A big-time atmosphere for a big-time game

OLD FORT – Friday night in Old Fort, New Riegel in town, last league game of the year.

Fans streamed in, and continued to do so, as the game sped along. Fixed seats on one side and bleachers on the other filled as the gym – capacity somewhere between 1,500 and 1,600 – became much less cavernous and much more raucous with each ticking second.

And then in the third quarter, as action heated up, both sets of fans separately let loose thunderous roars of support as their teams made their way to the locker rooms.

You see, this was just the junior varsity game. The main event wouldn’t tip off for quite some time.

But with the host Stockaders needing a win to claim the outright Midland Athletic League title and the visiting Blue Jackets needing a win to claim a share of their fourth crown in a row, there was hardly anything regular about Friday’s regular-season finale.

“Playing in this atmosphere, it was intense right as soon as we walked in the gym,” New Riegel senior Korey Williams said after he and the Blue Jackets won 71-63. “We got here at 5 o’clock, there was already more people than we had seen at any of our other games. The intensity in the gym was already there before the JV game even started.”

So were most of the fans.

Jude Myers, Old Fort assistant athletic director, said the schools combined to pre-sell approximately 800 tickets. Combine what was at stake with season and league passes, and Myers said what became a near-capacity crowd was more than expected.

“We know New Riegel’s a great school, they’ve got a great following, you can always count on them; they travel well,” he said.

It was a sight Old Fort coach Eric Hoover was familiar with.

As a junior for the same Stockaders back in January 1995, he remembers when Liberty-Benton came to town for a battle between unbeaten, state-ranked teams.

That game had more fans – they filled the catwalk and school officials had to ring the court with chairs to accommodate more – and also ended in an Old Fort loss. But what it lacked in the win column it and the newest version from Friday made up for in overall experience, Hoover said.

“We lost that game, too, and I look back at it and I would play that game every day, whether we won or lost,” he said. “It was just an awesome experience and I’m glad the kids got to experience. I know it didn’t turn out the way we liked, but as competitors, you’ve got to love a game like that. Not many people get the opportunity to be in that kind of atmosphere.”

The atmosphere wasn’t relegated to the floor.

The coffers for the senior class (fish fry), softball team (bake sale), baseball team (hats and Toledo Mud Hens game tickets) and Booster Club (raffle, 50-50) each received a big influx of money – for example, the take home portion of the 50-50 totaled $1,026.

And while that lucky fan appreciated the personal windfall, the players appreciated the support.

“If we could play in an atmosphere like this all the time, I don’t think I’d ever want to go off the court, actually,” New Riegel senior Brandyn Reinhart said.

“The greatest feeling I’ve ever felt in the history of basketball that I’ve played,” added Williams. “That was the most fun basketball I’ve ever played in my entire life.”

They, of course, were a bit biased. The win marked just the second time in MAL history a boys team won four league titles in a row. The first was Old Fort (1993-94 through 1996-97), with Hoover playing for the Stockaders at the time.

“It was an awesome high school basketball atmosphere, both sides,” New Riegel coach Todd Aichholz said. “I’m proud of our fans tonight, and I’m sure coach Hoover’s over there saying what a great crowd he had, and I know both of us are hoping we’ll see that in the upcoming weeks for both of our respective teams.”

For Hoover, it’s more than hope. It’s become standard.

“Old Fort loves their basketball, New Riegel loves their basketball. They know the kids; we’re small communities, we know (the players) well,” he said. “They appreciate their effort, they love watching them compete. It shows a lot of appreciation for the kids, their effort.”