- Rick Cassano Staff Writer
It’s a home weekend with two very different homes for Middletown High School’s boys basketball team.
History will be made Friday night when the Middies face Hamilton in the final varsity game at Wade E. Miller Gym, and more history will be made Saturday night when Middletown hosts Lima Senior at brand-new Wade E. Miller Arena.
“It will definitely be a roller coaster in terms of measuring the two facilities because what one provides, the other doesn’t, and vice versa,” second-year Middies coach Darnell Hoskins said. “Friday’s game has a lot of symbolism. We want to represent and make the community proud that we’re their team. We’ve got to defend the M, and that’s what we full well intend to do.
The Miller Gym has been around since 1952. The building is old, visibly falling apart and has seen so much great basketball through the years that it’s impossible to calculate. Middle-school hoops will be played there for the remainder of the season, but this is it for varsity play.
The Miller Arena will officially open Saturday afternoon when Middletown’s girls host Colerain. The first night of boys competition will follow.
“Look at this place,” Hoskins said Tuesday at Miller Arena. “If you can’t get fired up about playing and creating a raucous atmosphere in here, then you don’t belong playing or coaching.
“There’s no real advantage to us playing here right now because it isn’t a real home court yet, but we’ll make it a home-court advantage once we’re in here and there’s no turning back to the Miller anymore.”
Certainly it makes sense that teenagers are more excited about their new home than the decaying home they’re leaving. Hoskins won’t try to deny that notion, but he also wants his players to understand the history.
“It’s all relative, right?” Hoskins said. “These kids don’t have a dog in the fight per se about the Miller Gym because they haven’t been there very long, but some people that played in that building are long gone. I’ve tried to the best of my ability to get those guys to appreciate their predecessors that paved the way for them to have some of the things they’re able to experience.”
Middies senior forward Jawunn Bailey said he’s got a lot of special memories playing with his friends at the Miller Gym. He can envision a positive finish there before moving on.
“It’s going to be a real big deal to end the game with a win,” Bailey said. “I expect big things at the other gym to come.”
Middletown chose to play Hamilton in the final game, and clearly it’s the perfect matchup for the situation. The Butler County rivals started playing in the 1910-11 season.
As big as Friday is for the Middies, it’s pretty important to Big Blue too.
“When you get into coaching, you’re trying to do things where you’re making it the most positive and worthwhile experience for your players,” HHS coach Sean Van Winkle said. “For our players to be the last team to play Middletown in the most historic gym in Southwest Ohio, it should be a special night for us.”
Both teams will be sporting a 1950s look with custom-made throwback jerseys that the players will be allowed to keep once Friday’s Greater Miami Conference opener has concluded.
“Just knowing the history of Hamilton and being in this area as long as I have, you start thinking about the guys who have played in that gym,” Van Winkle said.”The Townsends that played at Garfield, Jim Kernohan from Garfield. You’ve got Stokes and Kingsbury and the Greveys. Then you take it a step further with Coach John Smith and Coach Larry Allen.
“I told our guys that we’re playing for all those guys. I know Jerry Lucas is going to be there for Middletown and that’s great, but we feel like Hamilton’s history is just as rich when it comes to basketball. You always say you play for the name on the front of the jersey. On a larger scale, we’re playing for a city of 60,000 people. Fans who’ve been around here for a long time always have a story about Middletown-Hamilton. So we’re not downgrading the deal. We understand this is a huge opportunity.”
The two teams played a four-overtime classic last year at Miller Gym, with Hamilton collecting a 74-72 victory. This year, Big Blue are 2-0 and trying to go 3-0 for the first time since 2001-02.
Middletown is 1-1 and coming off a 76-53 loss at St. Xavier on Tuesday.
“Our pure inexperience showed up in a big way,” Hoskins said. “Having almost 30 turnovers in a game where a team’s pressing you, but not really pressuring you, is not good. We’re learning about valuing possessions.”
Hoskins said he’s impressed with Big Blue’s guards. The Middies are trying to play fast defensively, then pound the ball inside at the offensive end.
“We want to be very strategic and deliberate with our offensive possessions because I don’t think we’re highly skilled offensively,” Hoskins said. “But we’re a sum of all of our parts, so if we can play together with the offense that we run, we can be successful. We want to play the game inside and back out because I believe that’s to our competitive advantage.
“It’s an intriguing matchup because I think Hamilton shoots the ball extremely well. I think that’s the strength of their their team, so our guards — which is the strength of our team — are going to have their work cut out for them. We’ve got to embrace those kind of challenges.”
Hoskins knows something about being an opposing team at Miller Gym. He brought a Thurgood Marshall squad there Dec. 11, 2012, and won 72-54.
“The mystique of the building was true,” Hoskins recalled. “Fortunately for us, we had a real veteran ballclub. We jumped on them pretty good and never allowed the mighty mo of the crowd to get involved.”
He believes Middletown can turn Miller Arena — which has a 94-foot court, 10 feet longer than the Miller Gym floor — into a place where opponents don’t feel comfortable. Fan support is a big part of that.
“It’s the old adage, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” Hoskins said. “But first, you’ve really got to put the product on the floor that they want to cheer about. You really need to leave everything on the floor so that they’ll want to revisit every single time you play. They won’t want to miss anything.”