By Craig Pearson
TERRE HAUTE — What tournament director and co-founder Gary Fears had in mind when creating the tournament came to fruition Tuesday. Marshall, with an enrollment of 438 students, became the smallest school to win the Pizza Hut Wabash Valley Classic in the ninth season of the tourney.
Bloomfield was runner-up twice, Turkey Run once and Marshall bounced back from a runner-up finish and a 64-33 loss to Terre Haute South in last season’s title game. The Lions came back on a mission this year, avenging that loss to coach Mike Saylor’s Braves team that he feels can compete with any team in the country. The Braves did defeat Lawrence North, a team ranked among the top 32 in the nation by rivals.com.
Marshall pulled away from Terre Haute North on Tuesday for a 64-48 triumph.
“It feels great to get over that hump,” said Marshall coach Tom Brannan. “It’s all about the players. Players and effort.”
Marshall’s current enrollment isn’t far removed from when it won the original Wabash Valley Tournament in consecutive seasons in 1971-72. According to Dean Kendall’s book “The Wabash Valley High School Basketball Tournament,” Marshall had 416 students in 1972, the last year for the old tournament, which grew to as large as 128 teams during its span from 1916 to 1972.
The new version includes just a fraction of those teams — the 16 allowed by the IHSAA in a tournament — but that doesn’t take away from the excitement that has built around the new Classic.
Fans were turned away from Terre Haute South on Saturday and Monday as the late-night matchups approached tip-off.
“It’s the way I remember the old Wabash Valley for many years,” Fears said. “We wish we had a bigger gymnasium, we don’t. We love the full gym and the atmosphere that creates. When class basketball came into the state of Indiana, we lost that. The kids and players love to perform in front of a full house, and that’s what this tournament’s re-created.”
The tournament’s third-place game and championship game have been televised on WTWO for the last four years for more fans to witness the high-quality basketball on display.
“Small schools” such as Switz City, Monroe City, even Flat Rock (enrollment 82 in 1940) used to win the old Wabash Valley Tournament, but all of the previous eight Pizza Hut champions have been Class 4A or Class 5A schools.
Fears has re-created the tournament because of his love of the sport, and he seemed to enjoy the possibility of Marshall becoming the first to break through for the small schools. He gave high fives to Marshall captains Lucas Eitel, Logan Eitel and Taylor Duncan when delivering the championship trophy amid chants of “We are Marshall” from the Lions’ faithful.
The idea of the Pizza Hut tournament when he and Jim Jones and Pat Rady discussed was to re-create the days when small communities could put a team together that could be giant killers in a tournament setting.
“When class basketball came in, meeting with Pat Rady and Jim Jones, we all kind of reminisced about the good old days and how we could bring that back,” said Fears, who was a starting guard for Honey Creek High School in 1959 and 1960.
The tournament has been a phenomenal success, providing entertainment at the perfect time with high schools and colleges on winter break.
“Every year seems to surpass the last one,” Fears said. “The quality of play this year, from team play to the individual players; you know, we had several Division I players this year.”
South coach Mike Saylor, who has two future Division I players on his team, was very impressed with the turnout of fans wanting to see all the quality basketball this year. Rockville, Marshall and Terre Haute South all came in undefeated, and the Lions beat the other two on the way to the title.
“It’s a great testimony to this region. There’s so many good fans. [Athletic Director] Mr. [Tony] Brewer, [principal] Mr. Mauk, everybody on the South end put up a great tournament,” he said. “There was talk of doing it in Hulman Center, but what’s the chance you’re going to have all these undefeated teams coming in again?”
Well, with some of the freshmen and sophomores fans were treated to the past five days, there’s definitely that chance.
Marshall will lose the Eitel twins, who have been starters for four years. Brannan also coached two of the Eitels’ older brothers.
“They’re like family. They’re family. It feels great. I’m so happy for these guys,” said Brannan, who is fortunate that he’ll have the Duncan brothers around for a while still. Freshman Jacob Duncan hit 5 3-pointers against Rockville.
There’s plenty more young players that will make fans arrive at the Terre Haute North or Terre Haute South gym in coming years.
Terre Haute North’s Justin Gant, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, is going to become a more dominant force as he moves into his final two years of high school.
West Vigo has a couple freshman in Jordan Houser and Cody Thornton and a sophomore in Scott West that will make them a force. And Sullivan will be a team that could contend for a title as 6-6 freshman Rhett Smith matures.
“The goal is to please the students and fans of the Wabash Valley,” Fears said.
Craig Pearson can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (812) 231-4357.