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TABLE OF CONTENTS 4 That 70s Show Part 1

FEATURES

Little League world finalists - Highland South 1970

6 That 70s Show Part 2

Highland track and field dominates for nearly a decade: Bernie Zemen: Highland’s fastest human; Noel Rubel had a “ Jones” for jumping

8 That 70s Show Part 3

Highland American wins 1975 Little League State Championship

10 True Blue

Lifelong resident Tom Arnold personifies Highland pride

12 Spotlight On Business The Crowel Companies

14 The West Side Story

Legendary series was as good as it gets

16 Sutliff Saves The Day

Lady Trojans capture 2000 Hall of Fame Classic

18 The Game They’ll Never Forget

From 1999 to 2001, Highland and West Side conducted three of the fiercest playoff games between two teams in Region history. The conclusion was worth it

24 It Was Heaven In ‘87

Trojans football team made run to state finals

26 Three of A Kind

Trojan trio of Evans, Hamco and Stuckert were the heart of the ‘87 team

30 Defense Wins Championships

2004 Highland All-Stars capture state title behind great defense

32 A Midsummer Night’s Reality Highland All-Stars shock Munster

35 Highland’s Man On A Mission

Over a 10-year span, Dan Vassar pushed all the right buttons in making Highland Little League what it is today. Now he’s onto another endeavor revitalizing the Babe Ruth organization

36 The Ones That Got Away

Highland baseball has been good over the years, but the Trojans could have been great had these kids stuck around

More stories available at Highlandsportsonline.com


that 70s Show: part 1 Little League World Finalists - Highland South 1970

In Williamsport, Highland beat Wiesbaden, GerEven during regular season games in Highland, many 2-0 in its opener. the stands were packed with spectators. Boys played Tim Vassar said he didn’t realize Wiesbaden was baseball all day long and stayed if they had a game an Air Force base and they were actually playing that night. If they didn’t, they’d watch their friends. children of American soldiers. He remembers Brian That’s just the way it was back then. Paluga wasn’t scheduled to pitch that day, but ended The team was stacked with talent, but thrived with up tossing a no-hitter. two stud pitchers – Rick Domsic, the manager’s son, Next up was eventual World Series champion and Paluga. Wayne, New Jersey. Highland “It was really 1A and 1B,” said ended up losing 4-0. Marc Zappia, the assistant’s son “They had a pitcher by the name and team’s shortstop, who resides of Kraig Cornfield. He had more in Florida. “Those two guys were Dale Bouchee, Bill Carson movement on his ball than Exawesome. We had a lot of home Rick Domsic, Paul Furman Lax,” Tim Vassar said. “They had run hitters, too, but the pitching Jeff Hutson, Greg Johnson another guy by the name of Mark was stellar.” Jeff Koedyker, Bill Kuck Epstein. He hit a home run where I Tim Vassar recalls guys like took one step and stopped. People Brian Paluga, Jim Rentschler third baseman Dale Bouchee “who take shorter vacations than that was the best hitter I’ve ever seen. Paul Simpson, Tim Vassar ball he hit.” He wasn’t a power hitter, but Marc Zappia Highland ended up in the thirdcould place the ball anywhere he place game and lost to Chinandewanted.” Manager: Andy Domsic ga, Nicaragua 3-0. Highland South The team’s second basefinished fourth overall – with man was Billy Carson, “a vacuum Asst. Coach: Tony Zappia memories that will last a lifetime. cleaner.” “(Nicaragua) had a left-handed Others included catcher Paul pitcher, Francisco Paz. I don’t know if anybody saw Simpson, James “Bucky” McAvoy, Jim Rentschler, the ball. That’s how fast he threw,” Tim Vassar said. Greg Johnson, Bill Kuck and Paul Furman. “I remember we had wooden bats and I fouled off two When the team returned to town, there was a papitches and felt like a god.” rade that started at Plaza Lanes and went downtown The players stayed in cabins while in Williamsport. to Main Square (which was Main School at the time). Tim Vassar recalls coach Domsic waking him up on a Ironically, the Vassar family has a picture from Sunday morning to go to mass. August 28, 1970, where if you look over Tim’s shoul“He was a devout Catholic. He got me up at 6 a.m. der, you see 11-year-old Mary Hilbrich in the crowd. and it was still dark. I told him I didn’t feel like going. Tim and Mary went on their first date on August 28, He said, ‘I don’t care what you feel like doing. Get up 1976 – and eventually were married. off that bunk.’ You can bet my butt was in that pew.” Sadly, Domsic passed away last year in Florida Tim Vassar’s younger brother, Dan, was the High- and Zappia in 1998. Two players from that team, Jeff land Little League president for 10 years. He was six Koedyker and Jeff Hutson, have also passed. when his brother’s team did the unthinkable. Editor’s Note: Former little league manager and long-time “Those guys were bigger than life,” Dan Vassar school board member Larry Vassar contributed to this story said. “They were like rock stars. It was such a big before his passing in late 2013. deal.”

1970 Team Roster

By Brian Waddle - RSN Contributor

He was so smart,” Vassar recalled. “His baseball knowledge was unbelievable. He used to the throw BP (batting practice) and he could bring it.” When you hit the rewind button, you can’t help but think about what a great manager and phenomenal team Highland was blessed with in that magical summer of 1970. “There wasn’t a kid who couldn’t start,” Larry Vassar said. “The subs could crank it, too, plus it was just one side of town. You have to remember it was singleelimination back then and you only played six innings. One loss and you’re out. We had some cookers.” One “cooker” was a regional game in South Bend where Highland South won 1-0. Rick Domsic, Andy’s son, struck out 17 batters. South Bend had a big lefty who struck out 14. That’s thirty-one outs out of 36 coming by strikeout.

“Those two were throwing aspirins,” said Tim Vassar, now the principal at John Wheeler Middle School in Crown Point. Highland South advanced to the 24th Little League World Series in Williamsport – the dream of young boys around the world – to live the experience millions of others can only imagine. “What great experiences,” said Tim Vassar. “The years go by and you think, ‘Wow, what a big deal that was.’ We didn’t realize what a big deal it was until we got to Williamsport. We were just kids playing baseball. We were never nervous, we were just told to do the best we could. What great life lessons we learned.” Incredibly, Highland South was made up of only half the town. “I didn’t even know the Highland North guys until Babe Ruth the next year,” Tim Vassar said.

Andy Domsic was a strict, by-thebook coach. Tony Zappia was the funny guy, the one who kept the kids loose. Together, the coaching duo was a perfect fit for the 1970 Highland South Little League team, which advanced to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Domsic was the manager. Zappia was the assistant. Before he passed away, long-time resident Larry Vassar talked about the talented coaching pair and how they got the best out of their players. “That guy (Domsic) could coach baseball inside and out,” said Larry Vassar, whose son Tim played center field on that memorable team. “I thought I knew the game (from coaching for over 10 years in the Highland Little League). Boy, did that guy know baseball. Read More Highland Sports Stories at Highlandsportsonline.com

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that 70s Show: Part 2

Highland Track and Field Dominates For Nearly A Decade

Bernie Zemen: Highland’s Fastest Human By Chris Lannin Over the years people from many different walks of life have known Bernie Zemen in many different ways. They may have known him from his 30 year at Arcelor Mittal (Inland Steel) or as a professional photographer with Timeless Images Photography. Others might know him as a Highland Town Councilman. But no matter how they know him, unless they were his classmates at Highland High School, most of them probably don’t know that Bernie was Highland’s

fastest human. Zemen ran both cross country and track for three years, competing in the half mile, mile and two mile events in an era when Highland dominated the Region track scene and came to be respected as one of the best programs in the state. As a senior in 1972, Zemen captured the state title in the two mile, running the course in 9:16.4 to set a state record and defeat favored Dan McFarland of Richmond, who had posted a better time in regionals. Zemen set the state record in the event, but un-

fortunately held it for only a short time, because two years later, Rudy Chapa of Hammond High broke it. In 1974 Chapa became the first two-miler to ever break the 9:00 minute marker in the two mile, shattering Zemen’s record by 17.9 seconds, running the course in 8:58.5. Zemen, who still holds the Highland half mile and two mile school records, is proud of his accomplishments and those of the Highland cross country and track teams of his era, and points to former coach Mike Poehlein (Pay-line) as the reason. Poehlein coached from

Noel Ruebel Had A “Jones” For Jumping

Noel Ruebel could have excelled at any sport he tried, but as far back as he can remember, what he really wanted to was jump. The ceiling and archways at his parents’ house were covered with fingerprints. Couch cushions were used as landing pads. “I have always had a “Jones” for jumping,” said Ruebel. “As a kid I was always jumping up to

