"This is the greatest thing ever. ...Except for the state football championship."
It doesn't get much better than that.
After Norwalk defeated Dayton Thurgood Marshall 72-64 Thursday afternoon in the Div. II state semifinals in Columbus, Trucker fans were looking for more.
(NOTE - To see hundreds of pictures of fans, game action and more, click HERE.)
Jim Spettle, a 1954 NHS graduate, was almost lost for words as he headed out of the Value City Arena following the thrilling win. He's been a Trucker all of his life and he knows times like this don't come around too often.
In fact, the 1974 football title Spettle talked about is the only state championship in school history. He's smart enough to know you have to take .
The Truckers, 28-1, take on the Columbus Bishop Watterson Eagles, 26-2, at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in the state finals.
Watterson, a 56-51 winner of Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in Thursday's second game, is the defending state champion in its only other appearance in the Final Four.
Thursday was Norwalk's first-ever appearance in the 92-year history of the Ohio High School Athletic Association tournament.
But, as Reflector columnist Henry Timman pointed out in a 2008 column and again this week, it wasn't Norwalk's first trip to the big show.
"I believe Norwalk won every game that year and again claimed the NOHS League championship," Timman wrote. "Norwalk went to the state tournament that year, but lost in the playoffs to New Philadelphia. Huron High School won the state championship in 1917. Norwalk returned to the state tournament in 1918, but lost to Akron Central."
"Jim played on that 1917 team," Bob Spettle, Jim's younger brother, said with a laugh.
"He's not far off," Jim responded.
The Truckers had a chance to make a state run in 1995, but lost a heartbreaker to Clyde in the district finals. Clyde went on to win the regional and advance to the Final Four.
Bob's son, Scott, was the starting point guard on that team.
"We had our chance," Bob said. "Scott and Kelly (Smith) were talking and both said 'we should have been there.'
"It takes a good team but also a lot of luck to get down here."
* * *
James Lover, a 1985 NHS graduate, was taking it all in as he stood outside Value City Arena before the game. "This is great for Norwalk," Lover said. "I've seen people I haven't seen for 30 years."
Lover was a standout football player whose career was cut short by a broken leg in the fifth game of his senior season against Upper Sandusky. Lover was one of the many Norwalk athletes who paid his dues over the years when things weren't going well. "This is great for the school," he said.
* * *
Norwalk fans weren't alone on their trip Thursday morning to Columbus. There were a number of Lake Erie Construction workers along I-71 putting up new guardrail. One truck even had a big gold sign with "Go Truckers" in blue letters.
* * *
Norwalk coach Steve Gray's parents surprised him by attending the game. They traveled all the way from Florida to watch the Truckers.
* * *
Norwalk sold 1,634 tickets to Thursday's game and filled most of its end of the arena. It was a different story for Marshall, which had plenty of open seats.
* * *
Spoiled fans? Value City Arena is a beautiful place to watch a game, but with 19,000-plus seats some are a long ways away from the court. That's a contrast to last week's regional games in The Stroh Center on the campus of Bowling Green State University where every fan is close to the action in the 4,200-seat arena.
* * *
Need a ticket? There were plenty of empty seats Thursday morning with 9,226 in attendance, but that didn't keep the scalpers off the corners around the arena. Need a ticket? Want to sell a ticket? People were walking around with fistfuls of tickets trying to wheel-and-deal their way to a couple of bucks.
* * *
Perfect timing: The Norwalk-Thurgood Marshall game got over about noon -- just in time for the fans to rush down to the local taverns to watch The Ohio State University Buckeyes play Dayton in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Things didn't work out so well for the Buckeyes, who dropped a 60-59 heart-breaker to the Flyers. It was the first time the two schools, located about 80 miles apart, have ever met in the NCAA tournament.
* * *
Gas -- Too much.
Three game tickets -- $30.
Parking -- $10.
Program -- $5.
Lunch for three afterwards at White Castle -- $16.48.
Playing for a state basketball championship -- priceless.
Joe Centers is the Reflector managing editor. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.