TERRE HAUTE —
Lights down, tree out, another year gone at the Classic.
It seems as though 2011 came to an end in more than one way for me on the last day of the year. Despite the gray chill of a damp afternoon, I managed to get the last of my Christmas lights unclipped from the gutters, reeled in my extension cords and dragged our needle-dropping tree out of the living room to reside near our wood line as a nesting spot for the birds.
But despite all the housecleaning chores — I also policed our yard for wind-blown bows and silk poinsettias — I’ve taken the time to reflect on the passing of another Pizza Hut Wabash Valley Classic, which in the past 12 years has become as traditional for me as eggnog and Yule logs.
I enjoyed this Classic perhaps as much as any I’ve ever seen. Of course, I say that every year. The PHWVC allows me, just for its four days, to pretend that I am a sportswriter again, gives me an opportunity to revive the column I started so many years ago and, in just a short period of time, allows me to watch about as much high school basketball as my backside can take.
Here’s a bit of what I took in…
• We interrupt this program — Gary Fears, the godfather of the Classic, is usually the first guy I look up when I get to the gymnasium for the opening game each year. His Day One jitters are as predictable as my appetite for Christmas fudge, so when he seemed a bit preoccupied in the half-hour before Bloomfield and Marshall kicked off the tournament Tuesday, I knew things were going according to plan.
“Things are out of sync today,” Gary said. He was worried about malfunctioning scoretable lights and a balky Internet connection, and whatever else someone who organizes a four-day event for 12,000 people has to worry about. A full gymnasium, a hard-working crew of Terre Haute North staffers and a good game later, Gary seemed to be past his technical difficulties and enjoying the basketball. That’s how the plan was supposed to go too.
• The sailor with the camera — I was happy to spend a little time during the Classic with Tribune-Star photographer Joe Garza. You would think that as a writer for the newspaper, I’d see Joe frequently, but that’s not the case, particularly not this year because he just got back from doing an overseas stint with the Navy.
“I was in a staging area on the Gulf of Aden,” Joe told me when he was explaining where he’d been. “You look one direction and there’s Somalia, and you look another and there’s Yemen, and in another there’s Ethiopia,” he said. “I knew I was getting acclimated to the heat over there,” he added, “when I told a friend one day that it ‘wasn’t bad’ outside. It was 95 degrees…” Joe said it regularly topped 120 degrees.
Despite it being a “dry heat,” I imagine that Joe was grateful to see it drizzling and 40 degrees here at home. We, on the other hand, should just be grateful for Joe.
• Oprah’s Book Club — One of the great things about covering games at the Classic is the great seat I’m given and the company I get to keep while sitting in it. Indiana State University men’s basketball coach Greg Lansing joined me in cushioned-chair comfort on the first and last days of the tournament, a trip to Iowa to face the Drake Bulldogs sandwiched in the days between.
Much to my surprise, Lansing said less about basketball in his time at my table than he did about books. “So, what are you reading these days?” he asked as he sat down just before he was to watch his prize recruit, Sullivan’s Rhett Smith, face Rockville in a great small-school matchup that went to the wire.
I discovered that Lansing likes thrillers and espionage, a genre with exciting finishes and non-stop action. “I mostly read when I am traveling,” he said. Let’s hope he can settle down with a great Vince Flynn novel on his way to an NCAA regional game with his Sycamores in March.
• Where the Buffalo Roams — I was joined for a while by Sheldon Oberholtzer, a former teaching and coaching friend of mine, who is reveling in the glories of retirement these days. As we chatted about this and that, Ernie Baysinger — a friend I’ve made through the Classic — walked by as he headed toward the aroma of a refreshment stand’s popcorn bags. Oberholzter interrupted himself in mid-sentence to ask, “Is that Baysinger?”
When I assured him that it was, he told me that Ernie was a real crackerjack player for the Freedom Aces at the time Sheldon played for neighborhood rival Patricksburg. Later, as the two reminisced a bit over the glories of Owen County hoops, Sheldon brought up Freedom’s Bob Buffalo, a “real good player.”
