By Mike Deak
WARSAW – The 2020-21 athletic year was unbelievably awful and awesome at the same time. In an industry that truly works on the premise that you never know what tomorrow is going to look like, I was amazed at just how that mantra played out with each rising of the sun.
I wrote a column in the fall about some of the little moments that stood out as 2020’s miserable memory faded into the turning of a calendar flip. Several of those moments included things I’ve never seen before, which much of the past athletic year was a year of firsts. So, while summer break heats up, let’s play a little game of I’ve Never.
I’ve Never seen a ‘Hype Wagon’ before. Then NorthWood brought one to the NLC Cross Country Championships. And they played Chariots of Fire as runners came home at the end of the race. That was pretty cool.
I’ve Never watched Wawasee win a Unified sports title, then they won the flag football title in the fall and hosted the regional. And to my knowledge, it then became the first time I saw Valparaiso play a varsity team sport in person. So, there’s that.
I’ve Never witnessed a swim tournament without fans, until I went to the sparkling Elkhart Aquatic Center and took in a girls swim prelim that had four athletic directors, a bus driver and a couple club members serve as the only spectators at what is usually one of the more raucous environments in high school sports. Swim tournaments should have fans. There was nothing more strange than to consume the Warsaw boys swim sectional final seated next to then Warsaw assistant AD Roman Smith, the Culver Academy bus driver and his wife, we’re all sweating, serving as about all that were in the stands as swimmers reached their State goals.
I’ve Never seen a volleyball coach become an interim basketball head coach and nearly take a one-win team to a regional. Had Hilary Laidig gotten NorthWood’s girls basketball team to the regional after the team came into the sectional 1-13, I would have added another I’ve Never, that being voting for a volleyball coach as the girls basketball coach of the year. I’ve also never felt so empathetic for Laidig as I did as she sat silently near the top of Wawasee’s gym bowl after Lakeland celebrated its first sectional in over two decades.
Another couple I’ve Nevers from that game, I’ve Never seen Lakeland girls basketball win a sectional, and I’ve Never seen over 100 high school kids sit so silently as I did when NorthWood’s rowdy student section watched Lakeland celebrate that night, stunned and silent for over 20 minutes.
Speaking of NorthWood basketball, I’ve Never seen so much reaction to an official’s decision as came after Cade Brenner was fouled (on the floor?) against Leo at the New Castle regional. Teammates Ben Vincent and Cooper Wiens were still salty about it at the golf regional a couple weeks ago. I’ve also been treated poorly before at athletic events, but it’s worth the mention that what I’m sure are good people at New Castle could use some lessons in tact and hospitality when it comes to treating people coming from two-plus hours away to work, enjoy and publicize their fabled basketball arena and tournament representation. I’ll leave it at that.
In the same regard, I’ve also seen some poor behavior by fans and parents at sporting events, but usually not at a golf course. So, I’ve Never covered a golf tournament at Swan Lake Golf Club and witnessed, we’ll call him a supporter of a private school that made the IHSAA State Finals, who was clearly inebriated (he was in the clubhouse swerving and wandered into the girls bathroom, came out and made some lewd comment about being lost), swearing in front of the leaderboard in a crowd of high school golfers and their families, and then taunted other parents of teams not going to state. Classless, in a sport that fashions itself on class and standard.
Getting back to greener pastures, the Boys of Summer in Syracuse were dancing as champions for the first time in a generation. I’ve Never witnessed Wawasee win a baseball championship, and couldn’t help feel overjoyed for Brent Doty, who with every elimination game, was coaching his potential last with the Warriors. The joy he must have felt hoisting the trophy for the first time for a school with a 24-year championship drought had to be pure elation.
I’ve Never called a national champion college coach before, but had the honor to speak to Grace’s Arron Patrick just hours after his team won the program’s first ever national championship in November. Additionally, I’ve Never golfed with a national champion until Denny Duncan put me in the same cart with Grace’s Rachel Harvey at an April fundraiser. It was embarrassing how bad I played in comparison.
I’ve Never felt the struggle of sports departments like I did this past year, seeing furloughs and budgets squeeze proud sports editors and Hall of Fame sportswriters. Hearing about deadlines that would rush high school tennis coverage to ‘no quotes’, football stories having to be typed in parking lots and Notre Dame home football games having to run on Mondays. It was a tough year for the industry, and likely it’s not getting much better anytime soon. But we’re still out here working…
Lastly, I’ve Never been more proud of so many coaches, athletes, athletic departments, parents and fan bases. As I’ve mentioned so many times, this business is about people, and sports are entertainment, an extension of the overall experience. Teams win championships and athletes perform, the names and years are often interchangeable. But to hear Warsaw athletic director Matt Binkerd announce at the May college signing day that the 22 athletes on hand had a cumulative GPA of over 3.9, that’s impressive and noteworthy. Warsaw’s valedictorian, Jacob Kissling, was an elite runner, one of the best in the state in cross country, and carried a 4.51 GPA. Tate Cowan was Wawasee’s valedictorian and was a three-sport starter. Tippecanoe Valley’s valedictorian, Mackenzie Costello, and salutatorian, Hannah Engstrand, both were starters on the same tennis team, Engstrand also a record-setting setter in volleyball.
In a year of struggle for so many, these examples and so many others showed what sports can be to a person, a school and a community. I’ve Never been so honored to witness it all.