Bill Nopper“Kind of a sad night, eh?” Bill Nopper said.
Well, yeah, now that you mention it.
“Truly sad,” said St. John’s Jesuit coach Ed Heintschel, whose reference was not to the final score.
The City League as we have known it for so long, as the unique and perfect mix of public and parochial schools, is not dead yet. There are spring sports yet to come.
But its premier event, the boys’ basketball championship game, the game of Jimmy Jackson and Terry Crosby, of Donald Collins and Todd Mitchell and B.J. Raymond, of coaches like Ben Williams and Bart Schroeder, of the late, great Burt Spice and, yes, Heintschel for 30-plus years, the game that has packed gyms and arenas all over town, we’ll never see it again.
It ended the way it should, with a thriller, as Whitmer added its name to the league’s lore by beating St. John’s, 51-48, at Savage Arena.
The Toledo Public Schools’ six high schools will be all that’s left of the City League when next school year dawns. Both of last night’s combatants and five other soon-to-be-former CL members will be playing in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference.
“The Maumee, the Blanchard … heck, I don’t know what the third river is,” Heintschel admitted.
But he knows about the City League. He walked in the doors at St. Francis de Sales as a freshman in 1964. He played in the first-ever game between the Knights and St. John’s. He started coaching on Airport Highway 38 seasons ago and has been the Titans’ head man for 32 years. Last night he coached in his 20th City championship game.
“Think of the rivalries,” he said. “Our first championship game was against Macomber. Then there were Ben’s teams at Scott … just monumental battles. Then it was Libbey and those great players Leroy [Bates] had. I always thought it was so good for the city. The kids on all sides competed like crazy, had great respect for one another, never had a problem, and when it was over, win or lose, everybody shook hands. We’re losing something, you know. The city is losing something.”
Nopper, started teaching and coaching in the City League in 1966. He was the athletic director at Waite for 17 years and the City League’s assistant commissioner for the last 18 and he didn’t have to think twice when asked if he remembered the first game he ever saw.
“I was in the eighth grade at Raymer in ‘58 and I walked to the Waite Fieldhouse to watch Waite play Woodward when Butch Komives was a sophomore. He was a lefty and I was a lefty. That’s where the comparisons ended.”
Bob Utter was head basketball coach at Waite and then replaced Nopper as athletic director at the east side school.
“This league has been so good for the public schools; I just hate to see this,” Utter said. “You know, [Waite has] won 10 league titles in different sports since the start of the 2000s. Accomplishing each of those was something special just because of who you’re up against. The league was so strong.”
Budget cuts led to Toledo Public Schools discontinuing junior high and freshman high school sports this year. A few sports were simply dropped at all levels. The other schools, having no idea what the future might hold for the TPS 6, couldn’t afford to stay.
“Obviously, we have to be able to offer our kids a full complement of sports,” Heintschel said. “But I hate to see it come to this. It’s been like family.”
No kidding. Look at last night’s men in stripes. Bill Bradish, Start High Class of ’71, played in this game 40 years ago to the day; his Spartans lost by one point in overtime to Macomber. He has been a ref for 27 years. His crew last night included Ralph Green and Ed Phillips, both Scott High grads with a combined 33 years of officiating league games.
But the family is breaking up. Those at the departing schools fear what might happen to the six left behind, if not immediately in another year or two. But they wish them the best.
“I hope the TPS kids will be able to benefit from what athletics should give you,” Heintschel said. “It’s about life skills and friendships and memories.”
And, now, that’s all that remains of a once-great basketball league — memories — after Whitmer and St. John’s snapped one final spectacular picture for the family album.
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