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try grab a tree branch or to touch the ceiling at my parents’ house.” Like most kids growing up in Highland, Ruebel played Little League and Babe Ruth baseball. He had a love for basketball too, and at 6’4” tall, he seemed like a natural. “Noel could have done whatever he wanted,” recalled Pete Kokinda, a Highland assistant coach in track, football and

basketball who would become the head track coach when Ruebel was a senior. “I first saw him on the baseball field and thought he was the best player in Highland,” continued Kokinda. “I would have loved to have had him at wide receiver on the football team because with a 43” vertical leap there was no way any defensive back could defend him. We could have thrown the ball up there and he could have jumped up and grabbed it over anybody.” But Ruebel loved the high jump. He had reached a height of 6’2” as a sophomore, and then as a junior he cleared a height of 6’3” to tie the

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Highland school record. Later that year, he attended the Mansfield Relays (now called the Mehock-Mansfield Relays) in Ohio, a prestigious event featuring the best track and field athletes in the Midwest. There were 140 high jumpers in the field that had already cleared 6’4”, before Ruebel jumped to a new personal best of 6’6 ½” to finish second and capture the first ever medal for Highland at Mansfield. As the season progressed, Ruebel continued to jump to new heights. Two weeks after the Mansfield Relays, he reached a height of 6’8 ¼”. In the sectional he reached a height of 6’9”

1966 to 1973. Under his watch Highland boasted five individual state champions in cross country and track, including Zemen. “Coach Poehlein had already established a solid program by the time I got there,” said Zemen. “When I was a sophomore in 1970 our cross country team was second in the state. Dave Bell won a state title that year and Rick Espitia had won one two years earlier. Coach Poehlein had an endless knowledge of running,” continued Zemen. “He had read every book out there and studied Steve Prefontaine’s workouts, so his knowledge was awesome. Zemen points out that the workouts at Highland were harder than the meets. “We ran 100 miles a week in training, and every other day was distance. We went on 15 mile runs twice a week. The training at Highland was better than what was being done at most colleges,” said Zemen. “Coach Poehlein was the type of coach that made us want to work for him.”

Zemen earned a track scholarship to Indiana University under legendary coach Sam Bell, but injuries, which had plagued him throughout his high school career, prevented him from running in any meets. The fun-loving Zemen developed a very close relationship with Poehlein, one that continues to this day. And Poehlein remembers Zemen fondly. “Bernie was a talented kid,” said Poehlein. “He was free spirited, but had an unbelievable work ethic and was goal oriented. He could have been a state champion in cross

and then followed that with a jump of 6’9 ¾” to win the regional. At the state finals, strong winds made conditions less than ideal. Ruebel nonetheless, reached a height of 6’6 ½” to win the 1973 Indiana state high jump title. The following summer, he attended the Junior Olympics and jumped a height of 6’11”, setting what was then a national record for 16 year olds. As his senior year unfolded, Ruebel continued his assault on the record books. He returned to Mansfield and won the gold medal with a jump of 6’11 ¾”, a mark that’s still the third best in Mansfield history.

Then at the Hoosier State Relays at Indiana University, Ruebel became the first high school athlete to ever jump the incredible height of 7’0” indoors. His Hoosier State Relay mark, although tied three times (including by Highland’s Scott Van Senus in 1985) still stands as the best jump of all time at the event. Ruebel then captured the 1974 state high jump title, his second straight, jumping 6’10” to tie the state record set by Gary Haupert of Northfield in 1967. “Noel cleared 7’0” at state too,” said Kokinda. “He was over the bar, and as he went over his hand hit the bar and dislodged it, but he was over.”

country (1971) if he hadn’t gotten hurt. He had no pain threshold, which is why he got hurt so much,” continued Poehlein. “Bernie existed on hot dogs and Twinkies, so finally I had a long talk with him. I told him that if he was going to train like that, he would have to eat and sleep.” Poehlein appreciated Zemen’s good nature. “Bernie was as fun a kid as I ever coached. He looked forward to practice and would keep things loose.” continued Poehlein. “But he took competing very seriously. And in his day, I thought he was the best runner in the state.” Maybe because Rudy Chapa’s record still stands is why his name is more easily recognizable than that of Bernie Zemen outside of track circles. And maybe that’s why people who know Bernie maybe don’t know of his track exploits. Just how well his name was known, doesn’t matter. Anyway you tell it, Bernie Zemen will always be Highland’s fastest human.

While at Highland, Ruebel was a two time high school All-American. He went on to become a two time All-American and a four time Big Ten high jump champion at Purdue, with a career best jump of 7’2 ¼”. After completing his career at Purdue, Ruebel began a coaching career that included stops at Purdue, Ohio State and a stint as the head coach at Wake Forest. Today, Ruebel resides in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where he is the track and field coach at a private school. At age 57, he still competes in Masters (35+) World Championship events.


that 70s Show: part 3

1975 Team Roster Tom Bandura Tim Beisen Jim Bell Martin Bilderbeck Nick Bizoukas Tim Blackburn Bob Horjes Frank Horvath Bill Marshall Tim Reyes Dennis Rodda Kevin Spudic Mike Thon Steve Wanicki

Highland American Wins 1975 Little League State Championship By Brian Waddle - RSN Contributor When Kevin Spudic thinks of the summer of 1975, it brings a smile to his face. It also brings some regret. “We should have gone to Williamsport,” said Spudic, the Highland American Little League starting third baseman. “That team was good enough.” But a 2-1 lose to Tallmadge, Ohio in the Central Region playoffs ended the season for the 1975 Highland Little Leaguers and Indi-

the Highland Little League also watched his older brother, Tim, play on the 1970 Highland South team which advanced to Williamsport. “You don’t catch lightning in

ana state champs, who were trying to match the 1970 Highland squad’s march to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. “We even out hit them,” said Spudic, a 1981 Highland grad and former president and general manager of the Gary Southshore RailCats. “It was a tough game, a hard way to go down. I remember it was a fun ride, though. I still remember the parade on the fire trucks.” Dan Vassar played against Spudic and the rest of the 1975 team during town ball that summer. The former 10-year president of

a bottle that often – so having those two teams so close together was incredible,” Dan Vassar said. “Those were the golden years of Little League.” Amazingly, Highland American was made up of only half the town. The other side – Highland National – had some pretty good talent, too. “We couldn’t combine, but I’m sure they had a couple of guys who could have helped us,” Spudic said. Highland American was the District 2 and Sectional 2 champion before advancing to the state finals. In the semifinals the team

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“We should have gone to Williamsport,” said Spudic, the Highland American Little League starting third baseman. “That team was good enough.”

Manager: Bill Eckiss Asst. Coach: Andy Domsic blanked Indianapolis Eagledale 2-0 before edging Terre Haute North 5-4 in the championship. “They had some studs like Dennis Rodda and Nick Bizoukas, but there was a lot of talent all around,” Dan Vassar recalled. “I remember they had good pitching and just really good multi-sport athletes.” “Rodda had the best curveball as a 12 year old that you’ve ever seen,” added Spudic. The manager was Bill Eckiss and the assistant was Andy Domsic, ironically the manager of the 1970 Little League World Series qualifying team. “Back then the managers and coaches stayed around after their kids were gone,” Vassar said. “Nowadays you get a guy for a few years but when their kids are done, they’re gone.” Also, back then the tournament was solely single elimination, not the pool play you see nowadays. That’s what makes the accomplishments of both the ’70 and ’75 teams so remarkable. Every team was bringing its ‘A’ game each time out because this wasn’t a video game – you didn’t get a second life. “One and done,” Spudic said. “I know we played some tight ones, too.”

