For the love of the game: Local athletes playing small college sports

When their final high school game is over, most people’s athletic careers are finished. Most, mind you, but not all. A very few achieve enough success that major colleges come calling with scholarship offers. Another group chooses to attend small colleges that will allow them to continue to compete in athletics.

A recent article in the A-T pointed out four local players doing just that in the Heidelberg v. Dennison basketball game. Old Fort’s Alli Adelsperger, New Riegel’s Leah Bouillon and Willard’s Madelyn Crawford suited up for The ‘Berg, while Columbian’s Valesha Province wore the uniform of the Big Red.

Having four local athletes taking part in one collegiate game is indeed unusual, but there have been others. Columbian boys basketball coach Travis Kinn, a New Riegel grad, played at Heidelberg. TC’s Meredith Miller did likewise and New Riegel alum Jackie Reinhart had a stellar volleyball career with the Student Princes.

Hopewell-Loudon’s Logan Sendelbach played baseball at Tiffin University and was one of the lucky ones. He got an offer to pursue his dream of playing professionally and spent last season pitching for the Altoona Curve, the Pittsburgh Pirates AA affiliate.

Hopefully we will get to see Logan on a big league pitching mound someday, but he would be the rare exception. Just like the typical high school athlete, most small college athletes will end their careers at that level.

Just how much success athletes achieve on the small college level is a mixed bag at best. Some do well, others accomplish little. One thing is certain however. Those who play at this level do so for one main reason — the love of the game!

The article brought back memories for me as I played sports at the small college level. In fact, my collegiate athletic career might well be the poster boy for the ups and downs of athletic accomplishment. Please indulge me as I take you through my collegiate sports adventure.

When I graduated from Attica High School in 1968 I thought my playing days were over. I planned on attending Bowling Green State University to get a degree and become a teacher and coach. There were no plans to play sports in college. Then I missed a deadline for paying a fee and was informed that I would not be going to BG. Now what was I going to do?

The owner of the Attica Lumber Co. also owned harness horses. The guy who trained his horses knew the superintendent of Canfield City Schools. He happened to be friends with the coaches at Hiram College and had seen me play basketball in high school. The appropriate phone calls were made and I suddenly had another option. I had no idea where Hiram was, but a chance to play sports in college appealed to me.

I visited the campus and decided to go there with both basketball and baseball on my mind. I played basketball for three years and baseball for all four. You can decide for yourself how successful my career should be judged.

After preseason practices ended my freshmen year on the hardwood, it was determined that I would start my first varsity game. By the second game I came off the bench and by game three I was sent to languish on the JV squad for a couple of years. There I averaged nearly 18 points per game, but even I knew that was against a lower level of competition and apparently my defensive capabilities were a little suspect.

As a junior I was strictly varsity and played sporadically. One of my best games came in the OAC tournament when I scored 12 and had a key late game putback that allowed us to beat — who else — Heidelberg. That earned me a starting spot for the next game which turned out to be my last game. We lost and I chose to forego my senior season primarily because I was offered the chance to coach the JV team, as the coach (my baseball coach) was going on sabbatical winter quarter.

So I started my first and last game with very little to impress anyone in between. Not exactly a Hall of Fame career … or was it?

My biggest thrill playing basketball at Hiram came when we played at Kenyon College in the final home game of John Rinka’s career. For those who do not know who this guy was, I can tell you that he is still the leading scorer in OAC history. Scoring 3,251 points is amazing. He was chosen as the Naismith winner as the best basketball player in the country under 6-foot tall. His jersey made its way to the Basketball Hall of Fame along with the box score of that final home game.

When I visited the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, a few years later I saw the jersey and noticed the box score. Final score Kenyon 116, Hiram 110. Individually the scoring went like this: Rinka 52, Stephenson 4.

Yes, it was a shootout. Team-wise, anyway!

My baseball career, despite an ominous beginning, was more successful. Unfortunately I don’t have time to recap it this week as I am out of space. Tune in next week for part two of this little series.

Meanwhile I would like to thank John Rinka for “getting” me into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Hey, you take those little successes whenever you can!

Al Stephenson is a sports columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.

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