MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge
It is considered the city game, born on the asphalt jungle of sun-drenched parks and honed in the big field houses.
But at tournament time, when everybody starts even at 0-0, when the farmlands are buried in snow, when even the smallest schools have the biggest dreams, basketball is a country game with car caravans snaking through the dark of night on two-lane county roads.
Bettsville and New Riegel played last Tuesday night in the Division IV boys sectional opener at Hopewell-Loudon.
They are so much alike, yet so different.
Bettsville is a dot on the map between Fremont and Fostoria with a tiny business district hard against Route 12 and a quiet, quaint residential area for 784 townsfolk that meanders off the beaten path through woods and dale.
People are born there, walk to school, shop at Ken's Market, go to the fish fry at the Sullivan Post American Legion hall, get their hair cut in Mike and Joan Wise's two-chair barber shop, tip a few at the Blue Eagle Bar, stop for ice cream at Sun-Days and, when all is said and done, are laid out at Engle Funeral Home.
New Riegel, a village of just 226 residents, is more straight-forward, two main streets and four directions. The skyline, so to speak, is dominated by St. Boniface Church at the north end and the Farmland plant on the south side. In the middle, at the crossroads, is one of northwest Ohio's culinary gems, the New Riegel Cafe, and if you know ribs, you know of what we speak.
If the villagers aren't eating out, then they're cooking off the shelves of Paul's Market. Stopping for a beer and shot at Boomerz. Having a cone or sundae at Soda Jerks.
New Riegel knows the basketball dream can come true. A decade ago, the high school boys team made it to the promised land, all the way to the state final.
“Nothing will ever compare to that season in this town,” said 24-year-old David Kline, a one-time Blue Jacket player who works the meat counter at Paul's Market. “When the team came home, they broke out the fire trucks and the bus followed through town. Just getting to Columbus was as good as winning the title.
“This is a basketball town. Everybody goes to the games. It's all we know.”
Rick DeMoss, the New Riegel coach then and now, remembers the 1992-93 season as if it were yesterday.
“We lived everybody's dream,” DeMoss said of his 23-4 team that eventually fell to powerful Fort Loramie in the title game. “Everybody has seen Hoosiers and we could relate.
“We're a community where almost every driveway has a backboard and a hoop. We've had kids who grew up playing barnball. The Schalk family had a court in their barn and the kids would play with miniature balls, and the only way you could score was to dunk it.
“The tradition here is huge, and it's not just basketball. The school is the hub of the community and everyone supports it, whether we're talking sports or academics, music or what- ever.”
DeMoss is in his 26th season, and his teams have won some 330 games. New Riegel's girls have some tradition too. Coach Steve Lucius, a native son, passed the 300-win mark this year and his team finished atop The Blade's Division IV girls poll.
These days, DeMoss and Lucius coach in a sparkling new gym, part of an impressive K-12 school complex that opened two months ago and houses 469 kids who hail from New Riegel and parts of four surrounding townships. There are 69 boys and 82 girls in grades 9-12.
The new gym glitters, but townies like Kline chuckle and say, “It's OK. The new school has done a lot for the community, but the gym's a little small.”
It seats upwards of 1,000. There is an adjacent commons area, a cafeteria by day, that is equipped with a number of TV screens. Games are televised via closed-circuit into the commons area for the spillover crowd, since sometimes as many as 100 folks can't get seats in the gym.
The old New Riegel gym, one of the legendary pits in northwest Ohio backroads basketball, seated more than 1,200.
Downsizing, it's called.
And Bettsville, up north at the opposite tip of Seneca County, knows all about it.
This was once a wealthy school district, thanks to a large stone quarry operation. With those 700-plus jobs in town and the healthy tax base it produced, Bettsville was able to stand on its own when consolidation was in vogue and so many small-town schools dissolved and blended into larger regional systems.
But the quarry is a shadow of its former self. Things are so bad along the main business drag that the Pie House, once Bettsville's answer to the Boes family's New Riegel Cafe on the rural dining map, has closed its doors.
“We have a wonderful park though, and we're still renowned for our Fourth of July fireworks,” said Joan Wise.
“And the Memorial Day parade isn't bad if the guy shows up with the antique truck,” added her husband Mike, a real character and a wizard with the scissors.
They've owned the barber shop and lived in the house next door for 35 years.
Joan has turned one wall of the shop into a Bettsville museum of sorts. There is a picture of John Betts, the village's founder, and one of Eliza Swope, a sturdy-looking pioneer woman from the turn of the century who was a house builder and posed for the camera with tools in hand. There is the town's old semi-pro baseball team, a final class picture from the late 1800s at Beech School, the 1934-35 girls basketball team from Bettsville School, Miller's old horse-shoeing shop and buggy house, the 1946-47 Bettsville boys team that won 25 straight games.
A block away, off the main drag, is venerable Bettsville School with its bandbox gym, permanent seating on one side only. There is a new wing for the high school kids, 100 strong from the total enrollment of 317.
“We're the second-smallest [public] high school in Ohio,” said boys coach Rod Daniel, also the athletic director and baseball coach. “Numbers are our biggest challenge. At bigger schools, 25 or 30 kids might come out for basketball. Here, there's no picking or choosing. Kids come out and make the team. We take what we get and do the best we can.
“I get frustrated at times, sure, but for the kids moreso than for myself. I know they're tired of losing. They work hard. They try hard. They do everything they can.”
And so they collided last Tuesday. Fans from New Riegel and Bettsville made the ride to beautiful downtown Bascom and the bright lights of Hopewell-Loudon's gym.
The first game of the sectional doubleheader pitted Old Fort and Mohawk, and nearly all of the 1,800 seats were filled with fans dressed in gold on one side, red and black on the other, each side creating a din.
The crowd was smaller for the second game, and it was pretty quiet during warmups until three fathers of Bettsville players sitting in the top row stripped off their shirts and displayed “BHS” painted in school colors on their chests. Fans from both schools whooped it up.
B was Tim Weber, H was David Hawk and S was Bob Green. At halftime they agreed good-naturedly that the entire alphabet could have fit on a couple of those bellies.
“The bigger the canvas, the better the art,” Green said, laughing.
“It's been a tough season for the kids, so we thought the least we could do was try something to get them pumped up,” Hawk said.
Remember that 1946-47 team pictured on the barber shop wall? It really hasn't been that long between titles for Bettsville. It just seems like it.
“When I was in school, back in 1972-73-74, we won the Seneca County League every year,” Weber recalled. “But this league [Midland] is a lot different. Attica and Republic consolidated into Seneca East, Bloomville is part of the Tiffin schools now, Calvert wasn't in the league then. We're just not big enough to compete much now, although our baseball team went to regionals last year. That was pretty neat.”
Basketball was not so neat for the Bobcats last Tuesday. With no player taller than 6-foot, they were schooled inside by New Riegel and the Blue Jackets pulled away to a 74-47 win.
Bettsville finished 3-18. Its girls team, which not so many years ago flirted with the nation's longest high school losing streak, went 1-19 this season.
“I still have to admire our kids,” said principal Steve Anway. “They always give it everything they have.”
So did New Riegel, although its season came to an end three nights later with a 71-48 loss to Fremont St. Joe in the sectional final.
The dream is dead for another year.
But it remains alive for so many other small schools and one-stoplight towns with big hopes, and roads throughout Ohio that don't even show up on maps will be jammed this week as fans with painted faces travel to the next stop on the tournament trail.
It's the country game.