Skyvue’s Loss in Championship Still A Tough Pill To Swallow
The year was 1985.
Coming off its first appearance in the Ohio Class A state tournament Skyvue High School returned a nucleus of players — led by Mitch Hannahs — that ended the previous season knowing that they fully belonged in the conversation among the best teams in the state.
But, head coach Mark Huffman, who was entering his fifth season at the helm of his alma mater, cautioned his team that plenty of work remained if it was going to make the trip back to St. John Arena at Ohio State University and play in the state tournament and hopefully advance a couple of steps farther.
“I think the guys were aware of the expectations, but the pressure they put on themselves was greater than any outside pressures,” Huffman, who is now a retired teacher and lives near Zanesville in Dresden and coaches junior high basketball in the Tri-Valley School District, said. “These guys just wanted to go play and beat anyone they played. They honestly didn’t care who the opponent was or where the game was.”
Still, there was a bullseye on the back of a team that captured a ‘Hoosiers’ feeling just a year prior when it advanced to the Final Four before bowing out to Columbus Wehrle, which was led by future Ohio State Buckeye Jerry Francis.
“I think, looking back, the first year (we went to state) definitely had a Cinderella feeling to it because no one was really expecting it,” Huffman said. “We got beat by a school that was becoming known for pulling players in, but we played with them and it was a great learning experience because we realized we were as good as anyone in the state. The feeling of knowing we belonged certainly helped, but we knew a lot of hard work was ahead.”
What it accomplished in the semifinals the year prior was done with a relatively underclassmen led squad. Along with Hannahs, Aaron Kilburn, Brian Leasure and Todd Hilverding were all starters the season prior. Other members of the 84-85 squad included Vince Hogue, Bill Winland, Frank Antill and Mike Hannahs, who was Mitch’s brother.
“Every guy was so important to our success,” Mitch Hannahs said.
During the course of the 1984-85 campaign, the Hawks lost a regular season game at home to Buckeye Trail, but avenged the loss in Old Washington.
“We really played well for the entire season in 1985, but I’m still not sure we ever played as well as we were capable,” Hannahs said.
With an OVAC title under its belt, Skyvue went to work in the postseason. For the second straight season, they took down Hiland in the regional tournament to earn the right to go back to Columbus.
“Honestly, we had this feeling that anything short of winning (the state title) was going to be a disappointment,” Hannahs — a member of the OVAC Hall of Fame — said.
It actually seemed like the Hawks were a team of destiny when you consider they served triple overtime to defeat Hiland and then rallied from double figures down to eliminate Van Buren in the state semifinals.
While Skyvue prevailed against Van Buren, the win came with a cost. During the game, Hilverding suffered what Huffman believed was a broken toe.
However, Hilverding — who was a multi-sport standout and All-Ohioan for the Hawks — refused to get an X-Ray because he feared a doctor would shut him down for the next night’s game.
In the other half of the bracket, Jackson Center did what Skyvue couldn’t in the previous season and upset the giant that was Wehrle.
That set up the showdown for the Class A state title the following night at St. John Arena.
The game was played at Skyvue’s pace and capitalizing on their prior experiences, the Hawks owned a 22-17 lead after one and led, 40-29 at the half.
However, Jackson Center simply wouldn’t go away.
“The second half had an awkward flow,” Hannahs, who is now the head baseball coach at Indiana State University, said. “Jackson Center came out in a box-and-one with a guy chasing me in the second half. I never really felt like we got Into a half-court rhythm in the second half.”
The defensive adjustment worked. Jackson Center was within six at 49-43 after three quarters, setting up for a crazy fourth quarter.
“They really just chipped away,” Hannahs said.
“They got or earned a couple of breaks and we didn’t take advantage of a couple of situations,” Huffman said. “Even with that, we were still in a great position to win the game.”
Hilverding, who finished with 13 points in the game, got a steal and a layup to put Skyvue up nine with just under three minutes to play.
At that point, Huffman was already thinking about his plan to shorten the game.
“I nudged my (assistant) coach and said, ‘when we get the ball back, we’re going into our delay game,'” Huffman said.
However, arguably the play — or call — of the game occurred on the ensuing possession.
Hannahs was whistled for his fifth foul, sending him to the bench.
“I still think that was a cheap call,” Huffman said. “It was a big turning point in the game.”
Ironically, things sort of balanced out because Jackson Center’s All-Ohio leader Tony Meyer fouled out just a few moments after Hannahs with 1:59 to go in regulation, but in the meantime the score had been trimmed to 59-56.
Jackson Center tied the game at 61 with 1:24 to play when center Brian Scoggin scored and was fouled for a three-point play.
Still, however, Skyvue had its chances.
The Hawks couldn’t capitalize. They missed a pair of bonus situations at the line just four seconds apart.
The second front-end miss is what proved to be the undoing.
“We were mixing and meshing pieces,” Hannahs said. “We missed the free throw, but I thought we did a good job of getting back on defense.”
Despite the Hawks being back to guard, junior Jeff Teeters, who had been a jayvee player for much of the season, hit an 8-foot jumper with one second on the clock, giving Jackson Center the lead and the state championship, 63-61.
“Initially, there was just a feeling of disbelief because we had controlled the game from the beginning up until that final shot,” Hannahs said. “Still, 35 years later, I can’t get that damn game out of my mind.”
Huffman admitted that as he stood in front of the Skyvue bench he had a perfect look at Teeters’ shot from the right elbow.
“It looked good as soon as it left his hand,” Huffman said. “You have that fraction of a second where you’re just holding your breath and all of the sudden the ball goes through the net and it hits you that we lost.”
Huffman, who went on to coach several more years at Skyvue before becoming the first coach at Monroe Central after Skyvue and Woodsfield consolidated, called that night in Columbus, “the toughest loss” he ever had.
“I had no words after the game to ease the pain for the players,” Huffman said. “They played so hard and so well. Nothing that could come out of my mouth would have really helped them. We had worked so hard for that. Jackson Center deserved to win, but I think we deserved to win, too.”
Hannahs admitted that he has since watched the tape of the title game. But, it took a while.
“I went several years before I watched that,” Hannahs recalled. “We have still lost each time, so I don’t want to watch it again.”
Huffman, who admitted he didn’t sleep a wink after the game that night, called his players together for a brief team meeting before leaving the hotel the following morning to return to Monroe County. Also the baseball coach, Huffman quickly decided to use the basketball loss as a motivational tool for the diamond Hawks, which included many of the basketball players.
“As badly as we all felt, I went out on a limb,” Huffman recalled. “I told the guys, ‘we can get back here (to Columbus) in a couple of months and play for another state title.”
Ironically, with Hannahs and Hilverding, who got the pitching win in both the state semifinal and final, the Hawks won their state championship. The Hawks defeated Miller City in the semifinal, 9-8, Fort Loramie, 9-2, in the title game to finish 26-2, which ironically, was the same record with which the basketball team finished.
“That (baseball) win erased a little bit of the pain from that March, but I can’t say it erased it all,” Huffman said. “I still think we were the better (basketball) team and should have won the game. I kind of blame myself and wish I had a chance to do it over again and fix a couple of things. It was such a tough loss, it’s always going to be with me, but the baseball state championship definitely helped because I can’t imagine how bad it would have been to lose in the finals again.”