COLUMBIA CITY – Fine, it wasn’t exactly the first night in this new vibrant space. The gym has been open for a while, including for a scrimmage and the girls have already plied their trade here this basketball season. There were just a lot of things working the right way in the build up to the first boys regular season game in the maroon and gold adorned center for Columbia City sports.
The night before Thanksgiving tipoff. Check.
Rival Whitko was in town. Check.
Former coach Chris Benedict on the opposing sideline. Check.
Then, of course, COVID happened. The story could have ended there. There isn’t much pomp and circumstance to be had by a crowd bordering on 125 people. It was quiet, sometimes too quiet – like on free throw attempts – when you could have heard a pin if it hit the floor in the lobby. You could call it a disappointment if the two teams hadn’t lived up to the hype in a 47-44 Columbia City win, complete with final second heroics.
“Obviously wouldn’t be a seat in the place if fans were allowed, but I’m thankful we got to have some people,” first year Columbia City coach Matt Schauss said after the game. “It might be strange. As a coach, it was kind of strange, you could hear your voice as you are talking. For a player, it could be as well. That’s just the new normal and we’ve got to find a way to make sure it doesn’t effect us.”
“Obviously emotions were super high with Coach [Chris] Benedict, first game in the new gym, first game with Coach Schauss, complete new lineup. It was a great environment to be part of,” sophomore Columbia City guard Andrew Hedrick said.
The first half was just back and forth, a trend we’d see throughout the 32 minutes. Whitko see’d and Columbia City saw’d. When one team struggled, the other team’s shots just rimmed out all of the time too. When Brett Sickafoose buried a three pointer for the Wildcats, Mason Baker would answer back in the opposite corner the next trip up the floor. And while we all want fans in attendance, we all want student sections chanting and battling back and forth like they certainly would for Whitko at Columbia City, I will take this night.
There were still big moments for both teams early. Mason Baker will be the answer to the trivia question to which Eagle hit the first field goal in the new gym. Greg Bolt was the first to sink a buzzer beater of any kind when he drained a two-footer after a solid post move to beat the first quarter horn. Sickafoose will be the guy who was the leading scorer for the first game, starting with 15 of Whitko’s 21 first half points.
“I think we spent the majority of time talking about Brett Sickafoose in the locker room at halftime and how we were going to defend him and running him off the line and forcing him to dribble into our help side,” Schauss said. “And then, 20 seconds into the second half, he gets a lay up and it took me to yell and let the whole crowd know what we were going to do before our team got to really defend him.”
Though with 17 points just moments into the third quarter, Sickafoose finished the night with only 19, getting few second half shots off.
Columbia City worked towards separating themselves in the second half, extending a lead to three as Hedrick joined in on the attack, both getting to the rim and comfortable pulling up from the midrange. With 3:23 to play in the third, after Whitko had fired back, Bolt was given the ball in the high post and smoothly slid down to the rim for a basket, using his improving footwork and football frame to handle the post almost any time he got to touch the ball.
The switching man to man defense of Columbia City extended most of the Whitko possessions in the third quarter. A Drake Lewis three with 1:26 to go in the period helped set up the Whitko press, leading to a steal and a Sickafoose drive and lay in to give Whitko a 35-30 lead; that lead felt huge compared to how close the game had been all night. Brooks Longenbaugh saved the ball going out of bounds for Columbia City on the next possession to the waiting hands and easy lay in of Baker. But, in the quickest sequence of the night, Lewis hit another three from the same spot the very next trip and Whitko pushed their lead to six.
Jaxon Crawford got Columbia City closer just into the fourth quarter, hitting a shot while taking a foul to the gut. Even though he missed the free throw, Hedrick corralled the rebound, allowing for a good pass and a big Bolt spin in the post to cut the Eagle deficit to two points. That rallied the crowd and bench with claps as Columbia City searched for another defensive stop. Instead, Dale Reiff buried a three after about a minute of possession time. And you know it was just answered on the other end by Baker hitting one right back from deep. Baker drained another three with 5:14 to play, pushing Columbia City back ahead, 42-41.
“Each of these guys needs to step up. I think we have some guys who want to prove people wrong, some guys that are hungry to get better each day,” Schauss said.
It was the kind of back and forth you always want to see. Made for the kind of high school basketball game you want to see on Thanksgiving Eve, which has long been the unofficial tipoff of the boys season.
With the game tied at the two minute warning – we should really get one of those in this sport too – both teams struggled to get footing. So with 1:12, Schauss called a timeout and drew up a winning play; or did he?
“We call a set, didn’t run the set correctly. Then we are kind of fumbling around, just passing it around. I look up and there’s 45 seconds on the clock. Well, let’s just hold it for the last shot. And that’s a play we are comfortable with and a play I know Andrew [Hedrick] is going to make a play,” Schauss said.”
And a play Hedrick did make. With seconds ticking away, Hedrick screened down for Crawford. He then rose back up to the top of the arc as Crawford rolled back down low. Hedrick took a handoff from Bolt, who too rolled to the rim. The quick movement ran the Whitko defense into each other and Hedrick had the clearing to knock down a three pointer with 0.4 seconds left on the clock.
Add game winning buzzer beater to the uniqueness of night one for the boys in this new facility.
“Coach drew up a play in the huddle and I completely screwed it up. So I got it back, we ran another good set and it just went in at the end,” Hedrick said.
Baker led the Eagles with 15 points, Bolt scored 13 and Hedrick added 11 points and five assists.
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