Heck, pretty much all of East Holmes was in Columbus for that game.
But realistically, that game should have never even taken place.
This wild, improbable run to the school’s first State title should have been stopped dead cold in its tracks in the District final.
That was where the Hawks faced Lakeland, a team driven by fiery point guard Tim Arnold, sharpshooter Kevin Milligan and athletic Clint Puscarich. The Raiders were a team which had handed the Hawks one of their two losses in the regular season. A team with talent galore. A team with an insurmountable lead.
But the one thing Lakeland never factored into that District championship game, a game in which Raiders fans were celebrating well before the game was over, was that this Hiland team had been touched by the hand of the basketball gods.
It was a team of destiny.
At least that is what people always talk about when it comes to this State championship team, but to put it like that is to take away from all of the incredible amount of time, energy, blood, sweat and tears this team had dedicated to their community, their school, their head coach and themselves.
This team didn’t luck its way to where it got, it worked for it.
Which brings us back to that fateful District final evening, a night which saw Hiland comes out ice cold, misfiring on 20-of-21 shots to open the game. It also saw Lakeland unable to miss anything.
The result was a 20-3 deficit in the first quarter, and a 20-5 mountain to overcome after one quarter as officially up.
“I remember that we went into the huddle after the first quarter, and Coach was as calm as he has ever been,” said guard Nevin Mishler. “Normally he was yelling and in our faces, but it was all positive. I think he realized that we weren’t going to play like that for four quarters.”
But there was work to be done.
This Lakeland team was comprised of a defense which had earlier in the season limited All-Ohioan Junior Raber to 14 points.
But anyone who knows Raber knows that more than anything, more than his incredible shooting skills and team leadership, the guy known simply as Jr. is a competitor. He simply wasn’t going to allow his team to lose to the Raiders.
“Typical Junior,” said Mishler of his former teammate.
Hiland stormed back. It would take every bit of cunning, work ethic, determination and poise which head coach Perry Reese Jr. had instilled in this team from day one to overcome this mountain of a deficit, but it would happen.
And oh, it would be sweet.
It would be Raber who would lead the charge.
The gangly senior who looked so boyish, yet had the heart of a hired assassin when it came to basketball, began lifting his team out of the gutter.
This season would not end here, not on this night.
Raber poured in 38 points, going 13-of-14 from the free throw line. The Hawks would make an unbelievable 38-of-43 free throws in all. The Mishler twins, Kevin and Nevin, would score 13 and 11 points, respectively. The trio of Kevin Troyer, Jeremy Stangelo and Jason Hummel would each score nine.
“I remember that at the half, Coach had written on the board what he thought the final score would be, and he only missed it by a couple of points,” said Mishler.
Lakeland would limp off the floor stunned, having somehow lost a surefire win by a score of 95-84. It was almost a sure thing, with such a talented team and such a huge lead.
But somehow, somewhere, the dream had turned into a nightmare for the Raiders, and the nightmarish villain for the Raiders wore No. 44.
For Junior Raber, the game still brings back goose bump memories, as he fondly thinks back of ripping the hearts out of the Lakeland team and its faithful.
“I remember Coach Reese staying so calm and positive and the basket finally opening up,” said Raber, thinking back. “I think we outscored them 90 to 65 in three quarters. I do remember going to the basket in the second half and getting fouled as I made the bucket, and I looked over and there was (current Hiland coach) Mark Schlabach almost on the court from the front row of the student section going crazy. I think he was more pumped up than we were.”
Schlabach remembers that game well.’
“I was so mad after that first quarter,” said Schlabach, who would star in a few of Hiland’s games later on that decade. “I just remember that I was so upset with how things were going, and the more we kept coming back, the more fired up I got.”
For Raber, the significance of that game is one which he ranks high in a career full of great memories.
What a great moment,” said Raber. “I can say that was probably the best game I have ever been involved with.”
That is an incredible statement coming from a guy who calmly toed the line at the State tournament with no time left and gave his team a most improbable victory in front of 10,000 people.
For Hummel, a junior that year, the game epitomized what this team was truly all about: Heart.