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TRUE BLUE Lifelong Resident TOM ARNOLD Personifies Highland Pride Story by Brian Waddle

Cut Tom Arnold open and you’d probably see some blue and gold in his blood. He’s as pure Highland as they come. Born, raised, and still living in Highland, you won’t find a better guy than Arnold, or a more dedicated person. He went to school in Highland, married a wonderful woman and brought her to Highland, where they raised two children, both of whom made Highland sports proud. Arnold spent over 20 years on the Park Board, helping bring a bike path, a new fieldhouse at the Lincoln Center, and the Lincoln Center as you now see it – all coming during his tenure. How fitting Arnold would help turn Lincoln Elementary – the school he attended – into a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility for all the residents to enjoy. “It was a great way to be active

in Highland without the politics,” Arnold said of serving on the Park board. “All I can say is we had a really nice run.” That run helped make Highland a better place to live. And Arnold was instrumental in doing that. “Tom’s 22 years of service to the Highland Parks & Recreation Board stands as a unique and selfless commitment to the residents of Highland,” Town Councilman Mark Herak, wrote in a 2011 letter, nominating Arnold for the Park Board Member of the year award. The funny thing is Arnold didn’t go looking for the job. When you are well-respected, they come looking for you. “It took some arm twisting for him to accept (the job), but the town greatly benefitted by his acceptance,” Herak wrote. “I personally want to share with you the incredible influence Tom Arnold

has had not only on the direction our park program has taken the last 22 years, but also on the members of our community, through his love of Highland. “My feelings for Tom are the same today as they were 22 years ago when I first selected him to serve on the Highland Park Board.” During Arnold’s run, the Park Board acquired and renovated an abandoned elementary school, turning it into a community center. The $11.5 million Lincoln Center renovation includes 90,000 square feet under roof, with the entire building having a backup generator in case of an emergency, so it can be used as a shelter. Arnold, a 1972 Highland grad, was also part of a team that negotiated a lease with U.S. Steel to bring the 4-mile bike/walking trail to fruition, and was on the Building Corporation for the renovation of the Highland High School athletic facilities in the late 90s. The list goes on and on, with Arnold being at the forefront of major improvements in Highland. He was one of the founding members of the Highland Gridiron Club, a huge shot in the arm for the Highland High football program. “We were struggling big-time

in all sports, in terms of participation and results, so a bunch of us started up a golf outing and the tailgate party – to help all of Highland athletics,” Arnold said. “Thanks to Dan McNeil it was a big success. He always brought in a big name to speak at the (foot-

ball) banquets. One of my favorites was Tom Waddle. He was so impressed with the turnout and our kids that he refused the $2,000 check for speaking.” Arnold knows he couldn’t have done it alone. He’s the kind of guy that always passes on the praise. He credits Norb and Barb Lyon for rejuvenating the Booster Club by calling a group of friends into their living room in 1993. “We needed a shot of community spirit,” Arnold said. “It’s not as much work when you have the help to make it fun. Everybody’s heart was in the right place.”

Arnold played football at Highland under Ken “Zip” Sypult. The Trojans went 9-1 during his senior year. He went on to Ball State and majored in business. He met his wife, Cindy, a BSU cheerleader, on a blind date there. He even talked her into moving to Highland. They have two children, Ryan, a 1998 grad who lettered in football and was a two-time semistate wrestler, and Lyndee, a 2003 grad, who was a standout in soccer, basketball and track. Lyndee was a part of the thrilling Highland basketball program under Chris Huppenthal, which went to three consecutive semistates. Success hasn’t followed much of Highland’s sports over the last few years, but Arnold is hopeful his town will get back on track. “I’m still a big Highland fan,” he said. “I’m just hoping for better times.” Today, Arnold – a cancer survivor – enjoys spending time with his family, which includes granddaughter, Tinley. He might be out of the limelight, but he’s still in Highland. As they say, home is where the heart is. And for Arnold, his heart will always be in Highland.


SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS – THE CROWEL COMPANIES

Paying It Back And Paying It Forward, The Crowels Are Happy In Highland By Chris Lannin Founded on the belief that everyone should be treated with respect, The Crowel Agency opened in 1964 in a small house on Kennedy Avenue. With no employees and virtually no assets, the early days were not easy, yet somehow they found a way to insure everyone that came to them. In doing so, the Crowels were ultimately making an investment in the people they served. The Crowel Companies is now celebrating 50 years in business. Today, the agency has more than 30 employees, many of whom have over 20 years of tenure. In 1991 the Lantern Man Superhero was created and has since become the face of the company through cable TV and print advertising. To many his image has come to represent the Crowel Agency

– a place where the light is always on and everyone is welcome. And while that’s certainly true, in reality, Lantern Man is much more than just a marketing icon – he also represents the Crowel philosophy of community involvement. And whether it’s through financial contributions or volunteering their time, the Crowels are involved. When it comes to the bottom line, the Crowels have always put their money where their mouth’s are, donating thousands of dollars to numerous charities, including churches (regardless of faith), schools, youth sports leagues, police and fire departments, humane societies, animal shelters, food banks, and scholarship endowments; in most cases with no publicity whatsoever. To the Crowels, doing business in the

community goes hand in hand with helping to support it. “It’s the right thing to do,” said Tom Crowel Sr. “Donations to baseball teams for uniforms and donations to bands for instruments keeps the kids involved and off the street. These are the things that bind a community together.” The contributions come in all denominations, large and small. The Crowels have funded scholarships and have been a student housing donor at Purdue University Calumet, and also established the school’s very first endowed professorship, a program that supports at-risk children. Other big ticket donations the Crowels have made include the Shriner’s Childrens Hospital, Hospice and Meals on Wheels. Yet as hefty as these donations are, the

bulk of their charitable comes in increments of $100 or $200 at a time. The Crowels have been sponsoring Little League and youth softball teams for years, as well as Highland youth basketball and Pop Warner football teams. They’ve also purchased big ticket prizes for the league fundraisers. And the Crowels do more than just write checks. They also roll up their sleeves. Over the years Tom Sr. and his sons Tom and Bob have been active participants on park boards, plan commissions, chambers of commerce and youth sports leagues. Currently, Bob helps coach a Highland Youth Softball team. Tom, a former Trojan quarterback, has coached a Highland Pop Warner football team for years, is in his fourth year serving on the league board and his third year as a volunteer assistant with the high school football team. Make no mistake, the Crowels aren’t looking for recognition for what they do. They do it because they’re asked – and because there’s a need. When the scoreboards quit working at the “Michael Williams Field of Dreams” at Markley Park right before Highland Little League hosted the state tournament finals in 2008, the Crowels, along with Randy Conn, another Highland businessman, purchased two new scoreboards, and then had them ordered, delivered and installed in less than a month. Last year when storm winds destroyed the old scoreboard at the Highland Babe Ruth baseball field, the Crowels, along with Conn, again stepped up and purchased the league a new scoreboard. “We get quite a few requests asking for donations,” said Tom. “Naturally you have your own favorite charities or causes, too, but rarely does a legitimate local group looking for help who takes the time to come in to our office to put a face on their organization, get turned away.” “To us it’s simple,” Tom continued. “The community has been good to us and helped us grow so we want to give back. We’re part of this community too.” EDITOR’S NOTE: The Crowel Companies have been a corporate partner of the Region Sports Network since 2007. That partnership has allowed us broadcast hundreds of local sporting events and publish numerous local sports magazines. The idea for this story was ours and it took some convincing before they agreed. We thank the Crowel family for their cooperation.


Highland-West Side. West Side-Highland. From 1999-2001, it “was” Region girls basketball. Just like peanut butter and jelly, steak and potatoes, and ketchup and fries. The two went hand-inhand. It didn’t get any better. Sure, they each had to play 20 some games to get there, but it was worth the wait – every time. And over a three-year span, the trilogy of postseason meetings was flat-out epic. Today, the kids are all grown up and some have kids of their own. Rod Fisher is a legend who’s still at West Side, while the other, Highland’s Chris Huppenthal, left his hometown for Kokomo and then Hamilton Southeastern, not out of choice he says, but because of in-town politics involving school board members. But that’s a story for another time. Years have passed and sadly many girls’ basketball seasons have gone by without anyone coming close to the success those Trojan teams enjoyed. The program was the talk of the town, the icing on the cake. “I haven’t been back to the (Highland) gym since I left,” said Huppenthal, who just finished his ninth season at Hamilton Southeastern. “I really want to walk into that gym one day. There are so many special memories.” Hupp’s Trojans and Fisher’s

