‘The Snake’ because he would just slither through everyone to the basket,” Golen said.

That exchange led to a few more memories spilling free.

“Coach (Herb Smolka) used to say to keep our poise,” Golen said. “Sometimes we lost, but it was a good lesson.

“When we were freshmen, we would scrimmage the seniors. They beat us up pretty good.”

Not lost on the old timers was the fact that they had played in two different gyms as the first group to play in the old Falcon Gymnasium and were being recognized in a third.

“We started on the little stage that’s at the elementary school,” Zigmund said. “Then we played the first game at the gym they just tore down. I still have the memories. They can’t take that away.

“There will be a day when (the current players) come back and this gym will be gone.”

Of the 50 basketball teams being honored, representatives of 33 classes were action in attendance. The first class, 1962-63, had three players there as did the Class of 2011-12. The Class of ’84 had the most players make the return trip with four.

Ten coaches were at the celebration, seven, including Harold Rose, Bob Ashba, Al Graper, Rick Nemet, Mizer, Steve Locy and current coach Jeremy Huber, were head coaches. Junior varsity coaches included Ron Butcher, Ed Pickard and current JV coach T.J. Furman, who may have drawn the loudest cheer of the night from the Jefferson student section.

“It was awesome,” Furman said. “”You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Mize. He’s been dreaming this for years. He had said there was something special he wanted to do and he kept telling me about it. To see his plan come together was awesome.

“It was an honor. A lot of good basketball players came out. You could definitely see the Jefferson pride.”

When all of the former players were introduced, the current Falcons were

brought into the mix. Each of the Falcons trotted down past every one of the

alumni, slapping hands.

“I thought was a great show of respect,” Furman said. “It was like passing it down the line. They shared something.”

“The idea was to connect the past with the present,” Mizer said. “I’m hoping that maybe that will give the team a bit of extra energy tonight to play in front of the alumni.”

For men like Rose, the celebration was a homecoming that was a long-time coming.

“I think this was a great idea,” he said. “I’ve lived away for so long and I never get back. I may have been back one or two times. It was nice to see some of the guys. I haven’t seen a lot of them since high school.”

Butcher was JV coach for Smolka, who was at the helm at the time of the consolidation, then assisted Rose.

“It was great to see the players,” Butcher said. “I think about the way they played quite a bit. It was great to see these guys. The main thing was the guys played their hearts out. It was good to see them get some recognition.”

When Rose took over the program in 1964, it was just his second season as a head coach. Butcher was a valuable asset.

“It was fun,” he said. “It was a great experience for me. I told Ron, in all the years I coached, I was fortunate enough to have him with me as a young coach. He had a lot of experience and that was tremendous for me.”

After a long career in the profession, back surgeries forced Rose to retire from the coaching ranks. Otherwise, he might still be on a sideline.

“People ask every once in a while if I still coach,” he said. “I can’t move real well. I had two back surgeries. If I didn’t have that, I’d still be helping.”

Rose didn’t initially go to Jefferson to be the head coach.

But circumstances changed after he took the JV job and he was thrust into the head coach’s job.

“I had come to be Smolka’s JV coach. He left and took another job before school started and they asked me to be the head coach,” he said.

For many of the returning Falcons, the reunion was a chance

to get a small taste of home.

“Jefferson is a good place to be,” Norm Russell, Class of ’85, said. “It’s a great place to grow up. There are great people, great friends, in town. I guess I hope people appreciate a place like Jefferson.

“I live in Columbus. It’s… different. Jefferson is a great town. I appreciate the opportunity to grow up here. My friends are still here and I still come back.”

Russell took the reunion as a chance to reconnect with those friends.

“Some of the guys I haven’t seen since I graduated,” he said. “Being part of a team, you go through things together. Whether it’s winning or losing, practices or games or line drills, you know you went through something special together.

“You were a basketball player and you represented your school. When it was all said and done, it was fun, too.”

