Being able to drop in at any game that I want is something of a treat for Bounce. Traveling the northeast Indiana roads and visiting a variety of schools is something that I recommend to all of my readers. It is why this season I wanted to start a new feature where I take in more of the experience of schools and towns outside of Fort Wayne.
So it was a no-brainer to me that my first entry in this feature would be to travel to Albion as the Central Noble girls took the first step in defending their Class 2A state title by hosting a quality Bishop Luers program on Saturday, November 3. This trip, like all will be in this series, was only partially about the game and all about the experience.
There are plenty of ways to get to Albion no matter where you are coming from, but if you are headed there from Fort Wayne, there are only two that I recommend.
Bounce’s personal favorite is taking US 33 through Churubusco to State Road 9 into Albion. This route proves to be the most scenic and if you have a day to make of it before heading the Central Noble, there is plenty to see in Busco or at Chain O’Lakes State Park once you get into Albion.
The other is taking State Road 3 (which starts out in Fort Wayne as Lima Road) up to State Road 8 (also County Highway 300N). Those two roads will deliver you right to the school and are the fastest route. Bounce was running behind on Saturday night, so this is the route he took. While 3 is not the most enjoyable if you are taking in the drive, the trip up State Road 8 was perfect on a cool fall day where the sun was poking out just enough to illuminate all of the different colors of the trees.
Once I found a place to park, the goal was to just wander around downtown Albion where there a lot of little shops and an art gallery, but not a lot of things to do past 5 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. It is a quiet center to the town and I briefly got to stop in Heath’s Antiques before they closed for the day.
Dead in the center of Albion is the Noble County Courthouse, a really elegant building that has been there since 1889. Something that Bounce loves most about small towns are these big, aged buildings that serve as the town center and Albion sure takes the cake here. According to my research, the building cost $114,000 when it was constructed in a Romanesque style.
Right up the road from the courthouse is a really cool mural on the side of the Noble County Economic Development building. It depicts a little bit of all of Noble County to celebrate the state’s bicentennial in 2016. It is a pretty vibrant piece to see if you enter the town coming up State Road 9.
No game night is complete without stopping for some food before basketball, right? Bounce sure was hungry but had no idea what Albion had to offer, so I checked out some options as I walked the streets of Albion on the quiet fall night.
My head said to pop in to the Albion Ale House as this is traditionally my speed, so I kept that in mind during my walk but once I stumbled upon the Albion Pizza Depot, my heart and my stomach had other plans. Needless to say, always follow your stomach when it comes to food because I wasn’t disappointed. Bounce would love to say there is a word other than majestic to describe the smell when walking in the doors, but there isn’t.
Albion Pizza Depot has a great environment for you and/or your family. It was game night, so I may have been the only one not dressed in maroon. There are plenty of tables to accommodate a big crowd and one side of the restaurant even has a couple of couches for a more relaxed evening. There are board games supplied to keep the kids or the adults occupied making a visit here an experience itself.
Getting your food isn’t a fast experience, but that isn’t what Bounce was looking for either. Instead, I got to sit back and take in all of the hometown experience, which admittedly would have been better with a group of people like at every other table. Better yet, I didn’t see a person on a cell phone in the place. Adults conversed, kids played games and when the food came, it was well worth the wait. This isn’t a restaurant review, but lets just say that Bounce recommends the sausage roll with barbecue sauce in the most serious of ways.
There are other options too, including Los Nopales Mexican Grill and One10 West Main, so don’t let a lack of food be an excuse to not support the local economy when visiting Albion.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
As soon as you open the doors of Central Noble High School on game night, the smell of fresh popcorn hits you like a ton of bricks. If that doesn’t get you in the mood for high school basketball in small town Indiana, then what will?
“I’ve said this all last year, we have the best fans in the state,” said Central Noble head coach Josh Treesh. “They have been following us since Syd [Freeman] and Meleah [Leatherman] have been freshmen. We can’t thank them enough for everything they do. Great environment tonight.”
Bounce arrived about a quarter into the junior varsity game as the gym was filling up. I sat behind the Bishop Luers varsity team in the visitors section to get a good view of the home crowd, which had already done a good job of filling in to support the younger girls. Kudos to Luers, their varsity was all in on cheering the JV team, pumped up when their teammate would block a shot or connect on a big and-one.
The Jungle, as they call their gym at Central Noble, gets loud during the pregame. Of course Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” gets played, which is a nice touch in my opinion. In arena announced Sam Frick does a cool job of adding to the environment. Frick is a big time Central Noble and NECC supporter and his passion shows. Too often you get people introducing players and going through the motions during the game on the mic, but Frick adds to the feel of the game.