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Cougars played three classic postseason games: the 1999 Merrillville regional, won by Highland in overtime; the 2000 sectional at West Side in which the Cougars got revenge; and finally in 2001 – maybe the greatest of all – when Highland rallied from five points down to force overtime and eventually claim a 63-59 victory before a standing-room only crowd. It was a buzzer-beating shot from Jenny DeMuth that tied the game at 54 to force the extra session. In 1999, despite having a much deeper team, West Side lost to Highland at the Merrillville regional, 5955 in overtime. It was something that weighed heavy on West Side for a year, according to sportswriter Jeff Carroll, who covered the series for The Times. “One of the West Side girls, after the ’99 loss, had said to a reporter: ‘They stole that game from us. We know it. They know it.’ Obviously through the entire next year, that sentiment was still being expressed behind closed doors,” Carroll remembered. “West Side had warm-up T-shirts made with a bunch of numbers and letters silk-screened onto the back,” continued Carroll. “They wouldn’t tell anyone what they meant, but Chris Huppenthal was like a World War II code-breaker. He knew one of them was Jenny DeMuth’s jersey number and they included how many free throws were shot by each team.” The 2000 sectional game, in which West Side held court, ended up going down to the wire before the Cougars pulled out a 45-42 win to even the series. The stage was now set for one the greatest games ever to be played. One year later, on February 17, 2001, the final game of the trilogy would be played at Highland. Hundreds of fans arrived several hours before tipoff. Some tailgated. The atmosphere in the gym was beyond electric. Highland students were dressed in togas and other costumes, had faces and bodies painted and were going crazy throughout the contest. The papers called it “an instant classic”. It was shown on cable TV. The Region Sports Network broadcast a three-hour on site show prior to the game broadcast, interviewing fans, coaches and players. Carroll, who covered hundreds of games for the Times, called it, “the wildest atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of for a high school basketball game.” It was everything you could ask for in a game. Highland (25-0) was ranked No. 1 in the area (No. 2 in the state) and West Side (19-4) was No. 2, (No. 7 in the state). The Cougars jumped out to an 11-4 first-quarter lead and led 24-14 at one point in second quarter. But it seemed Highland had an answer for every West Side run. “When you’re in the moment you never realize your team is making history,” said DeMuth, a teacher and middle school coach who lives in Noblesville. “I would

never have thought 13 or 14 years later I would be talking about the Highland-West Side battles. Looking back, I realize how fortunate we were to have a rival like West Side. If you were at the Highland-West Side games, that is how basketball should be played. “The atmosphere, electricity and play that happened during those games was and is Indiana basketball.” Huppenthal remembers getting to the Highland gym about 5:30 for the 7:30 tipoff and seeing hundreds of fans in the parking lot. He ordered a dozen pizzas to send to the crowd. When one of the Highland players walked across the floor to get taped up an hour before the game, the fans were screaming and yelling just for that. “I get the chills just talking about it. It was an unbelievable feeling,” he said. There was drama galore in the ‘01 sectional tilt. West Side’s Michelle Jones had 27 points before fouling out in overtime. Her two free throws with 7.4 seconds left gave the Cougars a 54-51 lead. Julie DeMuth, Jenny’s freshman sister, fouled out late in the game. Jenny left the game in the third quarter with an agonizing right calf injury. She returned to slice through two defenders trying to trap her in the backcourt, hitting a top-of-the-key three-pointer in the face of two West Side defenders to tie the game at the buzzer. “It was Jenny being Jenny,” Hupp said. “She was always the calming influence. Nothing rattled her.” Over a decade later, the story has grown to a half-court shot by some you ask. Regardless, it was a money shot and a crowd pleaser on Highland’s home floor. When the final horn sounded, hundreds of student fans rushed the floor as pandemonium ensued like never before (or since). The Lady Trojans had prevailed in what many consider to be the number one sports moment in Highland history. And they’d taken two of three in the series. “When Jenny hit that shot I thought the bleachers were coming down,” said Tom Arnold, the father of defensive standout Lyndee Arnold, a starter on the 2001 team. “The whole place was on its feet.” Arnold wasn’t the only one with that thought. When the season ended, the School Board unanimously approved an immediate purchase of new bleachers. In the years after, the gym was referred to by some as “The House That Jenny Built.” To give some perspective to this trilogy of games, on a local level, it was like Magic vs. Bird (Michelle Jones vs. Jenny DeMuth) or the Celtics vs. the Lakers. It was that big of a deal. And that folks, is the West Side story. When it comes to high school sports, this legendary series was as good it gets.

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Sutliff Saves The Day Lady Trojans capture 2000 Hall of Fame Classic By Brian Waddle - RSN Contributor Highland had Indiana University-bound Jenny DeMuth. Indianapolis Cathedral had Jill Corbett (Vanderbilt) and Ellen Rehme (University of Florida, then TCU for volleyball). Center Grove had Valparaiso University commit Katie Boone. Leave it to little known sophomore Mary Sutliff to steal the show for the Trojans at the Hall of Fame Classic in December of 2000. Sutliff hit two free throws – the only points for Highland in overtime – as the Trojans stunned Center Grove 55-54 in the championship game in New Castle – home of the world’s largest high school gymnasium. Heck, Sutliff was so under the radar the PA announcer called her Jenn Cieslak and then Tara Traczyk – two of her teammates – as she was stepping to the foul line. “Mary was never front and center, she was always a role player and I think she relished that,” Highland coach Chris Huppenthal said. “She would set screens, rebound – she would do all the little things and was happy to do it.” On this day it was Sutliff, who had only two points in the 61-54 morning victory over Indy Cathedral, who was the star. Highland outscored Center Grove 2-1 in the extra session, thanks to the two free throws from Sutliff, who came in a 59-percent foul shooter. “Her dad (Bob) still smiles from ear-to-ear when they talk about that game,” said Highland’s Tom Arnold, father of starting small forward Lyndee Arnold. Against Cathedral, which came in with a 36-1 record over the last 1 ½ years, Jenny DeMuth had a

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game-high 29 points – including 17 in the first half. She also pulled down nine rebounds, grabbed seven steals and added four assists. The senior star also hit four pressure-packed free throws in the last minute of play, and partially blocked a 3-pointer by Cathedral standout Sharika Webb (24 points) that would have tied the game at 57 with 25 seconds remaining. Tara Traczyk and Lyndee Arnold both hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions in the middle of the final quarter to put Highland up 49-47, in one intense battle. In the championship game against Center Grove, Jenny DeMuth had 20 points, Julie DeMuth added nine and Corrie Kaczmarek and Jessica Hamman had six each. One thing lost in the game was the fact that Center Grove was just 17 of 33 from the free throw line; Highland was 16 of 25. “I remember it was a snowstorm, but we all traveled together,” Tom Arnold said. “We were blessed to have coaches with personalities. I look back and think, ‘We couldn’t have been at Highland High School at a better time.’” Huppenthal says it was the chemistry with the players – and the parents – that made the string of success possible. “It’s all me-me-me these days,” Huppenthal said. “It takes a special group of kids and parents to accomplish great things. What we had at Highland was special. The community support was unbelievable, too.” Maybe someday that same spirit will return.

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THE GAME THEY’LL NEVER FORGET

From 1999 to 2001, Highland and West Side conducted three of the fiercest playoff games between two teams in Region history. The conclusion was worth the wait. By Jeff Carroll - RSN Contributor Story on page 20

“Back then, we had no clue how huge that game would be and how many little girls we would inspire. It was a special time for everyone, and one I will never forget.” Jenny DeMuth


“D

Sectional One Championship Game

eMuth For Three, Its Good. We’re Going To Overtime!

In 1999, tournament realignment, which had just started coming along at predictable intervals in the post-enrollment class era, scattering schools like billiards balls on the break, had yanked Highland and West Side out of their prior sectional assignments and into a six-team field together. That was fortuitous event No. 1. A year later, the Indiana High School Athletic Association continued to fumble with its ailing flagship product. The local Class 4A girls sectional would be played in Highland’s relatively tiny gymnasium, with a midweek regional to follow a few days later. That was fortuitous event No. 2. No, not even the IHSAA’s mad tinkering could spoil what was, quite simply, the Region’s premiere athletic rivalry of the period. In fact, even as it mucked

As Called by Jaime Perko For Local TV

up a great thing, the governing body unwittingly set the perfect scene for one of the most memorable moments in Region high school sports history. Two times Highland and West Side had met before the night of February 17, 2001, and they had split the games. In 1999, at the Merrillville regional, Highland had beaten West Side 5955 in an overtime thriller, a frustrating result that West Side’s Cougars had largely attributed to the officiating. (Throughout the next season, their warm-up T-shirts bore the free throw differential from that night.) A year later, on its own home court, West Side prevailed 45-42 over Highland, ranked No. 2 in the state at the time. The Trojans got off a last second, potential tying 3-pointer, but it missed the mark and the Lady Cougars prevailed. “That was the most

H

February 17, 2001

ighland Is Still Alive, Highland Is Still Alive!”

