By Joey Bennett
TERRE HAUTE — Eight days ago, two of the highest-profile college football games played nationally — USC’s 18-15 comeback win at Ohio State and Michigan’s 38-34 home field victory over Notre Dame — were memorable thrillers decided in the closing seconds before six-digit crowds.
Each game had a highly recruited athlete from Terre Haute on hand, and if Terre Haute North’s Justin Gant eventually decides to become a Wolverine or Terre Haute South’s Jacob Hayes signs with Ohio State then the events of Sept. 12, 2009, may prove to have been an influencing factor.
Neither Gant nor Hayes is a football player, but Bowl Championship Schools wisely use such showcase stages to impress athletes being recruited for their other sports.
Gant, a 6-8 junior basketball standout, and Hayes, a highly-desired middle infielder with pop in his bat who has helped South win three straight baseball sectionals, shared almost duplicate memories of their college visits.
“The Michigan-Notre Dame game was probably the most fun sporting event I’ve been involved with,” Gant said. “We tailgated outside the basketball arena with the coaches and players, and playing corn hole with the players was a lot of fun. Michigan has two Indiana players on the team and the coaches made sure we talked.”
“The Ohio State-USC game was probably the most exciting sporting event I have ever attended,” he said. “The stadium was so loud that I had to yell to my parents, who happened to be sitting right next to me.”
Both athletes also enjoyed the perspective that only having seats extremely close to the field can bring in such a setting.
“Standing on the field while the teams warmed up was great,” Gant noted. “You get a new appreciation to the size, speed and strength these guys have. Our seats were about the 15th row and the fans were nuts from the opening kickoff until the end. When Michigan scored with 11 seconds left I had people all around jumping on me, and going crazy. After the game, we got onto the field again and felt a part of the celebration.”
Gant, who averaged 13.0 points per game as a sophomore last year at North and had an excellent summer with the Indiana Elite AAU program, has received scholarship offers from Indiana State, Bradley, Evansville, Southern Illinois, Rice and Iowa. He also gets frequent calls or visits to practice workouts from the coaches at Butler, Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin.
Time is on Gant’s side, and he is in no hurry to make a college choice as he continues to work on his game and add weight to his 200-pound frame.
“I don’t have a time table … I want to look at all of them and make the decision when I feel it’s right,” he said. “I still have two high school seasons left to play and don’t want to rush it.”
Gant has a 3.3 GPA and is interested in both a strong academic school and one whose system fits his playing style. He plans to study either business or engineering.
“That will play a factor also,” he said. “I have my family and coaches at North who are helping me with the process and I appreciate that a lot.”
Until then, Gant is continuing to schedule stops on his Midwestern tour. He planned to go to Notre Dame’s home game with Michigan State on Saturday, and is arranging a trip to Wisconsin in October.
Hayes was impressed at the volume of the Buckeye fans, even though it limited communication.
“The seats were great, and that made it even better,” he said. “It was a record crowd totaling over 106,000 people.
“The reputation of Ohio State football definitely became a reality that night,” he recalled. “It would’ve been a lot more fun afterwards if the Buckeyes could’ve held on for the win.”
Hayes has OSU as one of four schools he is considering most for his college choice, also listing Indiana, Indiana State and Ball State.
Ohio State has had a scholarship offer on the table for almost a month, Hayes noted, while an offer from Indiana also was received in the past week.
“I will be going over to Columbus next weekend for my official visit, so they could be expecting an answer then,” he said. “I am hoping to sign during the early signing period.”
Like many athletes, Hayes wants to have a chance to earn a spot on the field.
“I’m looking to go somewhere where I will be in a position to compete for a starting spot,” he said. “I don’t want to be sitting behind a bunch of guys at the same spot. I want to play.”
Hayes is also an excellent student, with a 3.7 GPA, and is considering pre-dentistry.
If he does become a Buckeye, Hayes would be following in the family footsteps of his cousin, Mike, who played in Columbus in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Ohio State is really special to me because of that,” Hayes said. “He has always kind of been my hero, so it’s always been a dream for me to play at Ohio State.”
• Bits and pieces — Casey native Lori Blade will be inducted into the Southern Illinois-Edwardsville Athletics Hall of Fame on Oct. 24.
Blade is No. 12 on the all-time scoring list for SIUE women’s basketball with 1,144 points. She was the third player in school history to pass the 1,000-point plateau. Blade also was a standout in softball, having twice led the team in hits and runs batted in.
After her playing days, she served as an assistant coach for the SIUE women’s basketball team and then moved on to a highly-successful career as a high school coach. She led Carrollton High School to back-to-back state basketball championships.
• The parade of West Vigo baseball players to the college ranks is continuing. Aaron Welch, the slugging first baseman on last year’s 3A state runnerup team, is playing at Lincoln Trail, while current Viking senior Tyler Wampler has made a verbal commitment to attend Indiana State.
n Former Northview and Vincennes University baseball standout John Reberger is continuing his career at Indiana-Southeast.
• A couple of corrections are needed from the Sept. 6 column. Rose-Hulman assistant coach Mike Ellis is a Terre Haute North grad but was omitted from a list of Valley natives participating in college football, while former Patriot Kevin Dean was previously a coach for the Engineers but no longer serves in that role.
Another player with local ties has made his debut in big-time college football this year.
Former Terre Haute resident Anthony Oden, a 6-8, 328-pound offensive lineman, made his debut last Saturday for Arkansas in the Razorbacks’ win over Missouri State. He is, of course, the “little” brother of Portland Trailblazers’ center Greg Oden.
He originally signed to play for Arkansas in 2008, but instead attended Hargrave Military Academy. He was listed by Rivals.com as the No. 8 prep school prospect in the nation.
Joey Bennett is a former Tribune-Star sports reporter and copy editor who now teaches and coaches at Northview High School in Brazil. He can be reached at email@example.com.