(Courtesy of Wyatt Richardson)
(Courtesy of Wyatt Richardson)

ADA — “We brought success back to Van Wert sports,” said Van Wert senior Nate Place, reflecting on the year that the Cougars have had following their District Finals loss to Shawnee Saturday night. The Indians punched their ticket to Bowling Green with a 58-54 overtime win over Van Wert in the King Horn Sports Center at Ohio Northern University.

Place was the quarterback for the Cougars in the fall when Van Wert went to the postseason for the first time in 18 years and was the primary ball-handler for this Van Wert team that upset state-ranked Wauseon, defeated Defiance and was moments away from winning a District Title. He, along with other seniors, such as Drew Bagley, Blake Henry and Lawson Blackmore, installed a pride in Van Wert athletics over the past two sports seasons. It showed Saturday night.

Most media outlets discounted Van Wert’s chances to beat Shawnee. The Indians, who own a 23-2 record, beat the Cougars by 21 points early-on in the season— but as Coach Bagley stated and Van Wert proved, that was an anomaly.

They almost did it.

The Cougs were mere moments from cutting down the nets, and punching their own ticket to Regionals. Up four points with under a minute remaining, there was an undeniable sense in the arena that the Cougars were going to do it. Then it happened. Shawnee had two different sophomores hit triples to send the game into overtime.

Following a pair of free-throws from Owen Treece, Van Wert was up 44-40. Shawnee’s 6’5 sophomore center Tyson Elwer sank his his only 3-point attempt of the day. That triple was humongous for the Indians as it meant that the game was going to stay a one possession ball game even if Van Wert sank both of their free-throws— which Nate Place did. Then it happened, Shawnee’s prolific underclassmen scorer, George Mangas hit an NBA range triple to tie the game at 46.

The air was taken out of the Cougars’ fans. Van Wert did all they could, they held the ball and made Shawnee send them to the line and then hit their free-throws. Shawnee, plain and simply, hit two huge shots. That’s the way sports goes sometimes, but it doesn’t alleviate the pain of heartbreaking losses.

The Cougars still had a chance. It was their ball with the game tied, but Place’s fade-away jumper from the elbow was too strong and the game was destined for overtime.

The difference in the extra period was free-throws. In the fourth quarter the Cougars were 5-6 from he line, but in OT they were just 6-10, while Shawnee was 9-10. Mix that in with another Mangas triple and the writing was on the wall for the Cougs.

Sports have a way of eliciting emotions, and that showed Saturday. As the finals seconds ticked you could see the immediate realization that for the seniors, it would be their last time putting on a Cougars jersey. All the hours put in, all the tribulations endured throughout the seniors’ tenure abruptly coming to a close. It’s a violent and painful transition that all athletes come to at some point, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.

Van Wert head coach Mark Bagley, who puts so much emotion into every game that he looks like he could have a heart attack at any moment, was feeling many of the same emotions as the players.

“I told them to not let this game defend who you are,” said Coach Bagley following the loss. “Sports are important but don’t let something like this define who you are. There is bigger and better things ahead for these young men. This will heal overtime.”

Sports are often a vessel for an opportunity for life-long relationships to be made, this Cougars team is no different.

“I’m father right now, not only to my son [Drew Bagley] but to the other three seniors, because I’ve known them since they were kindergartners,” said Coach Bags about the seniors and his team. “I’ve never been more proud of a group of young men. They did things the right way, they represented our community and our school with class.”

Place, Drew Bagley, Lawson Blackmore and Blake Henry all played their final game on the hard wood for the Cougs.

The Cougars finished the season 16-10, and District Runner-ups. It’s been a roller coaster of a season for Van Wert, after starting the season slow they came back to finish third in the WBL. They also upset state-ranked Wauseon in the Sectional Finals and beat Defiance in the District Semis.

Shawnee advances to play Cleveland Central Catholic on Thursday in Bowling Green.

***

Van Wert (54)

Nate Palce 17 pts, 1 reb, 3 ast; Owen Treece 12 pts, 3 reb, 1 ast; Drew Bagley 9 pts, 8 reb, 1 ast; Lawson Blackmore 7 pts, 8 reb, 1 ast; Blake Henry 6 pts; LeTrey Williams 3 pts, 1 reb, 1 ast

Shawnee (58)

Johnny Caprella 19 pts, 3 reb; George Mangas 14 pts, 3 reb; Tyson Elwer 11 pts, 13 reb, 1 ast; Justin Behnke 4 pts, 3 reb, 4 ast; Jake Hutchins 4 pts, 5 reb, 2 ast; John Barker 3 pts, 1 reb, 1 ast; Sheridan O’Neal 3 pts, 5 reb, 4 ast

VW 19 6 8 13 8 - 54

Shawnee 15 11 8 12 12 - 58