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Friday, February 24th, 2012

Immaculate Conception was first local school to have team reach state tourney

Last Curtain Call

By Robb Hemmelgarn
The uneven stack of manila envelopes and folders I dissected was overflowing with an array of faded photographs and newspaper clippings along with several vintage-style game programs which represented decades of local basketball treasures that fade with each passing year.
It has been 40 years since Immaculate Conception High School in Celina fielded a varsity basketball team, a chapter that soon will have been laid to rest longer than it actually existed in the first place.
Although the story actually began more than a decade earlier, its relevance began to take shape in the early 1930s. Head basketball coach John Wenning had just completed a dream season at I.C. in the spring of 1933 when his Spartans were honored as the Grand Lake area's first-ever representatives in the boy's state basketball tournament in Columbus.
After several mediocre showings in the Mercer County League since its inception in 1925, the Spartans bullied their way through the MCL tournament in 1933, eventually concluding the year with a record of 18-1, a loss to Delphos Jefferson at the state level.
Although the squad of Charles Boerger, Russell Kessen, Ernest Knapke, George 'Cookie' Elking, Fred Mersman, Ray Reichert, Bob Riley, Henry Schulte, August Spieler and Jim Sacher (who was named head coach a decade later) would not all be together the next season, the groundwork had seemingly been poured for both immediate and long-lasting success.
The following November, the IC faithful celebrated the inauguration of their brand-new academic and physical education complex on the northwest corner of Sugar and Anthony Streets in Celina. The Spartans popped the cork with a 43-29 victory over Delphos St. John's. Although they played many of their bigger-ticket home games a few blocks east at Celina High School, I.C.'s new facility seemed to have brought them the occasional string of success as they won the Mercer County Tournament in 1934 and again in 1936, while also finishing at the top of the league standings in '36 and '42. In 1946, they went unscathed in MCL play at 7-0 and opened the county tournament with triumphs over Coldwater and St. John (Maria Stein), before falling to Fort Recovery, despite defeating the Indians earlier in the season.
Coincidently, it was the IC/Fort Recovery skirmish a few years later that many alumni label as one of the most improbable upsets in the school's 50-year history. On February 12, 1952, the Indians clinched the MCL title with a 53-39 victory over the 11-6 Spartans. A couple of days later, IC and head coach Carl Reichert earned another shot at Fort Recovery in the initial round of the county tournament, which the Indians had won three seasons in a row and six out of the previous seven.
Unfazed by Fort Recovery's 15-1 record and its lofty number-six state ranking in Class B, the Spartans held tight in the first half and trailed by only three points at halftime. They exhaled a cautious breath of relief with about three minutes remaining in the third period when Bob Fiely, the Indians' leading scorer, headed to the bench after committing his fifth foul.
A pair of free throws from Jerry Sacher followed by a bucket and ensuing free throw by Beckstedt knotted the game at 41 points. The Spartans relentlessly outslugged the Indians 20-4 in the last stanza, before eventually sending them home with a 49-42 defeat. A few seasons later, Reichert's reign at IC concluded in the district tournament when the Spartans' slipped to eventual state runners-up, Willshire, finishing the campaign 15-8 overall.
State-wide notoriety eventually reverberated back through the hallways of IC in 1964 when the Spartans blew through their regular season with a record of 19-1 and enjoyed the number-one ranking at the top of Class A. The curtain eventually dropped though in the state championship game with a loss to the Dresden Jefferson Jayhawks. Most local basketball experts agree that the squad, which was headlined by seniors John Baggs, Bill Reichert, Bill Sacher and Lee Sutter, was one of the finest to ever compete in our area, while sophomore Kerry Myers quickly evolved into one of the most explosive players our region has ever witnessed.
Within a decade of basking in the glamour of the state basketball tournament, Celina Immaculate Conception no longer existed as a high school, when in the spring of 1972 the doors shut for good. Today, inside the tiny gym where decades of memories were cultivated, the deep blue hand rails surrounding the bleachers around a backdrop of brick and concrete walls, still command attention from the nostalgic observer. Gone from the atmosphere though, are the celebratory screams of decades worth of fans that painstakingly enjoyed one of the area's since-lost basketball traditions while it lasted.
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