Thursday, March 20th, 2014
Indians' 1999 run to Columbus a memorable one for players, coach
Last Curtain Call
By Robb Hemmelgarn
Brent Niekamp and Joe Bruns pass one another in the halls of Fort Recovery High School on a regular basis, as both are teachers and coaches in the school system.
With the 92nd state boys' basketball tournament tipping off in Columbus today, the two may have to rehash a few stories from a decade-and-a-half ago when they made their own splash on the court at the Jerome Schottenstein Center.
The Indians finished the 1999 campaign with their first Midwest Athletic Conference title in six seasons, just two years removed from a winless slate in conference play.
From the time they were in the seventh grade, Niekamp and his buddies waited for their moment in the spotlight. They coasted to a 19-1 record and, after five post-season wins, found themselves at the front door of the state tournament for the program's first time in nearly 30 years.
"Our class stuck together pretty well through the years and went into our senior years with five of us," commented Niekamp, now the head football coach for the Indians. "We finished the previous season playing solid and I remember Coach Bruns talking about how well we gelled during the course of that season and we definitely wanted to carry it over into our senior year."
They opened the show against the Berlin Hiland Hawks, who finished the season ranked third in Division IV and flew up and down the court averaging an eye-popping 81 points-per-game. Bruns wasn't interested in getting into a track meet with the Hawks, so they countered with junior Chuck Bihn, the MAC Player of the Year, and showered the big man with assists all night long. Bihn bullied his way to 31 points and swiped 11 rebounds in Fort Recovery's 13-point victory, a win that thrust them into the title game for the first time since 1971.
"Our game plan was pretty clear. We wanted to get the ball inside and dominate the boards," Bruns explained. "Offensively you stick with your strengths, but defensively we made changes based on our opponent. We were a 90 percent man-to-man team, but we changed to a 3-2 zone because we struggled guarding the smaller, quicker, sharp-shooting team from Hiland. We were prepared for it and luckily for us the plan worked."
The final hurdle for the 25-1 and fifth-ranked Indians were the eighth-ranked Worthington Christian Warriors, led by 6-5 All-Ohioan and University of Dayton commit Sam Smith, who was only a junior and averaged close to 20 points per game. What had been a magical ride for the Indians through 26 games, eventually struck midnight in a battle that became one of the all-time classics in Division IV tournament history.
"The difference from the beginning to the end of that season was our focus level which increased when we realized what we had a chance to accomplish," recalled Niekamp. "Throughout the year everyone began to embrace their roles. Guys like Chris Rammel and Colin Bechtol, who didn't play a lot, still took a lot of pride in going against Chuck Bihn in practice. They knew they were preparing him to play better and it was so important for all of us to embrace our part."
Trailing by two points with less than ten seconds play in regulation, point guard Scott Dilworth hurriedly pushed the ball toward his basket and dished it to Bihn, who finished the game with 34 points. Bihn dumped it in for the tying score which threw the game into overtime. The Warriors held Fort Recovery off at the onset of the first overtime period and built their cushion to 72-68 with 47 seconds showing on the clock. Dilworth swiftly penetrated the lane and was fouled, but drained the bucket as well as the ensuing free throw to make it a one-point contest. Following a Worthington turnover with 16 seconds to play, the Indians seemingly twisted the dagger when Clark May swished a three-pointer to put his team up 74-72. Unfortunately, the Warriors answered with a bucket with five ticks left to knot things up and force a second overtime.
The two teams traded punches at the onset of the third overtime, but Fort Recovery ran out of gas in the end, as Bihn, May, Dilworth, and Chris Guggenbiller all fouled out in the closing minutes of what became a 95-90 loss.
"That team was so special.We had great leadership with our five seniors who were all skilled, physical, and true team players," said Bruns, who went 86-70 in seven seasons as head coach before stepping down in 2003. "The MAC is so talented every year, but some of our best wins that season were in our tough non-conference meetings against Wayne Trace, Crestview, Jay County and LCC. Our schedule really prepared us for the tournament. It was so difficult to lose that final game and be so close, but I count my blessings to have had the opportunity to work with such a special group."
For nearly a century, the Boys State Basketball Tournament has engrained memories that players and fans have revisited countless times in bar rooms, barber shops, and family gatherings. For those in Fort Recovery, especially seniors Brent Niekamp, Scott Dilworth, Clark May, Nick Wehrkamp, and Chris Guggenbiller, although it was 15 years ago, the experience will resonate with them for a lifetime.
"We were devastated after that game. It took quite a while, maybe a year, to put that game in proper perspective and enjoy it for the experience that it was," Niekamp concluded. "You always hear about leaving everything on the floor and although we did in that game, it wasn't good enough and at the time that really hurt. It was one of the neatest experiences of my life though. All of those guys are still my teammates and sometimes I still call Joe 'Coach', out of habit. The relationships that we built are what makes a run like that really special, and actually it is what makes all sports so special."