Russell had a good laugh at the thought of playing in the new Falcon Gymnasium as opposed to the gym he had toiled in at the old building.

“We would have been a lot better in a place like this,” he said. “Well, maybe not. We knew where all the weak spots were in the floor (at the old gym).

“There was a place in one of the corners where, if you cornered someone there, you would probably come out with the ball.”

For Steve Locy, who headed the program before Huber took over last season, it was a chance to talk with guys he has seen or talked to regularly.

“It’s a great thing Tim and T.J. put together,” he said. “A lot of people have never seen the school. It was great to see the guys and learn they’ve been successful and a little of what you did or that you taught them to work hard and they’ve been very successful.

“It brings back a lot of memories. I got calls and emails from some of the guys that didn’t get back, too. They said they’d have loved to have been here and what high school basketball meant to them.

“Most of them, I did recognize. When they come back in town, they usually stop by and say hi. Some of them used to get in the gym with us and play against my teams. A few, I didn’t recognize.”

One of those correspondences related a lesson Locy had taught his young men.

“One in particular said that I used to tell them all the time to live in the moment. He talked about how much he misses it now.”

Locy and Furman have a unique connection to the program.

Both of them grew up in Jefferson, watching the Falcons as youngsters. They would both go on to play in the program and later coach the team.

“Seeing that I’m 50, even back in the ’70s, I would see my brother and sister play. I saw the guys in the ’70s. I graduated in the ’80s then I took over the team. I’ve obviously seen the last 30 or 35 years.”

“It was special to see the guys that came down and helped us when we were in fifth and sixth grade,” Furman said. “Those guys helped us when Mize was the head coach.

“I still remember that Matt Burnett and Craig Weddle helped us.”

Ironically, Mizer put the reunion together, but it was not to reconnect with his former players. He does a good job of that already. Though, he did get a few surprises.

“Actually, I’ve seen most of the guys here over the years,” he said. “I kind of kept in touch with some of them. There’s been quite a few who’ve contacted me. There were a couple who I haven’t seen in quite a few years who showed up tonight.”

Fred Johnson graduated in 1965 and went on to long career in coaching. He is currently the superintendent of the Souderton (Pa.) Area School District near Philadelphia. He learned some valuable lessons as a player with the Falcons.

“When I was a senior, that fall we had a levy fail during football season,” Johnson said. “They locked the doors at 3 p.m. and the coaches were ordered not to talk to us. Eventually, I think in January, they passed a levy and we did get 15 games in. We went something 6-9.

“We had to overcome adversity. We had to persevere. The cards that were dealt weren’t in our favor and we had to persevere. That’s what I remember.”

Nemet coached the program from 1978-79 through 1980-81 and remembered his teams quite fondly.

“It brought back a lot of good memories,” he said. “Once I saw them, I started thinking about some the things they accomplished.

“1978 was a good year. We had some decent players and won a sectional. (In 1980-81), we ended up losing to (second-seeded) Newton Falls by a point or two and and we missed two tips at the end.

“The first year, we had a lot of talent. The last two, we didn’t have quite the same talent, but those kids had worked their butts off. They were guys, that as freshmen, I wouldn’t have said they’d amount to much. But by the time they were juniors and seniors, they had proved me wrong.

“That’s a compliment to them and their parents.”

The significance was not lost on the current Falcons.

“It’s a good tradition,” Huber said. “The kids know it’s about more than just basketball. It’s about hanging out and being together. It’s a sense of community. There was a nice crowd here tonight and we played off it.”

“It was cool to have all the alumni here,” senior guard Jacob Hamilton said. “We have all their records and know all the names. It was good to see all of them.

“There were definitely chills everywhere. We got pumped because we could feel all of the energy in here.”

Mizer had wanted to connect the present and past. The event did just that, even before the actual reunion.

“We had watched some of the old-time game films,” Hamilton said. “It was cool. I would love to hear their stories.”

In another 50 years, Hamilton may be the one telling those stories.

Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.

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