heartbreaking loss of my career up to that point,” DeMuth says now. “I remember sitting in the locker room after and thinking to myself, ‘I will never lose to West Side again.’” There would be no such strangeness, aside for the final possession in the ‘01 game. With 7.4 seconds to play in the final battle, West Side’s Michelle Jones hit a pair of free throws to put her team ahead 54-51, quieting the rabid Highland portion of the crowd, packed into the sold-out band box and lording immediately over the court in the closed quarters. Leaving nothing to chance, Highland point guard Corrie Kaczmarek, in the next moments, took over. “Get the ball in and get it to Jenny!” she shouted to anyone in ear shot. And then, again, “Get the ball in and get it to Jenny!” Kaczmarek’s teammates were listening. Still suffering the effects of a vicious calf cramp that had started her grimacing from the third quarter on, DeMuth dribbled the length of the floor after taking the in-bounds pass, then pulled up at the top of the key. She assumed a West Side defender would be trailing to block her shot from behind, and altered it to the point that, as it left her hand, she did not

even think she would draw iron. Instead, her 3-pointer, taken with two Cougars contesting the shot, fell through to tie the game as the buzzer sounded. Pandemonium. “I felt like I was just another fan in the stands,” DeMuth’s team-

mate, Lyndee Arnold, would say immediately after Highland secured a 63-59 victory in overtime. There was no malice in her tone regarding her relegation to background actor, just admiration. “The difference,” Coach Chris Huppenthal said in his postgame, not looking to over-complicate

things, “was that last year the final shot wasn’t taken by Jenny DeMuth.” The subtext of the series, of course, as it so often is in toosegregated Northwest Indiana, was race. And, if not race, at least class. All-black West Side. Allwhite Highland. City. Small town. But that was stuff for the grownups to chew on. For the teen-age basketball players involved, most of whom would take their final meaningful dribble in a high school game, it was simply basketball. “I did not have any ill feelings toward West Side,” DeMuth says. “I think there was a mutual respect between teams.” Really, only one color mattered to Highland’s Trojans: Orange. The Highland seniors unanimously chose that hue for their practice jerseys in the 2000-01 season, ensuring that West Side, which sports orange and blue, would never be far from their minds. The Trojans were 24-0 coming into the game, 25-0 coming out of it, and would move to 26-0 with a regional victory over Crown Point just three days later. (The dream would end with a semistate loss to Kokomo, coincidentally Huppenthal’s next stop after his Highland run ended soon thereafter.) Continued on Page 22


Con’t from Pg. 21

Three games. Two overtimes. All postseason contests. Decided by a total of 11 points. In an era in which newly imposed class basketball, perhaps the right move in principle but badly executed, had confused fans in many quarters of the state beyond caring, the series of battles between two sets of girls separated by a few mile stretch of Ridge Road and 80/94 made sure that things were as exciting as ever in the Region. It was like a television drama that kept you coming back time after time. Unlike, say, “LOST,” however, BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE; RSN’s Chris Ramirez Ramirez hosted a three hour on-site radio show with Chris Lannin, who was in studio. When the show ended at 7pm, Ramirez took off his radio headset, slid one seat to his right, where he donned the TV headset in time to begin the cable TV pregame show. In all, Ramirez was on the air for six consecutive hours. “I got to the school at 3 o’clock for a 4pm radio show,” said Ramirez. “There were already 100 people or so lined up for tickets and some of the kids were tailgating. By 6 o’clock I was getting reports that as many as 2000 people were outside. At 630 school officials asked us to tell listeners to stop coming to the school because they wouldn’t get in. No more tickets were available – an hour before tipoff!”

SCORING BY QUARTERS West Side 11 17 12 14 5 – 59 Highland 6 17 12 19 9 – 63

the conclusion was completely satisfying. It has been 13 years now, which is kind of hard to believe. DeMuth’s shot, in fact, fell through the net less than a month after the inauguration of President George W. Bush, and seven months before 9/11. “It’s crazy to me that people still talk about the HighlandWest Side rivalry,” says DeMuth. “Back then, we had no clue how huge that game would be and how many little girls we would inspire. It was a special time for everyone, and one I will never forget.”

CLASS 4A Sectional One Championship Game Box Score - February 17, 2001 HIGHLAND (63) Corrie Kaczmarek 1-6 2-2 4, Lyndee Arnold 2-6 3-6 7, Jenny DeMuth 10-21 9-10 31, Julie DeMuth 2-6 4-5 8, Jessica Hamman 1-2 0-0 2, Mary Sutliff 1-2 2-2 4, Jenn Cieslak 1-2 0-0 2, Stephanie Wanicki 1-2 3-4 5, Tara Traczyk 0-0 0-0 0, Aimee Stirling 0-0 0-0 0, Traci Jerkins 0-0 0-0 0, Lindsay Plikuhn 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 19-47 23-29 63

WEST SIDE (59)

Tai Adkins 0-4 0-0 0, Alicia Boyer 6-15 0-0 16, Belinda Drake 1-4 0-2 2, Michelle Jones 10-15 6-7 27, Kim Smith 5-12 2-3 12, Crystal Hill 0-0 0-0 0, Karima Davies 0-1 0-0 0, Bernettra Grayer 1-1 0-0 2, Shanta Robinson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 23-54 8-13 59 3-point field goals: Booyer 4, Jones 1 (WS); Jenny DeMuth 2 (H) Top Rebounders: Smith 11 (WS); Jenny DeMuth 8 (H). Team fouls: West Side 24, Highland 20 Fouled out: Jones (WS); Julie DeMuth (H) ATTENDANCE: SOLD OUT


LEGENDS: Dave Shelbourne And The ’87 Football Trojans

IT WAS HEAVEN IN ‘87 By Brian Waddle - RSN Contributor

Trojans Made Run To State Finals

D

ave Shelbourne’s body and mind are in Avon, but his heart will

always be in Highland. The former head coach – the guy who led the Trojans to the state football finals in 1987 – still gets excited talking about that team, his old school, and the Region in general.

“I love Indy, but my heart’s still in the Region,” Shelbourne said. “I’m extremely proud of that area. I think when you’re from the Region, you’re opinionated and passionate. I think I still have too much Region blood in me.” Shelbourne grew up in Gary. He was a young boy in the Steel City who became an All-State quarterback at Lew Wallace. He recalls the ’66 unbeaten team as a squad he says “real old-timers still talk about.” Shelbourne’s arm guided the Hornets to an 18-0 record his junior and season seasons as the starting quarterback. He then went on to play at Northwestern, where he was honorable mention All-Big Ten in 1968 and a two-year starter. He was an offensive coordinator at Wabash College for three years and landed on the steps of Highland in 1975. “I started at Highland when I was 26, back when I knew everything about everything,” Shelbourne joked. He obviously knew something. He’s the only coach to ever win a sectional at Highland and was the anchor of the 1987 team’s unlikely run to Indianapolis for the Class 5A state championship. He said nobody talks about the regular season undefeated teams in 1978 and 1982, but more about the 1987 team which was far from perfect. “We came out of nowhere,” Shelbourne said. “I wasn’t an advocate of teams making the (state) tournament with losing records, but I changed my tune that year. “We started 1-4 and everybody was writing us off – they probably should have. But we got on a roll and it seemed we couldn’t be stopped.” The season started with losses to Portage, Munster and Crown Point. After a 35-6 victory over Calumet, the Trojans got hammered by Lake Central 34-6. That, however, was the end of their losing ways as the Trojans started winning in bunches with victories

over Kankakee Valley, Griffith, Lowell and East Chicago. This, mind you, with a 14-year-old quarterback by the name of Brian Guzek. The freshman had replaced senior Bill Vincent, who broke his collarbone against Munster. “We had great senior leadership,” said Shelbourne, throwing out names like Tom Homco, Mike Stuckert and Jason Evans. “Our chemistry was good – and even though Homco got hurt early (in the season) – we didn’t lose our composure. We beat some good teams and once our confidence got going we just kept winning.” In fact, a 24-10 loss to Crown Point in week three ended up being avenged in a 23-21 victory in the tournament. And that loss to L.C. was reversed as well, 16-13. The rest of the tournament included a 42-15 thrashing of Valpo in the regional and a 30-28 victory at home over Carmel in the semistate. Highland ended up losing 14-7 to Ben Davis in the state title game. Shelbourne still wonders what would have happened if they hadn’t lost a fumble on the 5-yard line or if he would have kept Mike and Scott Golarz in Highland blue and gold. The standout brothers, who both went on to play at Northwestern, moved to Hobart before the season when their dad, Ray, took a job in administration. “I always joke that I lost four starters,” Shelbourne said, “because Mike was a senior and twoyear starter and they both would have probably started both ways.” Shelbourne also wonders what would have happened if he was still around town. “I loved my time at Highland,” he said. “I probably could have retired there if things had worked out.” Shelbourne, 63, did more than survive after Highland, even though he had a scare at age 37. He was diagnosed with colon cancer and spent 32 days in the hospital, and was released on Aug 1. Eighteen inches were cut off his

1987 Season Results Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9 Week 10 Week 11 Week 12 Week 13 Week 14

Portage @Munster Crown Point @Calumet Lake Central Kan. Valley @Griffith Lowell EC Central Lake Central @Crown Point @Valpo Carmel Ben Davis

L 15-12 L 10-3 L 24-10 W 35-6 L 34-6 W 41-8 W 29-0 W 54-6 W 44-12 W 16-13 W 23-21 W 42-15 W 30-28 L 14-7

large intestine, but he was back on the sideline when football practice started up on Aug. 10. After spending 14 years at Highland, Shelbourne made his way to Warren Central where he coached for 11 years. In 1997 and 1998 his son Scott was his starting quarterback. He went on to Avon where he coached for eight years and won a regional title in 2005. He’s been retired from the sidelines for more than four years now, but is still a guidance counselor at Avon and does an occasional game as the color commentator for Avon football games. He has been married to his wife Nancy for 41 years. He does 21mile bike trips and also plays basketball a couple of days a week. Shelbourne was 83-54 at Highland and compiled 211 wins in 33 seasons as a coach.