“I think it was the Brazil newspaper that used a headline one time about him that read that Freedom was ‘where the Buffalo roams,’” Oberholtzer said.
• Something in the water — I had a former student of mine stop by to point out that her son, the diminutive Luther Mathas, was warming up for Riverton Parke’s Panthers before they played Casey in the Classic’s third game. “He has to be the shortest player in the history of the tournament,” his mom, Joni, proudly told me. Being vertically challenged never stopped her from facing tough times, so I imagine that her 5-foot-4 sophomore son is more than willing to stick his nose into trouble too.
This Classic may have had more than its share of big players — no fewer than eight were 6-7 or better — but two of the best moments were supplied by its shortest participants, all on Parke County rosters.
As time wound down as the Panthers faced Rockville on Day Two, Mathas stepped onto the court at nearly the same time that Rox coach Dave Mahurin called Kiontre Wilkey’s number on the Rockville bench. Kiontre, a freshman, is listed as 5-8, but clearly Mahurin bought a defective measuring tape because Mathas has Wilkey by an inch. The two were squared off as the game’s final buzzer sounded.
Mathas and Wilkey may have had their moments in the Classic, but Turkey Run’s Justin Paddock stole the show with an appearance that fellow writer Andy Amey has written about as well.
Paddock, another freshman who’s around the 5-4 mark, wasn’t listed in the tournament program, but with about two minutes left in the Warriors’ loss to Terre Haute South, North’s cheer block (I’ll mention these fans later too) began chanting: “Put in Paddock… Put in Paddock…” With 1:30 left on the clock, Turkey Run Coach Grant McVay did just that.
With South defender Peter Tanoos giving Paddock a little space to shoot (one of the Classic’s classier moments) the TR guard hit nothing but net from the top of the key, and a celebrity was born. After the game, Paddock was deluged with high fives and autograph seekers — again, mostly from North’s young fans.
• As Julie Andrews would say … — Here are a “few of my favorite things,” from the Classic:
Best team warmup routine: Marshall Lions;
Best games: Rockville-Sullivan and North-South on Day One and West Vigo-Marshall on Day Four;
Best hair: That of a decidedly senior citizen who sat in the North stands sporting a spiked pink do on championship night;
Best dunk: Smith’s two-hand slam against the Rox;
Best T-shirt: One worn by a young man sitting in North’s seating section that read: “Lazy but talented”;
Best cheer block: It’s tough to beat Terre Haute North’s for size and originality (“If you’re losing and you know it, clap your hands,” was one of their favorites), but those from Marshall and Sullivan came very close;
Best Hospitality Room food that wasn’t pizza: Whoever made the chili can adopt me now;
Best moment on the floor not involving a basketball: The cheerleading at this Classic was outstanding, but when Sullivan and North’s cheerleaders hooked up in a back-flip showdown during a third-quarter break on championship night, they took it to another level;
Best singing of the National Anthem: If anyone can do a better job than 11-year-old Carsyn Wayland’s rendition just before the championship game Friday night, I’d like to hear it.
Another all-tournament team: Each year, an all-tournament team is selected, and everyone involved in the voting knows it’s a tough thing to whittle it down to just 10 players. I keep a running list in my notebook of guys who, although not always the biggest scorers, are always leaving skin on the floor, or setting screens, or making that last great pass. This list is far from complete too, but here’s my All-Dirty Work team: Bloomfield’s Curtis Hasler and Ben Hays; Monrovia’s Grant Benefiel; Riverton’s Cody Vauters; West Vigo’s Cade Lindsey and Nathan Gregg; Casey’s Zach Murphy; North’s Austin Lewis and Ross Sponsler; Marshall’s Logan Cannady and Taylor Maurer; Rockville’s Jordon McFall; Shakamak’s Brodie Crowe; South’s Danny Etling; South Vermillion’s Philip Harpenau; and Sullivan’s Caleb Turner. My Dirty Work Team Captain: Sullivan senior Bryce Bement.
And, so it went for another year…