Bounce is also always a sucker for a national anthem rendition that isn’t prerecorded. Ron Smith provided the song for the night live at the scorers table.
To find a more rabid fan base for high school girls basketball is rare. The Central Noble side of the bleachers is filled with fans of all ages. Central Noble lifers to a student section that includes some boys basketball team players all stay excited throughout the game. Come to Fort Wayne, find a more than one or two boys basketball teams that are as supportive of their girls team as what you see in Albion, I dare you.
I loved the chants, cheers and explosions of joy coming from the Central Noble fans all night. Hit a three? Some of that student section will drop down for push ups (spoiler: there were a lot of push ups on Saturday night). Some younger kids who may not be as in to the game as their parents or older siblings, took to playing with a volleyball next to one set of bleachers even. It really is just one big community on game night.
“These fans love their girls. And it is not like this because they went to state, they have been like this for three years,” said Dennis Leatherman. “They love to watch all their teams play. Central Noble fans are different, they are the cream of the crop.”
IT ALL STARTS WITH THE SUPER FAN
The whole experience of Central Noble girls basketball starts with Dennis Leatherman, the father of senior Meleah. I was able to to take in a little bit of Dennis’ enthusiasm in the past. And while he didn’t have his real basketball mask on Saturday night, he leads the entire gym.
Throughout the JV game even, Dennis was on his feet leading the crowd in pro Central Noble chants. He talks to the student section, works with them to get chants going and stays vocal to create a real home court feel for the Central Noble teams on both levels.
“It starts with Mr. Leatherman and I think some people come to see him do that, not to mention for the girls too. And the girls love it. I tell them people want to see them come out and play with a bunch of energy and I thought we did that well,” Treesh said.
What I like most about Dennis and how he leads the gym is that he is all about the game. A Bishop Luers player makes a nice play, Dennis claps. A referee makes a bad call, Dennis doesn’t stand up and berate them. The feel of the gym is almost always up and it starts with Mr. Leatherman.
“For me, these girls are putting it all on the line, playing their hearts out. Not just Central Noble; both teams,” Dennis Leatherman said. “I want to make sure, if I can help the fans appreciate the girls, I am going to do that. And it is for both teams. They are playing just as hard as we are. It inspires me, the way some of these girls play.”
CENTRAL NOBLE V. BISHOP LUERS
Bounce warned you, the game was secondary. But it was still a fun one. Bishop Luers struggled out of the gate as you could tell Central Noble had a point to prove in their first game after winning the Class 2A state title last season.
“I thought we came out with a lot of energy. The one positive I saw out of our girls was when they faced some adversity when [Luers] made their runs, we responded,” Treesh said.
A shorthanded Luers team fought back after finding themselves down 14-4 and eventually tied the game at 14 before Sydney Freeman went off. Clearly one of the best pure shooters in the entire area (maybe state?), Freeman drained three consecutive three pointers. A couple of her shots were so far back, she was almost at the volleyball line when she calmly pulled up and drained them to go on her own 9-0 run.
Bishop Luers coach Mark Pixley could only smile with some nervous laughter as he called a timeout.
“The turning point of that whole game was when Syd went on that 9-0 run and gets it back to a nine point lead. That is what seniors do,” Treesh said.
Bishop Luers never found a way to fight all of the way back again as the Cougars used a more balanced attack than we say from them last year during their run to state. The lead stayed around 10 points the rest of the way with Central Noble ultimately pulling away to win 50-35. Freeman led the Cougars with 16 points, hitting four total three pointers all in the first half. Bishop Luers’ Lydia Reimbold, who still remains an underrated gem in the area, led all scorers with 21 points.
As the final 20 seconds hit the game clock, the entire Cougar contingent — old ladies, the student section, the players on the bench…everyone — stood up and clapped in unison until the scoreboard read 0:00, ending the night with a pretty impressive cohesion.
Bounce was incredibly impressed by the play of sophomore Bridgette Gray, who caught my eye more than another other player on the night. Last year as a freshman, Gray did a more than admirable job with the ball in her hands. But this year, she was much more tenacious even, fighting for rebounds, staving off the Luers defense and willing to take her shot and get more involved with the offense. She finished with 13 points, the second highest output of her career.
“I look for Bridgette and Lydia [Andrews] to really mature offensively this year. They are going to make mistake but they are going to do it as hard as they possibly can. Tonight you saw Bridgette shoot a lot of shots and you are going to see that all season,” Treesh said.
Leatherman added 14 points to move to 1,217 for her career, just three points away from being second on the school’s all-time girls basketball scoring list. The 16 points from Freeman, already at the top of that list, gives her 1,245 points putting her on the cusp of the school’s all-time scoring lead regardless of gender.
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