THREE OF A KIND Trojan Trio of Evans, Homco and Stuckert Were The Heart of the ’87 Team

By Brian Waddle - RSN Contributor the magic together on Tom Homco had the best seat a memorable run to Inin the house, but couldn’t do dianapolis to play in the anything about it. The losing Class 5A state champihurt as bad as his back in the onship. fall of 1987, and the closest “We knew we had he got to the field was watchsomething special as ing from the sideline. freshman,” Evans said. Homco missed the first “It was a big deal dressfour games of season (some ing JV as a freshman, would say he didn’t miss and we got that chance. much) with a broken portion The three-headed of his L5 vertebrae. Nobody monster of Evans, Homknows if he would have made co and Stuckert bruised a difference as the Trojans opponents from both lost their first three games to sides of the ball. The trio Portage, Munster and Crown shared the wealth in the Point by a combined 49-25 backfield with Stuckert margin. A 35-6 victory over the speed back, while a traditionally weak Calumet Evans and Homco were team in Week 4 didn’t mean the battering rams as much, especially when Homco well as standout linereturned in Week 5 and Highbackers. land got blasted by Lake Cen“Mike was the main tral, 34-6. guy, but even though The Trojans looked imTom and I were designed pressive on paper going into the season, but a 1-4 start made that paper look like to block, we needed to hold it (the football) once in a while for our egos,” Evans said with a laugh. a spit wad. The three amigos admit the glue that kept the “We all knew we were better than 1-4,” Homco Trojans together through all the tough times was said. “We had some injuries at the beginning of the sea- something they learned at a Dick Dullaghan camp the son,” fellow backfield mate Mike Stuckert said. “But summer before their senior year. It was called, “The everything just started coming together. We started Fist,” which means you have to punch with all your fingers together, you can’t do it with one sticking out. playing with confidence.” “I think it was a credit to the coaches because we In other words, it’s all about a team and togetherness, had good leadership that trickled down,” added Jason not a one-man show. It meant it would take a tight-knit group, or a fist, Evans. “Tom, Mike and I get all the credit, but we had a lot of leaders on that team. I think we all decided we to power a real punch. “It was a unique team and a unique season,” said were going to win.” It seemed nobody could put a finger on the los- Homco, who resides in St. Louis. “Even the parents ing streak. And much like the movie, “Hoosiers,” the Continued on Page 28 boys from Hickory – aka Highland – started putting Read More Highland Sports Stories at Highlandsportsonline.com

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Continued from Page 26

were super tight. We had Thursday night get-togethers and shirts made up with ‘The Fist.’ There weren’t any cliques and we had such a strong bond. That had a lot to do with us bouncing back. Heck, we’re still close. When we see each other, it’s like a Saturday night in Highland all over again.” The season started taking shape on Oct. 2 when the Trojans hammered Kankakee Valley 41-8 and followed with a 29-0 shutout at Griffith. Big wins continued with victories over Lowell and EC Central. The big payday – and payback – came in the playoffs against Lake Central. Highland pulled out a 16-13 victory against the same team that dominated them 34-6 just five weeks earlier. That set up another revenge game against Crown Point. The Trojans pulled out a 23-21 win over the Bulldogs, who beat them 24-10 in Week 3.

“Jason and Tom got us some big yards, but I think the reason we were so successful is because we had different options,” Stuckert said. “(Head coach Dave) Shelbourne did a good job of spreading it around.” Highland lifted its one and only regional trophy high in the air after pounding Valparaiso, 4215 in week 12. Stuckert carried the ball 19 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns. That set up a huge semistate match – in Highland – against Carmel, which had just knocked off top-ranked and unbeaten Penn in the regional. Ask anybody about that game on Nov. 20 and they will tell you it was an ice bowl and an instant classic. The ground was frozen solid, the ball was like a rock, and the boys were playing like they were stuck in an ice box. Torpedo heaters could be found on both sidelines. Stuckert scored four touchdowns in the 3028 victory.

Then, it was off to Indianapolis to take on Ben Davis and Dick Dullaghan. Yes, the same coach who had introduced the Highland boys to “The Fist” only months earlier. On Nov. 28, 1987, the trio helped the Trojans to a 7-0 start on the turf, thanks to an Evans fullback pass to a wide-open Stuckert. However, Ben Davis had Corey Harris, and the future 12-year NFL safety, who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens, was hard to stop. The Vanderbilt recruit finished with 142 yards on 19 carries, caught a pass for 51 yards, had two kick returns for 66 yards – and scored both second-half TDs, including a 62-yard run with 7:53 left that turned out to be the difference in the 14-7 victory. Highland had a chance late in the game, but after Steve Thompson took a 40-yard pass to the Ben Davis 7-yard line, a quarterback fumble on the next play was recovered by the Giants. In the blink of an eye the momentum – and the game – was over. “Still the No. 1 regret in my life,” Homco said. “It still eats at us and as grown men in our 40s. It still bothers us. We were sitting around one time and somebody asked, ‘Your biggest regret?’ Somebody goes, ‘Your divorce?’ and (a former teammate) said, ‘No, the state championship.’ It definitely would have been a nice feather in the cap.” All three players went on to play college football. Homco went to Northwestern, Stuckert to Cornell and

Evans to Valparaiso. Homco went on to play with the Los Angeles and then St. Louis Rams for six seasons. He works in commercial real estate in St. Louis. He and wife Joy have two kids, Maxim, 3, and Karina, 1. Stuckert lives in Valpo and owns Senior Helpers, which provides in-home care for seniors. He has offices in Crown Point and Michigan City. Stuckert is married to wife, Tina, and has two sons, Cal, 6, and Hutch, 5. Evans resides in Valpo as well, and has been in the local restaurant business for 22 years. He owns “Catch 22” on Rte. 30 in Merrillville. He and wife, Andrea have five kids: Carter, Annabelle, and Olivia, all 9, Cooper, 6, and Finley, 4.


DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS

Highland All-Stars Capture State Title Behind Great Defense

By Brian Waddle - RSN Contributor Ken Mahala can’t avoid the picture. He looks at it at least five nights a week. Every evening, after working construction in the Region, the Highland carpenter takes his clothes to the laundry area in his home. There hangs a 4x6 photo of the 2004 Highland Little League All-Star team. Mahala smiles every time. “That team is always on my mind,” Mahala says. “Those memories will never go away.” Those memories – as vivid as they were nine summers ago – are still alive and well in Mahala’s home and likely a dozen others in Highland as well. You don’t just dream up a state championship run and nip at the heels of Williamsport every day of the week. “As the manager, you watch the boys enjoy the wins,” Mahala said. “You look at the crowds, you feel the atmosphere. Going through that, you know it doesn’t happen very often.” All-Star teams are built on pitching, power, and sometimes politics. Mahala built his on defense. “We had offense – no doubt about it – but defense is where we hung our hats,” Mahala said. “That goes with any sport. Yes, we were gifted on offense and had home run power, but defense is really what got us there.” That was evident in the state title game when

