Vidakovich column: Three unforgettable days in March
“Hey Chav, if we lose, I’m getting on the bus in the morning and going home. There’s no way I’m playing in the consolation bracket.”
Those were my exact words to Rick Chavez as we walked off the floor of the old Auditorium Arena in Denver at halftime of our opening round game of the state basketball tournament on March 8, 1979. We were losing to a very talented Holy Family team by three points, and Chavez, the junior point guard on our team with whom I had grown up with in Glenwood, just shook his head and mumbled something incoherent in my direction.
We had been forced to play in the consolation bracket when I was a sophomore following a narrow loss to Sanford in the first round of the 1977 tournament. The noon tipoff the following day coupled with the heartbreaking defeat on a last-second shot the night before, left us completely unmotivated as we sleepwalked through a lopsided loss to Lewis Palmer and packed our bags for home. To me, the word consolation is a polite way of saying loser, and I wanted no part of it.
We came into the tournament in ’79 with a 20-0 record and one of the favorites to walk away with the big gold ball. Anything less than a championship that year would have been viewed as a complete failure to all of us on the team, not to mention the entire community of Glenwood.
Holy Family, from the Denver Metropolitan League, with three all-state caliber players in Ned Golesh, Tom Dowd and Dan Cooke, were a worthy opponent who got our attention in a big hurry. Entering the second half of play, not only were we on the short end of the scoreboard, but our leading scorer, Kevin Flohr, had three fouls and he would pick up his fourth just minutes into the second half.
Something kicked in with the rest of us when Kevin had to go take a seat next to Coach Chavez. We still had plenty of firepower left on the court, and it was time to put it on display.
To say that we put the Holy Family Tigers heads on a swivel in what proved to be a torrid 16 minutes of high school basketball in that second half would be an understatement. We clamped down on the defensive end and kept running at a breakneck pace, outscoring the Tigers by 24 points on the way to an 85-64 rout. Our center, Scott Bolitho, had put together his best game of the year by scoring 18 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Bolitho kept the opposition honest all year long with his defense in the post. This was no exception against Holy Family.
In Flohr’s absence, junior reserve Troy Holman came off the bench and dropped in 16 points against the Tigers. Holman’s play, as well as the 12 points and several steals from Chavez, catapulted us into the semifinals the following night against Highland-Ault.
We drew the 9:05 late game for Friday night’s semifinal against a Highland-Ault team that we knew we could handle pretty easily. Coach Chavez warned us that the Huskies may try to hold the ball and slow the pace of the game to a crawl. We averaged 81 points a game that year and running the court was our forte, so this cautionary advice was not what any of us wanted to hear.
As it turned out, Coach was correct. Highland, with their 6-foot-9 center Lowell Steuhm, controlled the opening tip and promptly passed the ball out near the half court line and just stood there. We extended our 2-3 zone defense and continued to trap the ball in the high corners to force enough turnovers and speed up the pace of play to ease to a 58-39 win. It was a frustrating style of basketball to have to face and it must not have been very entertaining for anyone to watch, but the mission of getting to the championship game the following night at McNichol’s Sports Arena had been accomplished.
The only sad part is that we would be leaving the downtown Auditorium Arena, an old building steeped in history that had served as a holy cathedral to the boys’ high school state tournament for decades. When they turned out the lights in the balcony at the Arena at the start of the game, it sent chills down your spine. There was no seating on the floor level except for the teams and the media, so when you looked up at the 5,000 some seats, all you could see was faint silhouettes of the people peering down at you. I truly feel bad for the kids now who qualify for state and miss out on the experience of the Arena. A memorable place that I believe is now part of the Buell Theatre.
Saturday’s championship game pitted us against a Denver Christian team who everyone, outside of us and our own large cheering section, expected to win. The Crusaders had a star sophomore named Craig Matthies who had dominated the class 2A headlines all year long. On the Western Slope, all we heard about was Holy Family and Christian for much of that season. We had already eliminated one of them, and we felt confident we could do the same to the other.
We had watched Denver Christian play the first half of their game on Thursday’s opening night and in our eyes, we were clearly the better team. In fact, most of us felt that Matthies the superstar may not even crack our starting lineup.
After our usual slow start, falling behind 28-16 in the first quarter, we shifted gears and ran past the mighty Crusaders and their legendary coach Dick Katte. Bolitho, Flohr and Chavez played their usual solid games, but it was guard Rick Eccher who stole the show that night on the big stage. Eccher clipped Christian for 19 points, many on long-range bombs, as we built a 79-57 lead before giving way to the substitutes in the game’s closing minutes. For his performance, Eccher was named the player of the game and got to be interviewed on KWGN Channel 2, the station that broadcast the game statewide.
There wasn’t a huge celebration in the locker room, because the gold ball that was sitting near the front of the room was something that was totally expected. Hugs came from all around, especially Coach Chavez. I was glad I was part of such a big moment for him. I wasn’t the easiest person to coach in high school and he had put up with a lot of attitude from me along the way, but had still given me a chance and kept the faith that I would do what was expected of me as a team player. I have always been grateful for that.
Following our game, we settled into some seats near the floor and watched the 3A championship game between Boulder and Regis. Yes, we all believed that we could have stayed with either of them. I honestly thought the team that would have given us the most trouble came from the 1A game that was played just before ours. The Merino Rams, under the direction of Ron Vlasin, had won another in a long line of titles and they had a couple of college level players in Craig Kaiser and Gary Kyle that would have presented problems for us.
One thing that still stands out in my mind to this day is a conversation I overheard in the locker room after taking off my Demon jersey for the last time on that March 10 evening. A sportswriter from the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel named Courtney DeBruin asked Coach Chavez if this ’79 version was his best team ever.
“It has to be,” Coach replied without hesitation.
Hey, I agree.
Glenwood Springs native Mike Vidakovich is a freelance sports writer, teacher and youth sports coach. His column appears on occasion in the Post Independent and at PostIndependent.com.
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