Thursday, February 3rd, 2011
Recalling the 'Mendon Miracle'
Last Curtain Call
By Robb Hemmelgarn
The hushed landscape on the east side of Mendon holds nothing but a vast sheet of snow and ice with a few barren trees poking through here and there.
For decades, Mendon-Union High School occupied this area, and on Feb. 1, 1985, head coach Bob Arnzen and his Delphos St. John's Blue Jays strutted into town with a sparkling 13-0 record and a lofty number-three ranking in the most recent Class A state poll to butt heads with Mike Schumm's 3-8 Mendon Pirates.
In almost 90 years of permeating our winter appetites with high school basketball, there have been a handful of games which could truly be classified as upsets. None was more "David and Goliath" than the one that unfolded in northern Mercer County 26 years ago this week.
To give much credence to the notion that the Pirates stood a chance against the Blue Jays is sort of like throwing your money on Justin Bieber taking down Chuck Norris in a bare knuckles street fight. The two previous tangles were nauseating for Schumm and the Pirates' faithful, as St. John's embarrassed them with final marks of 100-23 and 94-21.
"Going into that game, no one really gave us a chance," explained Rick Ziegenbusch, who was a senior forward that season. "We didn't typically have very good teams at Mendon, and that season we started out slow. We finished with seven wins, but we had a lot of close games and were probably good enough to win 14 or 15 games. That was a long time ago though, sort of water under the bridge, but the Delphos game is definitely one that I and everyone on the team will never forget."
With a packed house on tap, the Pirates, whose tallest player was 6-2, landed a couple of quick blows and jumped in the driver's seat, 4-0. Their early spurt was notable to say the least, but there was still close to 30 minutes of basketball to play, and heck it was Delphos St. John's, so there was little doubt they were going to get hot.
Only they didn't.
As the minutes melted from the game clock, the Pirates maintained composure and with three quarters in the books, they held a 54-49 lead. With the fourth period looming, a possible headache was percolating for Schumm though, as senior Brett Derossett and junior Jeff Godwin each had four fouls, while Chris Welker owned three. While the end of the game crept closer, the Pirates stretched their advantage to 12 points; but with all inside the tiny gymnasium holding their collective breaths, St. John's began to stage a rally.
With 32 seconds left in the game and his team's command evaporated to just five points, Schumm signaled for a timeout in hopes of getting cooler heads to prevail. A few seconds later, Ziegenbush stood at the charity stripe and calmly sank two free throws which helped his team extend their lead.
"When they started to foul us near the end of the game, I was in off of the bench; so naturally they went after the freshman," smiled Eric Goodwin, who became a starter midway through the season and now is athletic director at Coldwater. "I was scared to death when I shot and only hit one of three free throws. Luckily Rick connected on his because we only hit four-of-seven free throws at crunch time in the last few minutes."
Before long, the 0:00 on the scoreboard was sandwiched between an unfathomable illumination: Mendon-Union 70, Delphos St. John's 62. The Pirates never trailed, there were no ties, and they also dominated the boards, 40-32. Senior Joel O'Neill paced the home team with 24 points and ten boards, while Ziegenbusch and Welker each added 14 counters.
"We were in front the entire game, but I don't think it really started to sink in for me until the fourth quarter," Ziegenbusch reminisced. "We were still ahead and it suddenly hit me that we really had a chance to win it. When we held on in the end, everyone rushed the court screaming and yelling. Coach Schumm's expressions were absolutely priceless. He told us that most of the newspapers he called didn't believe him when he told them the final score. For our team to take down a powerhouse like that was an amazing experience."
While the players lofted a fully-dressed Schumm into the shower in the bowels of the gym, the scene above the locker room still held a resemblance to the endings of The Karate Kid, Rocky IV, and Hoosiers all meshed into one, Gary Rasberry, a student at Mendon at the time, gazed on, soaking it all in.
"I hadn't been to too many high school games before, so it was a wild atmosphere after the game - I didn't really know how good St. John's was, but someone mentioned that were one of the best in the state," replied the Daily Standard sportswriter, who in 1998 wrote a story honoring this game as the greatest upset in the area's basketball history. "As soon as the final horn sounded, the floor was swamped. The students and pep band were on the stage and almost everyone jumped off and began to celebrate. I saw players carried off the floor on the shoulders of others - my ears rang as I walked home that night."
Five years earlier in Lake Placid, New York, as the United States Olympic hockey team downed the Soviets, ABC announcer Al Michaels rhetorically asked Americans if they believed in miracles.
If area basketball followers didn't then, perhaps February 1, 1985 was finally enough evidence.