Highland beat South Bend East Side 1-0. Kenny Mahala, Ken’s talented son, tossed a two-hitter with 10 strikeouts and scored the game’s lone run. Kevin Stiglitz beat out an infield single to keep the inning alive and Jon Livingston had an RBI single to bring in Mahala. “We had a great team, but you need the underachievers to do the little things,” Mahala said. “The state title game came down to our defense.” The team had “two horses” on the mound in Mahala and Mike Bremer. “Those guys drove the cart, but it was the others who got us there,” Mahala said. The road to Indianapolis was far from easy. The team battled to knock off Munster 3-2 in the Dis-

trict 2 championship, and ousted the Valpo Americans in a bestof-three series at East Chicago’s Civic League Park. Bremer nailed down the victory over Munster, with Stiglitz’s RBI single and Matt Spretnjak’s two RBIs sparking the offense. In the state tournament, Highland’s toughest match came in an 11-10 eight-inning victory over New Albany that set up a 3-1 semifinal victory over perennial powerhouse Brownsburg. In a 14-1 romp over Hartford City, Jon Livingston and Bremer each jacked three-run homers. In a 9-1 victory over Aurora, Bremer had three hits. After taking the state title, the team marched on to the Great Lakes Regional Tournament in Indianapolis. Only the top four teams advanced out of pool play to the semifinals: Highland, Owensboro (KY), Hamilton (OH), and Mundelein (IL). Highland avenged a 5-3 loss to Hamilton in pool play with a 6-2 victory. Owensboro, meanwhile, beat Mundelein 8-2 to set up the championship bout. Standing in the way of the Williamsport, Pennsylvania welcome mat (the home of the Little League World Series) was Owensboro. The strong Kentucky squad blanked Highland 3-0 to claim the Great Lakes title and represent the area in the World Series. Owensboro’s Cole Sturgeon tossed a one-hitter, striking out 17 of the 19 batters he faced. The only hit

2004 Team Roster Mike Bremer, Austin Evenhouse, Brian Geissler, Michael Hanchar, Nick Kovacich, Jon Livingston, D.J. Maginot, Kenny Mahala, Scott Puplava, Jordan Ravesloot, Matt Spretnjak, Kevin Stiglitz, Tariq Suboh Manager: Ken Mahala Assistants: Jim Puplava, Jeff Stiglitz

he allowed was Nick Kovacich’s bunt single in the third inning. After that, he fanned nine of the next 10 he faced. Sturgeon’s fastball was clocked at 76 mph, and he struck out the first eight batters who stepped to the plate. “He’s got a golden arm,” Mahala was quoted as saying then. Sturgeon actually struck out 17 in an earlier game against Appleton, and for the tournament, struck out 40 batters in 14 innings pitched. Highland might have come up just short of the dream, but it didn’t detour from the fun the team enjoyed. On a visit to Victory Field, Mahala made sure every player on the team – even the reserves – stood at their position on the field. An ESPN

State Tournament @ Southport Pool Play * Highland 9, Aurora 1 * Highland 14, Hartford City 1 (5 innings) * Highland 11, New Albany 10 (8 innings) Semifinals * Highland 3, Brownsburg 1 Championship * Highland 1, South Bend East Side 0 truck came down and showed the boys how they filmed the games. “We lived together for nine days,” Mahala said. “Nine days with the boys and you understand how they are and what they’re about.” Mahala still sees that camaraderie today. “A lot of the boys still hang out,” he said. “Believe me, we still pull out the videos and watch the games. I think about it all the time. It was so big for Highland because it is something that is so hard to do. “The ball has to go your way. You have to get a hop to bounce your way. That’s why it was something so special and something you come to treasure.”


A Midsummer Night’s Reality

HIGHLAND ALL-STARS SHOCK MUNSTER By Chris Ramirez - RSN Editor

Brimming with confidence, Munster fans swaggered early into Community Park, with, as one Highland mom put it, “an air of superiority” wafting over their heads. Meanwhile, the Highland fan base arrived with what a Munster parent later described as “a chip on its shoulder.” A Little League version of the Battle of the Bridge was about to take place. For the 12-year old combatants, the game to come, 2010’s Indiana District 2 championship, would serve as a real-life introduction to the nearly fifty year feud between neighbors. Highland was the home team on the scoreboard, but Munster was at home and they were favored – despite being beaten by Highland in pool play. And while Munster expected to win when they got to the ball park, Highland only hoped to win. In a pregame interview,

Highland skipper Mike Burbridge admitted “no one”, including the team’s parents, “expected us to be here.” Adding to the ever present tension in the bleachers, rumors were swirling, at least on the Highland side of the diamond, that Munster fans had already reserved rooms in Kentucky for the Great Lakes Regional – a full two rounds after that night’s district final – a gesture Highland fans took personal. Burbridge, or Burbs as he’s known around town, admitted hearing that set the tone for the evening. “The coaches and parents were fired up about it first,” he said. “Then I told the team about it in my pregame speech. A few minutes after that it started to sink in.” Burbridge remembers thinking his players were maybe a bit too loose as game time approached. “They were laughing and goofing

right before the game. I had to remind them it was time to get down business,” he said. “They got the message.” By the time the first pitch was thrown, a couple hundred fans were in attendance, and many more were on the way. Kevin O’Donnell took the hill for Highland. Chase Dawson got the start for Munster. Both were in fine form. Dawson helped his own cause by scoring the first run of the game on an infield groundout to give Munster a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. The Highland All-Stars evened things up in the third when Billy Polen scored on a base hit by Charlie Gershner. Neither team could muster up much offense after that, although both displayed strong defenses. For Highland, centerfielder Eric Jones made a running one hand grab of a fly ball near the fence that was a highlight catch.

While Munster didn’t have anything as sensational as the Jones catch, they did employ the pitcher’s best friend on three different occasions, closing the door on more than one potential Highland rally with inning ending double plays. A scoring chance for Munster was snuffed out in the sixth when Dawson, running on contact from third, was thrown out at home following an infield grounder. Then, after two more scoreless innings, the outlook suddenly turned grim for the Highland faith-

fin was brought in to pinch run for the younger Burbridge, adding an element of speed to the bases – a move that would come into play just moments after the switch. The next batter, Dylan Whitehead singled sharply to left. The elder Burbridge, known for his stop/go, stop/go coaching strategy in the third base box, had planned to hold Polen at third, but when he realized the ball had gotten past the left fielder, he began urgently waiving both runners home, gesticulating anxiously as each rounded third base. When Griffin

of Polen. “He played like a pro out there. It didn’t matter where I put him, he was always ready. We had a lot of guys like that. Garrett Lytle comes to mind.” The excitable Burbridge, a fun to watch manager who all too often took the bait when his own fans would goad him into quarrelling with umpires, said in a post game interview the victory was ‘the biggest upset in history’, referring to the Munster-Highland sports rivalry. Whether or not that’s true can be debated by the generations, but

ful when Zac Kall drilled the first pitch in the top of the ninth over the centerfield fence to give the Munster All-Stars a 2-1 lead. In the bottom of the ninth, Polen, as he had done earlier, reached base safely to open the inning, this time stroking a single to center. He moved into scoring position after a walk to the next hitter, Brandon Burbridge, the manager’s son, who had been trying to sacrifice the tying run into scoring position. With the potential game winning run now on first base, Ryan Grif-

slid safely into home ahead of the throw, Highland owned a thrilling 3-2, nine inning, come-frombehind victory, witnessed by an overflow crowd. “I wasn’t gonna send him,” said Burbs of lead runner Polen. “But when I saw where the ball was, I thought (both runners) could score, so I waived ‘em.” Polen, who started the rally and scored two of his teams three runs, including the game tyer, was Mr. Versatile for Highland. “Billy was my ace,” said Burbs

that it makes the list cannot be argued. This was indeed a game for the ages. For Burbs, the feeling hasn’t diminished with time. “It means as much today as it did then,” he said. “Those are memories that can never be taken away – from the kids, from the parents or from the community. “That win belongs to the town of Highland – forever.” Well said Burbs. Well said. Video Highlights and Photos of This Game Are Available at Highlandsportsonline.com


Highland’s Man On A Mission

Over a 10-year span, Dan Vassar pushed all the right buttons in making Highland Little League what it is today. Now he’s onto another endeavor – revitalizing the Babe Ruth organization in town. By Brian Waddle

