By Mike Deak
WARSAW – The look and feel of the Tiger Den on Jan. 29 for the boys basketball game between NorthWood and Warsaw caught me off guard. I was aware Kosciusko County had moved from maroon to orange on the ol’ COVID map, but wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see.
I walked into the Tiger Den and was immediately met by Warsaw athletic events and tickets coordinator (at least that’s her formal title, she does a lot more) Amy Burgh, who had a big grin on her face. She said something to the effect of, ‘can you believe this?’ as I looked into the mammoth gym. There were people there. A lot of people there. There was a band. There were cheerleaders. TV-46 was there doing what they do best. There were students sections!
For the first time in almost a year, sports kinda felt normal. I didn’t. I didn’t know how to react. I looked around as the band played the usual compliment of pop hits, coaches Aaron Wolfe and Matt Moore stood at midcourt in their masks, talking about whatever they talk about at midcourt before conference showdowns. It took me all of the pregame to get used to it. I wasn’t the only one.
“Yeah, it was a little strange, but it was good,” Wolfe said after the game. “In a time like this, this feels good. It feels a little normal. It’s kind of what we need right now.”
The Tiger Den that night was only at 25 percent capacity, but Warsaw had confirmed with the local CDC officials that 25 percent was OK. In a Tiger Den that comfortably holds around 4,800, NorthWood’s student section immediately sprung into action. They were lined up at the doors at 4:30 that afternoon for a 7:45 tip. It was the first time they were collectively allowed to watch their team play since they won a sectional in March of 2020.
The same NorthWood student sectional also lined the bleachers at the Hardwood Teepee to watch their defending champion girls basketball team nearly pull off a major series of upsets at the Wawasee sectional a couple weeks later. They also sat in disbelief, literally no one leaving their section of close to 100 students, for over 20 minutes after Lakeland knocked NorthWood out of the tournament. Was it a titanic shock that a 19-win Lakeland team beat a three-win NorthWood team? No. Was NorthWood seeking vengeance or some kind of pass? Likely no. Were the students, and a huge contingent of the Black Swish parents and supporters who also sat there, in some kind of mesmerized trance? Perhaps it was just being able to soak up a moment, even in defeat.
“Why are they still sitting here?” said a despondent Bre Wise 15 minutes after her team lost to Lakeland. A day earlier, Tippecanoe Valley’s star, Sidney Wagner, noted on the razzing she was taking in pregame from the student section, “It’s all good. I liked it. I mean, we haven’t dealt with this all year. It’s weird to have student here giving us a hard time, but that’s what it’s supposed to be like. Playing in empty gyms all year, this was great.”
Going back to the fall, NorthWood and all of Elkhart County had almost no chance to watch their teams play. Parents were about the only ones who were permitted to run the cross country courses, holler at refs at football or see the exploits of some very talented volleyball teams compete. With Allen County schools nearly locked down from fan appearances in October, Warsaw offered to host the football sectional championship to ‘help’ Homestead, which wasn’t permitting fans. In a miraculous turn of events, Homestead immediately changed their policy that week and a small amount were allowed to see the contest.
All this to say, sports have been quite an adaptation this year. Waiting for tournament draws has been like waking up on Sunday morning, hustling out to the mailbox to get the paper to tear open the Best Buy ad. Admittedly showing a little of my age in this analogy, I couldn’t wait to see what new music would be on sale, where my next $40 would be going. I feel like that now, seeing games being added to the schedule, knowing I’ll be elated to have the latest ‘most important game of the year’ put in front of me, with the expectation that I’ll have more reasons next week to invest more of my spirit.
The arrival of the boys basketball tournament brings back a lot of emotions, both rich and empty, from a year ago. Being on an empty tank of emotions gas having chased the Black Swish to their state championship, all the while having wrestlers and swimmers competing for state championships, then the state’s formidable identity sitting there the next week. Well, it was a lot. But I loved every minute of it, and still do.
And I can’t believe we’re back here again, all things considered. I can’t believe how sick West Noble’s Tom Schermerhorn was 11 months ago, and now he’s hosting a basketball sectional – and had home tourneys in the fall as well. I can’t believe at New Year’s most of Indiana was either colored maroon or dark orange, and mumbles of shutdowns were starting to surface. Fast forward to a week ago, over 40 percent of the state was in the blue, Newton County all the way down to a ‘0’ on the numerical update.
I can’t believe that I covered four swim tournament events that literally had no fans. An eerie void when Concord’s girls team isn’t losing their darn-fool minds, or Northridge’s boys aren’t in drag, or Wawasee doesn’t have the Pope hanging over the wall in Northridge’s fan balcony blessing the swimmers exiting the pool. Or it being 125 degrees in the Warsaw pool gallery sweating with the oldies, it was just me and Warsaw assistant AD Roman Smith and a couple bus drivers sweating it out.
To the point, this week schools are anxious to get people into their gyms for the IHSAA’s crown jewel and the boys basketball tournament. The slow build through the fall and into the wrestling, swim, girls basketball and gymnastics tournaments have shown people can come together, do it safely, and live a little again.
While the historic and venerable North Side Gym won’t look like it did in the 70s and 80s when you couldn’t get a ticket to a game, butts will be in seats. Schermerhorn will welcome fans to his pride and joy. Buses will continue to commute. Popcorn will continue to be popped. Angry dads will continue to spit venom at their least favorite officials.
Except, thankfully, in 2021, that spitting will happen behind a mask.
Here’s to a fun basketball sectional week, and the fun we’re starting to have at ballgames again!