There were a handful of times in my newspaper career when an event I was covering had just more meaning than it normally would. It was a special moment in time, and I was going to have to find the words that would match the moment.
Huntington North and Marion were meeting in a boys basketball sectional semifinal on a Thursday night in March, 1999. It was clear long before the game started that is had a different feel. There was a huge energy in North Arena that night. The Herald-Press printed a multipage tournament preview every year, so I knew what was on the line that night. A win by the Vikings over the Giants would end more than 30 years of tournament futility for Huntington North against Marion, and I was already thinking about what I would write should the Vikings win. I had let our photographer, Chris Henderson, know that he should stay until the end of the game, because there would be some terrific reaction shots if Huntington North came out on top.
We just had to wait to see how the contest played out.
One of the first things I learned when I came to Huntington was the Huntington North-Marion rivalry. The rivalry in boys basketball was pretty much one-sided, with Marion holding a big edge in the series.
Marion is one of the legendary schools in Indiana basketball history, with a record eight state championships. Huntington North (and before 1969, Huntington High School) had its share of quality teams over the years, and regularly won sectional championships, mostly on its home floor. (All this was before class basketball).
Huntington North had picked up wins at times during the regular season, including a 1983 victory over a third-ranked Marion squad.
The problem for Huntington North came at tournament time, where all those sectional champions had to play in the regional at Marion’s Bill Green Arena. That’s where most Viking seasons ended. In the history of Indiana basketball, Marion has 39 regional titles, while Huntington North has just two.
Fathers, sons, and grandsons had all experienced the high of sectional championships, only to have the season end a week later.
In the mid-1980s, Huntington North had some of its best-ever teams, led by two all-state players in Brian Reeder and Gary Paul. But they had the misfortune of playing at the same time Marion had a pair of All-Americans in Jay Edwards and Lyndon Jones, who led the Giants to three straight state titles and were eventually named co-Indiana Mr. Basketballs.
Huntington schools consolidated in 1969. That season, the new Huntington North won its sectional, but went to Kokomo for the regional, while Marion went to Anderson. Both teams won regional titles and met in the semistate in Fort Wayne. The Giants won that game to start a streak that would last 30 years.
Coming into the 1998-99 season, Huntington North had lost all 11 matchups against the Giants in tournament play.
By that season, class basketball had changed the tournament. Huntington North and Marion were both in Class 4A, the largest-school classification, and were placed in the same sectional, which made it more of a regional-level competition.
Huntington North had been named as a sectional host on a revolving basis. The Vikes had a great team, compiling a 16-5 regular season. HNHS won its sectional opener at North Arena over Fort Wayne South Side, setting up yet another tournament matchup against Marion, which was ranked No. 8 in the state with a 17-4 record.
Eric Foister was in his first season as head coach at Huntington North, and had a strong lineup, led by uber-talented 6-8 sophomore Sean Kline, a flashy senior wing in Rick Hall, and solid senior guards Joel Cotton and Phil Bailey. Kline’s father and Hall’s father had each played basketball for the Vikings, and felt the sting of losing to Marion, which only added to their resolve to end the streak.
Foister, from Blackford County, had grown up knowing the Marion mystique, and was well aware of Vikings’ history against the Giants. All he had done before the game was write “0-11” on the chalkboard in the Viking locker room.
The sectional semifinal had a raucous atmosphere. It was just a Thursday night game, but North Arena was jammed, and student sections for Marion and Huntington North were both rowdy early on.
The game lived up to the hype. Marion held a 32-30 lead at halftime, and the two teams traded leads through the third period before the Vikings edged out to a five-point edge at the end of the quarter. Marion made its charge early in the fourth, taking a one-point lead at 51-50, and it looked like the Giants might keep its perfect tourney record over the Vikes intact.
But Huntington North was able to exorcise its demons and put together a near-perfect final four minutes. They quickly regained the lead and then pulled away to a 72-59 victory.
The students knew what the win meant. Their parents and grandparents had lived through the losses and 30 years of frustration was released. They stormed the court and took it all in.
By the time the game ended, I had my lead. The first four paragraphs were written, capturing the moment.
As in most memorable stories, they are built with the quotes from the people involved. I always wanted the athletes and coaches to give the story depth and emotion. They best can convey that, but I still need to ask them the questions to bring those emotions out. THat’s where knowing the situation and preplanning come into play. I need to know the situation and then have a better idea how to craft the questions.
At times, you can steer your interviewee toward the kind of quote you are looking for by the way you ask the question. Other times, the emotion or the detail just comes out. and you go with it.
For this story, I put quotes from a player, Rick Hall, up front to provide the emotional context. Then I follow with a quote from coach Eric Foister to hammer home the historical significance. Those two quotes absolutely made the story. Then it was just a matter of recapping the critical stretch in the game, backed up with quotes from players and the Marion coach to explain what was happening during that stretch. I also added some more historical context in a postscript notes section.
Chris Henderson got some great game action and some terrific shots in the aftermath. He caught Foister high-fiving his way to the locker room, and we ran it large across the top of the page.
It was a situation where everything fell into place and we met the moment with our coverage. This one also earned me first-place writing awards from Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors and also the Hoosier State Press Association.
Huntington North would go on to beat Fort Wayne Wayne in the sectional final two days later, and won the one-game regional over West Lafayette Harrison a week later, ironically on Marion’s home court. That sent the Vikings to their first semistate since 1969. Huntington North squared off against Merrillville in the opening semifinal at Lafayette, falling the Pirates and ending the year at 20-6.
Sean Kline was the centerpiece of the Huntington North lineup, and he would go on to be an Indiana All-Star and play at Indiana University. Even with Kline in the lineup, the Vikes couldn't match the success of the ’99 season. They fell in the opening game of the 2000 sectional. In 2001, the sectional moved to Bill Green Arena, and the Vikings once again were matched against Marion, which had won its seventh state title the year before. Huntington North ended another streak when they beat the Giants 68-61 on their own floor in the tournament. The Vikes went on to win the sectional title before bowing a week later against McCutcheon in the regional, bringing the Kline era to a close.
My own newspaper career also ended at Bill Green Arena. I had decided to leave the paper in February, 2008, and the last event I covered was the sectional at Marion. Huntington North lost the opener to Jay County. It was also Eric Foister’s last game as coach of the Vikings. We both knew we were moving on, and it was an emotional time for both of us.