When it comes to women and girls, and to basketball, the sport has come a long way in Ottoville.
Back in 1923 – five years after Coach L.W. Heckman introduced the sport to the small town some 85 miles northwest of Dayton – the boys high school team played on a court set up on the top floor of the Catholic church’s social hall there.
That’s when some influential local matrons put up a stink. They said the team made too much noise and would ruin the plaster in the hall.
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Worse, they said, the sport was indecent. They thought the boys’ shorts were one step away from running around buck-naked.
The protests led to the banishment of basketball for two years.
Heckman was a stubborn Low Dutchman and put the full court press on the high-brow ladies. The sport was reinstated – though for a while the team played in the cramped quarters atop a saloon – and eventually basketball took off.
How far it has come was on display once again Saturday at the Schottenstein Center, as the Ottoville High girls team – in their seventh trip to state tournament’s Final Four – met rival Minster in the Division IV championship game.
While you might think the Big Green – as Ottoville’s teams are known – would find some extra karma on St. Patrick’s Day, that was not the case.
Minster came back from an early 12-point deficit and turned the game into a back and forth battle with 12 lead changes.
And then, with 6:44 left in the fourth quarter, the team’s two stars – and former AAU teammates on the Dayton Lady HoopStars — Ottoville’s Bridget Landin and Minster’s Courtney Prenger got tangled up underneath the basket.
The University of Findlay bound Landin, who had just scored nine of Ottoville’s last 13 points, tripped over Prenger’s feet and went down, her head making hard contact with the floor.
She lay there a while and was finally helped off the court and taken a training room where she was examined and told her day was done.
“Everything just got really dizzy,” Landin said. “When they took me in the back, I told them I wanted to play but she said I couldn’t.”
As Ottoville coach Dave Kleman put it: “That’s when the wheels came off.”
Minster scored the last 16 points of the game and won 63-48.
Prenger, a 6-foot-2 junior already committed to Xavier, led the 27-3 Wildcats to their third state title with 17 points. Freshman guards Ivy Wolf and Janae Hoying each had 15 and 6-foot-2 senior Taylor Kogge added 12.
Landin, Amber Miller and Kasey Knippen all scored 13 for Ottoville, which ended the season, 26-3.
When the postgame trophy presentations were made, you saw the mutual respect the teams have for each other. They play each other during the season and Minster won this year’s game by one point.
Kogge told how Prenger was in tears Saturday as she watched Landin get her runners-up medal.
“After the game their coach came up to me and I said, ‘Tell Bridget I love her and wish I could play one more season of AAU with her,’” Prenger said. “I know she would have loved to have finished her career on the Schott with her team.”
Basketball rallies small towns
I know Ottoville. It’s my hometown.
L.W. Heckman, who coached for 32 seasons and taught at the school 50 years, was my granddad. He went 448-124 with the Big Green and was inducted in the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. Ottoville now plays in the Heckman Gym.
My mom was a longtime teacher there, kept the scorebook for my grandad’s teams and drove the team to the games during World War II. My dad, also a teacher there a while, was my grandfather’s assistant before he became a longtime referee.
And I played there for Dick Kortokrax, who had been on my granddad’s last team and now is the winningest prep basketball coach in Ohio history.
I know what the sport means to small towns like Minster and Ottoville, which are both on State Route 66, one in Auglaize County, the other in Putnam.
Basketball rallies the people and it carries the town’s banner.
But there are a couple of differences. Minster is a bigger school and has had far more sporting success over the years. Saturday’s state title was the 33rd the Wildcats have won in several sports, including football which Ottoville does not have.
Minster has 119 girls in high school. Ottoville, one of the smallest public high schools in the state, has just 43 from grades nine through 12. And 15 of them were in uniform for the Lady Green Saturday.
That makes the job Kleman has done all the more wondrous. This was his 26th year as the head coach and he topped the 500-win mark during the season.
“It’s a struggle sometimes getting enough girls,” he said. “From the sophomore class we only have one girl playing. Same with eighth grade. But I think there are only about 10 girls in each class.
“We get a high percentage of the kids to come out and we have good athletes, we just aren’t as deep as some teams. But we start having camps with these guys when they’re little and we tell them they can do it….We tell them they can be like their heroes.”
And the girls are heroes in the town. For big games they pack the gym, which seats 1,800, about twice the population of the town.
Before the team left for Columbus, the players visited the grade school classrooms – the entire school is in one building – and received special projects the students had made to honor them.
“It’s just because we’re such a small school and we all grew up knowing each other.” Landin said. “We’re neighbors. We see each other in the hallway every day. So yeah, the kids really follow us.”
Town ready for victory celebration
Kleman said if anyone had told him when he was younger that he would be a longtime girls’ coach he would have said “You’re crazy.
“But God has a sense of humor and gave me three daughters and no sons,” he laughed. “So I started coaching girls and found they were very appreciative.”
He said the program has developed a culture where the girls “learn how to treat each other.” He said they don’t look at each other as seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshman, but as big and little sisters:
“There’s a sisterhood.”
And it doesn’t end when they finally graduate.
“I tell them, ‘We’ve all got to be invited to your weddings and if not, we’re crashing because we’re gonna be out there dancing.’ That’s what it’s like in communities like ours. It’s more like a journey, not an ending.”
And Saturday evening that journey would bring them back home to their town with its two blinking traffic lights, no movie theater or mall, one school, one big Catholic church and four taverns, all which would be jammed for the post tournament celebration.
The team was told that the firetrucks from every town in Putnam County would meet their bus out in the country and escort them through the Ottoville, where people would line the streets, cheering and throwing streamers.
“Oh Baby, the streets are shutting down tonight!” said Kleman. “A lot of toilet paper is gonna be flying all over the place. There’ll be a party!”