VANLUE, Ohio — When the Vanlue High School football team won its season-ending game against Hardin Northern it snapped an 18-game losing streak.
A nice moment for the Wildcats, no question, but small change for veteran Vanluevians or Vanlueites, or whatever we should call them. From 1994-2003, the Cats dropped 85 straight Blanchard Valley Conference football games.
Now, that’s a skid. Of course, for most, if not all of those years Vanlue was the smallest school in Ohio, based on enrollment, to field a football team. Still is. It’s a numbers game that the Wildcats — regardless of size, speed, strength, and effort — are not often going to win.
There’s something special about a small town, its high school, and sports. They don’t come much smaller than Vanlue, a village tucked on the eastern edge of Hancock County, just off Rt. 15. There are about 360 Vanluevians living in tidy houses standing mere feet off streets named Main, High, Center, and Railroad.
Sadly, the Corner Chalet has closed its doors and that to-die-for Swiss steak is just a pleasant memory. Now, you can get a pizza at the gas station or a hunk of beef bologna stick at D&H Meats, a slaughterhouse-smokehouse-market on the west edge of town that may be without peer in Ohio.
The school is at the opposite end of a very small map and there are some 80 boys and girls in the upper four grades.
Only one of them is 6-foot-9½ so it’s hard to miss Zach Garber. He seems the perfect small-town kid. He competes in football, basketball, track and field, and baseball, plays trombone in the concert band, and is a straight-A student who is a candidate to be valedictorian of his class.
“Twenty-one kids, I think,” he says of the Vanlue class of 2013. “It’s the biggest class in the high school. I try to be involved in everything. You have to be when there aren’t many kids in a school. I’ve always enjoyed everything.”
He was a two-way end on that 1-9 football team — “We weren’t very successful, we never are, but we had fun” — and in the spring he’ll try for another Top-10 finish in the discus at the state meet.
In between, Garber is playing a little basketball. And he’s not just killing time. This is hoops country and the Wildcats have won 58 games, and counting, since he came aboard for the 2009-10 season.
Zach averaged 19.7 points and 12.4 rebounds per game as a junior and the Wildcats were 7-1 on the current season heading into a rivalry game at home last night against neighboring Carey, which Vanlueites might consider the big city considering it has golden arches. Findlay, a bit to the northwest, would be a metroplex by comparison.
Like many small schools of a certain age, Vanlue was built around a one-size-fits-all auditorium/gymnasium and the neat old joint was packed Friday night — 400 fans sitting in theater seating looking up at the court, another 100 or so jammed into bleachers on the opposite side of the stage — as plucky McComb High scored an upset and ended the Wildcats’ undefeated ways despite a modest double-double by Garber.
It may be small town, but it has the biggest American flag you’ve ever seen that is unfurled from a cylinder above the court for the National Anthem, which everyone sings, and then disappears again in the blink of an eye. And Vanlue has one of the BVC’s biggest players ever. Garber, too, will soon disappear, heading north and west to the University of Toledo for the 2013-14 school year.
Zach didn’t play AAU basketball until the spring/summer of 2011 and it was only a few games before he found himself “in shock” by how many college coaches were buzzing about. In 2012, he played on a team with 6-5 Jordan Lauf, the star at Napoleon High School. Both were being heavily pursued by Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk and his staff and they became fast friends.
Coaches who could not find Vanlue with a road map and an Indian guide nonetheless know every dot on the AAU map. Offers for Garber rolled in from UT, Ohio, Kent State, Wright State, James Madison, and others. Visits to Akron and Cleveland State were on the horizon. The Vanlue star decided enough was enough.
“I knew I liked Toledo a lot from my first visit,” Garber said. “Then I saw the success they had with a 15-win turnaround last season. I knew there could be success there. They’d pushed the hardest. I knew they really wanted me. Jordan and I had been talking and texting about it for a while.”
One final text, then both players pulled the trigger on UT on the same day last June, headlining the most anticipated recruiting class in many a year at Savage Arena.
Garber is skilled and solid, runs the court well, with a nice feel and touch for the ball and shot, and with a rebounding/shot blocking mentality. He has an athletic body, although nothing like it will be after UT’s strength coaches go to work on him.
As for the small-town, small-league label, Garber is about ready to shed it and Kowalczyk anticipates an easy transformation.
“Zach has played in so many big AAU tournaments against such great competition, the fact that he and Vanlue play on a stage doesn’t concern me in the least,” Kowalczyk said. “He’ll do just fine on our stage.”
Garber said it is “going to be a little bit strange because I’ve lived in the country for so long. But I loved traveling to cities with AAU and I’m looking forward to living in Toledo. I’ve already asked the coaches where the nearest Chipotle is to campus.”
Ah, city food. Not bad. Not Swiss steak. But not bad.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.