Thursday, January 10th, 2019
Celina's 1999 basketball team honored for 20-year anniversary
By Robb Hemmelgarn
As former Celina boys' basketball coach Mike Kanney and a conglomerate of his former coaching staff and roster gathered in front of their hometown crowd last Saturday night, it was difficult for anyone in the Celina Fieldhouse who bleeds green not to be flooded with memories.
The 1999 season was certainly a special one for Kanney and his squad. They were honored on the 20-year anniversary of their 22-2 season in which they finished as the top-ranked Division I team in Ohio.
"That was definitely an incredible year - we had a great combination of inside and outside players, and the kids did a remarkable job of distributing the basketball and played very unselfish," recalled Kanney, who was voted as the Division I Coach of the Year that season. "My assistant coaches were also a huge component to our success and we had outstanding parental support all season long - there was nothing better than a full Fieldhouse and the kids absolutely loved it."
The year certainly presented plenty of reasons for Bulldog fans to pack the iconic Fieldhouse on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The Bulldogs tipped off the year with a 22-point victory over the Findlay Trojans, a triumph which catapulted them through their Western Buckeye League slate to a perfect 9-0 record.
"I remember playing against Findlay, who had future NFL quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and their head coach was who is now OHSAA Commissioner Jerry Snodgrass," former Bulldog Eric Beckstedt said. "We won big and had three players with double-digits in that game. I'll also never forget our game against Ottawa-Glandorf - a snowstorm delayed the game for several days and we had some sick players that night who came back healthy when we eventually played. They were definitely our toughest test in the league."
The Bulldogs rolled through their first 19 games with an unblemished record before closing the year at Delphos St. John's in a battle that had been rescheduled from earlier in the campaign due to St. John's success on the football field. The year's final state rankings were released the day before and Celina was voted as the state's Division I poll champions. Whether it was the Bulldogs' lofty ranking which motivated the Blue Jays or the mystique of playing at Arnzen Gymnasium, Celina's quest for a perfect regular season came to a halt. Celina fell to St. John's 50-46 to finish the regular season 19-1.
"Playing at St John's is tough for anyone and we simply weren't prepared for their physicality," former Bulldog Hale McKirnan said. "That loss helped us to refocus for our upcoming tournament game against Bowling Green, who had two Division I basketball signees in their lineup."
The Bulldogs opened sectional play at Liberty-Benton High School with a 19-point rout of Bowling Green, setting the stage for a much-anticipated meeting against the second-ranked Lima Senior Spartans.
"That game was one of the most hyped and anticipated games I can ever remember - we hadn't crossed paths with them for several years and it seemed like everyone in Northwest Ohio was pointing at that game as a matchup they wanted to see," said Kyle VanderHorst, who was a senior in 1999. "I remember fans of both teams lined up around the school several hours before tipoff - it was an unbelievable environment."
Celina dismantled the Spartans by a final of 72-63 to claim the sectional crown, and up next was a rematch from earlier in the season with Toledo Central Catholic, a team that Kanney's had squad knocked off in Toledo by one point.
"We were on a roll the first time we played - that game was one of the biggest in Celina Basketball history," explained Scott Steinbrunner, who averaged a little more than eight points per game in 1999. "We chartered buses to Toledo - one for the team and one for the fans, and it was the biggest arena we had played in. We played on a Saturday - Lima Senior lost the night before, so our win pushed us into the top spot in the AP Poll."
Unfortunately, the second go-around with TCC didn't go as Bulldog fans had hoped, as their amazing campaign came to a close with a 64-61 setback.
"I remember having to stand on the court after that loss and receive our district runner-up medals - it was just a sad feeling," McKirnan said. "Half of Celina had driven up to watch us and we fell short. We had tremendous fan support and felt like we let our community down - that loss still stings."
Two decades have passed since the Bulldog faithful were blessed with the likes of the gentleman that stood before them last Saturday night, but the memories of watching Curt Grimes, Kyle Dingledine, A.J. Shellabarger, Beckstedt, Steinbrunner, McKirnan, VanderHorst and plenty of others are still just as fresh in the minds of the players and staff as they are for their supporters.
"Growing up in Celina and going to the Fieldhouse for basketball games with my parents are some of my favorite childhood memories - my dad used to tap my knee when Kurt Pottkotter, Lance Stachler or Trace Braun would steal the ball and go in for a dunk," Beckstedt said. "A few years later, I finally received my opportunity to get those alley-oops and steals for dunks in front of all of those great fans - it was awesome to make that place get loud and the memories from that season are ones that none of us will ever forget."