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’04 State Semifinal a Heartbreaker for Bellaire

Photo by Kristin Mazgaj Pictured is the 2004 Bellaire Big Reds team picture that hangs on the wall just inside the door of the Bellaire High School gymnasium. The 2004 Big Reds advanced to the Division III state semifinals before falling to Versailles in a 68-64, double overtime, game at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus.

It was right there for taking.

On several occasions, actually.

Unfortunately, on Thursday, March 25 of 2004, it just wasn’t meant to be for the Bellaire Big Reds boys basketball team.

Whether it was a little bit better execution here or a made three throw there, the Big Reds simply weren’t able to close the deal.

And the 68-64 double overtime loss to Versailles in the Division III state semifinal is one that still stings.

As he’s had almost 17 full years to reflect on it, then Bellaire head coach Gene Ammirante — a member of the OVAC Hall of Fame and current assistant coach at Wheeling Park — prefers to allow the entire season to outweigh the bitter ending.

“Obviously, as coaches, you work hard and want to win them all, but the games do come and go,” Ammirante said. “Something like (playing in the state semifinals) sticks with you a lot more than the final score.”

Prior to the state semifinals, the tournament trail for the Big Reds had been loaded with stiff competition and nail-biting endings. In the regional final, Chesapeake’s P.J. Rase saw a 15-foot, base-line jumper go around the rim and out to send Bellaire to Columbus.

Prior to that, Bellaire had to post a huge second-half rally behind sophomore standout Nate Davis to take down Ironton in the round of 16.

“Obviously, you look at the state semifinal and things that might have been, but you could go back as far as the district where Mike Fisher blocked a shot against Garaway and then we had to turn Nate loose on Ironton,” Ammirante said. “We could have just as easily lost the first game of the district.”

Those types of wins, however, along with the way the Big Reds were built gave thought that that 2004 team might be one of destiny.

Consider there was Agnew, the 6-10 force in the middle, Davis, who had limitless range and moxy; Mike Fisher, a steady scorer and lock-down defender; Josh Fisher, a tireless on-the-ball defender who thrived on taking away the opponent’s best player; Andrew Bobka a glue guy, blue-collar type who knew his role and the Big Reds had basically all of the pieces.

“It was really a fun group,” Ammirante said.

Agnew, who had signed with Iowa State prior to his senior season, said there wasn’t “a ton of pressure” on the players that season despite the high expectations.

“We had a strong starting five,” Agnew said. “We played Martins Ferry at home and I think I had eight points, but Nate went for like 38 and Mike went for around 30. We had a strong team where everyone could go off for a big game. We all just wanted to win.”

The Big Reds, ironically, didn’t win the OVAC 3A title that season. Oak Glen, which went undefeated, claimed the conference title prior to the start of the on-the-court championships. The Big Reds were okay with that because they built the schedule to be ready for March.

“We lost to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary that season and LeBron (James) was in the stands just one year out of high school,” Ammirante laughed. “We lost to Wheeling Park in triple OT, we lost to Logan Elm, which was really good; and a really solid Upper St. Clair team from the Pittsburgh area. We signed up for those games.”

All of that culminated against Versailles, which came out of the Dayton regional. Ironically, Ammirante dispatched his chief assistants — his son, Jerry, and nephew, J.R. Battista, to Wright State University to scout that game, while Ammirante rode the bus to Athens where his two assistants met up with him.

During that game, one of Versailles key players — Joe Shardo — sustained a serious knee injury, which ruled him out of the state semifinal. However, the Tigers’ cupboard was still from far bare.

“The state of Ohio is like a landmine and you step on the wrong mine at any time, on any given night, it could be a long night, so them playing without (Shardo) didn’t change anything that we thought about them,” Ammirante said.

Ammirante admitted in the days leading up to the state semifinal and pointed again for this piece that he was concerned more about how he would handle coaching on such a big stage at the Schottenstein Center at Ohio State University. He actually wasn’t as nervous about the players, knowing they would just play their games.

“I remember getting off the bus and going into the Schott and into the locker room and the lockers were so big that Aaron could stand in there,” Ammirante said. “I remember thinking if these guys are this loose to stand in lockers, ‘we’ll be alright.'”

The Big Reds demonstrated they’d be alright immediately. Davis drilled a 3-pointer from NBA range to ignite things and eventually Bellaire held a 21-11 lead after one and the margin remained 10 at halftime.

In the third quarter, the momentum started to shift. Versailles — behind Ben Shappie — clawed back to within one at the final break. In the fourth, Versailles was able to get Paul Borchers going, who was able to bring Agnew away from the basket. Borchers hit a few soft jumpers over Agnew en route to finishing with 18 points and 15 rebounds.

Bellaire was unable to ice the game away at the foul line, which is something that still eats at both Ammirante and Agnew.

“If we make one of two free throws (down the stretch), it’s probably over and missed both,” Ammirante recalled. “Sometimes the basketball Gods shine on you and sometimes they shine on other people in those days.”

Agnew shouldered much of that load now almost 17 years later.

“It was one of my worst free-throw shooting games of the season,” Agnew said. “I was 7-of-13 and if I go 9-of-12 or 10-of-12, we move on.”

Still, however, the Big Reds had chances.

“I kept thinking, ‘we’re in control of this game,'” Ammirante said. “We were in control at the end of regulation, had the ball to get the last shot at the end of the first overtime, but sometimes (a funny) bounce of the ball determines it.”

They led the first overtime by three when they again had a chance to ice the game at the line, but came up empty. On the other end, all-state Versailles guard Kyle Gehle, who had struggled mightily throughout the contest, hit a desperation 3-pointer as time expired to send the game to the second OT.

Ammirante elected not to have his team foul on the last possession. He addressed it in the post-game press conference and then again for this story. His answer remained the same.

“It bothers me to allow a team to move the ball down the floor and set them up at the foul line in that situation because I’ve watched umpteen million games and not yet heard something that makes me comfortable (fouling) in that situation,” Ammirante said.

In the second overtime, the Big Reds seemingly ran out of gas. Shappie, who scored a game-high 23 points, netted all seven of the Tigers points in the extra session.

“I’ve never watched the tape of that game,” Angew confessed. “I know there is no way to go back and fix it and it’s going to end with a letdown. I ran into Coach A recently and I told him I hadn’t watched it and he told me he has the tape when I’m ready.”

The Big Reds finished that season with an impressive 22-5 record and won what is still the school’s only regional championship in boys basketball.

“Playing in the state tournament was absolutely huge, but it wasn’t huge for me. It was huge for the kids, the school and the community. That’s who it was about. The excitement that surrounded the whole (season) was something I’ll never forget. Bellaire has such a storied (basketball) tradition and to be able to say ‘we got Bellaire to the state tournament’ is something I won’t ever forget.”

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