Dan Vassar remembers hearing his father, Larry, give the eulogy at his uncle’s funeral. The speech was inspiring, and also gave Dan words to live by: “It’s not the dates on the tombstone, it’s what you do in-between.” And Dan is doing just that. He’s trying to make a difference here in town anyway he can. Serving as president of the Highland Little League for 10 years, the 1981 Highland grad did everything he could to change the landscape of the league and turn it into a better place. His work as commander – even though he had plenty of help, he will tell you – should make any resident of Highland proud. Before he started there wasn’t mandatory playing time for kids. It was guaranteed one at-bat and two innings in the field. Today, kids are required to play three innings in the field with a continuous batting order. “We had growing pains with some adults,” Vas-

was built. The beautiful structure hosted the 2008 state tournament for 12 year olds. - RSN Contributor In 2009, the complex sar said. “I told them, hosted the 11-year-old ‘We don’t need adults, we state tournament. only need kids.’” In 10 years of service, In 2003, he helped Vassar was instrumental merge the two divi- in getting six new fields sions in town: American in town, including three and National. For years at Markley Park. the talent was divided “It changed everybetween two All-Star thing, in my opinion,” squads. Vassar said of the field. A year later, the 2004 “We put as much as we Highland Little Leaguers could into one park. I won the state title and think we made baseball came within one game of more kid-friendly and did advancing to Williams- a nice job of keeping kids port for the Little League in Little League.” World Series. Vassar will tell you he It kills Vassar to think wasn’t a one-man band, about the 2003 team (be- either. He had plenty fore the rule change), of assistance, including which had a bunch of the brother Pat and Brent 2004 players and could Kinley, among others. have had former standIn 2004, Vassar said outs Adam Norton and the whole landscape Kevin Franchetti, who changed for Highland both starred at Andrean baseball. The league was and later in college. under Highland Boys Even back in 1970 Baseball and split with an and 1975, when High- outside organization. In land won state titles, the other words, not all the league was divided in control – or the money – half. The 1970 team that was going into the right advanced to Williamsport places. and finished fourth in the “It only made sense world was made up of for us to control our own kids south of Ridge Road. funds,” Vassar said. In 2004, the Michael Vassar, who’s also Williams Field of Dreams serving his second term Read More Highland Sports Stories at Highlandsportsonline.com

on the Highland Town Council, hasn’t completely stepped away from baseball, either. He’s now in his first year as president of Highland Babe Ruth. He knows the program is down and there’s plenty of work to be done. But he also knows there’s no better man for the job. “The Babe Ruth field is not in good condition, but it will be,” Vassar said. “The parents know what we did in Little League. What we did at Markley Park we’re going to do at Homestead.” Vassar said last year there were 33 players and three teams. This spring Highland Babe Ruth has eight teams and a total of 106 players from 13 to 18 years old. That’s an increase of 73 kids – more than tripling 2013. “It’s a project and I like projects,” Vassar said. “I’m like a used car salesman. I even grilled at the (Highland football) tailgate party. I stopped to talk to groups. I’m openly recruiting kids to play. “I tell them, ‘Trust us. You know what we did and what we can do.’”

35


Chris DeGuilio. Adam Norton. Kevin Franchetti. Kenny Mahala. Nick Hladek. Dustin DeMuth. Mike Hanchar. Austin Evenhouse. Most coaches would drool over that kind of talent coming through their community. All were standout baseball players and Highland natives who cut their teeth in the town’s Little League before heading elsewhere to play high school ball. “It’s an all-star team if you start throwing the names around,” firstyear Highland baseball coach John Bogner said. “I’m not slighting the kids we had, but they weren’t Notre Dame, Division-I kids. “You lose kids like that your program’s going to feel the impact.” Between 2005 and 2011 it cut Highland like a knife. Norton, who ended up pitching at Notre Dame, and Franchetti, a standout catcher who started out at Ball State and finished at Carson-Newman, were public school kids who ended up leaving Highland after eighth grade. Same for Mahala, who was one year behind them. Hanchar transferred to the Broadway school after his sophomore year. Hladek, who starred at Crown Point and Butler, moved out of town in middle school. Same goes for DeMuth, whose mother Judy was the assistant superintendent at Highland, but didn’t have her

36

contract renewed by the school board in 2003. Evenhouse enrolled at Illiana Christian in Lansing. Of the kids who went to Andrean, only DeGuilio went to Our Lady of Grace, the town’s Catholic grade school. Norton, Franchetti, and Mahala helped Andrean to a state championship in 2009. Mahala won a second ring with the 59ers in 2010. “I don’t mind the kids who go to Catholic (grade) schools and go to a Catholic high school,” Bogner said. “We have a kid now whose

parents went to Noll and he’ll end up there. I get it. Love to have him, but I get that. “I crack up when they say they’re going to Andrean for an education,” Bogner continued. “Highland is an A plus, four-star school. Kids who come here are prepared for college.” DeMuth ended up at LaPorte, where he earned 11 letters in baseball, football and basketball. He broke numerous records at the state’s most prestigious high school baseball school before heading to IU, where’s he the starting third baseman. And although he was drafted in the ninth round by the Minnesota Twins, he chose to stay in Bloomington for his senior season. “In today’s age of competition, you have to recruit your own kids because somebody else will,” said Griffith coach Brian Jennings, now in his 16th year. “Public schools play the hand they’re dealt. I tell people all the time, ‘Take a map and draw the area around your city and those are your boundaries. Now a charter or private school, you can circle the continent.’ Is the system fair? No, it’s not.” Bogner was Dan Miller’s assistant coach for years before taking over the program following Miller’s retirement after 32 seasons. The Trojans could have had a Hall of Fame team with the talent that left town. They would have

Read More Highland Sports Stories at Highlandsportsonline.com

added two No. 1 pitchers in Norton and Mahala to an already solid rotation, and one of the area’s best catchers in Franchetti, to the roster of kids who were already there, some of which were allconference. “You can’t lose kids like that and not have it affect your program,” Jennings said. “I take it personal at Griffith (if they leave). (I) want them to have pride in wearing the black and gold since Little League. You have to make them feel appreciated. You need to invite them to camps, clinics, to the games. You have to work at it. You just can’t expect kids to show up on Day 1.” It would’ve been interesting to see how the Highland kids would have done, had they stayed together. Playing against the likes of Munster, Lake Central and Lowell in the sectional is always tough, but the Trojans would have been

explosive in Class 4A for a few years. “You take what you’re given,” Bogner said. “We have 1,200 bodies (in the school) and I tell the kids, ‘you’re the best 42 Highland has to offer.’ If you’re prepared success will follow.” Jennings’ Panthers actually beat Andrean twice last season, including a 2-1 victory at the Plymouth Regional. The Panthers also ended the 59ers’ season at Plymouth, 6-5, in the 2012 regional. Those are the moments you live for, and hope your players do, too. “That’s why Brian is an amazing coach,” Bogner said. “He doesn’t even have a freshman team. “Why wouldn’t you want to go to Griffith if you’re a Griffith kid?” That’s the kind of culture that once existed at Highland, but doesn’t anymore – at least to the degree it should. And it’s time for

that to change. Pointing a finger isn’t going to make things better. It’s time to point the thumb. In other words, take nothing for granted. Make Highland the most attractive option and kids looking to travel down the yellow brick road, may just find that there’s no place like home.


The First One Is Done – What’s Next You Ask? Commentary By Publisher Chris Ramirez Well, that was it – the first ever Highland Sports Spectacular. We hope you found it to be enjoyable, interesting and educational. And we hope to publish more of these in the future, as there are many more yet-to-be told stories. A special thanks goes out to the members of Northwest Indiana’s business community who stepped up to make this publication a reality. With even greater business participation next time, we can achieve our goal of publishing this magazine more often. Although Highland isn’t currently regarded as a place with successful athletic programs – history tells us that a great deal of sports success has taken place here – at different levels, in different sports and at different times. We hope this publication has enlightened anyone who was unaware of the legacy that athletes, coaches and individuals from Highland have forged through the years. If you’d like to read more Highland sports stories in the future, take a few moments to look at the advertisers who believed this to be a worthwhile investment. Make note of those businesses and should you find yourself in need of their products and/or services, give them an opportunity to earn your business. Should you find yourself at one these businesses, be sure to mention seeing their ad in the Highland Sports Spectacular. If you’ve heard them on our radio broadcasts, let them know. It may not seem like much at the time, but it sure goes a long way – especially when we call on them next time. Anyone with ideas for future stories can send them to me directly. The email address is editor@regionsports.com. Message From The Editor; The Region Sports team is dedicating this issue to our friend and fallen teammate Jaime Perko. I’m sad to say that Jaime passed away recently at the all too young age of 44, following a massive stroke he suffered while at work. A 1987 Highland graduate, a lot of people knew Jaime as the ‘cable TV sports guy.’ I was fortunate to work with Jaime on hundreds of broadcasts – on both radio and television during his career, which ranged from the late nineties through 2010. Some of my favorite memories in this business are games I did with Jaime sitting next to me. The long rides we took together to and from schools far away are memories that will forever have a place in my soul. It was on those rides that Jaime and I went from being mere colleagues to buddies to close friends. And I will be evermore grateful for that friendship. Jaime’s work ethic, positive attitude and ever present smile are what I will remember most about him. He will be greatly missed by all of us at the RSN, and so many others in Northwest Indiana. RIP my good friend. Until we meet again.


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