Doug Noll hadn’t served as the men’s basketball coach for nearly a dozen years, but current Mastodon coach Jon Coffman will quickly tell anyone that asks that Noll, as well as former Fort Wayne coaches Dane Fife and Tony Jasick, each played a role in the most memorable evening in program history earlier this season.
“There are pieces of our program that go back generations,” Coffman said after his team upset No. 3-ranked Indiana at Memorial Coliseum 71-68 in overtime in November.
That win was part of a special 2016 calendar year for Fort Wayne and leads the list of the top sports stories of the year compiled by the sports staff of The News-Sentinel.
Noll was given the task of leading the Mastodons in their transition from NCAA Division II to Division I in 2001, and he – and his players – paid a heavy price.
In that first season, the Mastodons had to play 18 of their 29 games on the road, including 12 of their first 15 games and finished with just seven victories. Those early challenges were built upon through the years by the aforementioned coaches that followed Noll.
“If you’ve ever heard me talk, in any lengthy session,” Coffman said, “I’ve given credit to coach Noll.”
Fife, Jasick and Coffman have been able to enjoy moments that Noll could’ve only dreamed of, and so it was particularly noteworthy that Noll got to experience the historic victory from the Mastodons’ bench.
A pair of guys purchased the opportunity to sit on the Fort Wayne bench for the Indiana game at the Mastodons’ annual fundraising auction, and they selected Noll to sit with them.
The Mastodon players got an up-close experience with the history of their program, but that isn’t anything new, according to Coffman.
Under both Jasick and Coffman, the Fort Wayne student-athletes cite a “creed” prior to each practice and game that was written by Fife during his tenure with the Mastodons.
“There are things like that,” Coffman explained, “that just give history to our program. That is what is so special.”
Following the win over Indiana, former Mastodon players filed into the team locker room to celebrate with the current athletes. Those in attendance included the two most successful players in program history in former Mastodon forwards Joe Reed and Michael Kibiloski.
“It’s great seeing guys come back,” Coffman said.
In addition to the notable victory over the Hoosiers, Fort Wayne won the Summit League regular-season title for the first time in March and that earned the program the opportunity to play in the NIT, which was also a program first.
The Mastodons were selected to win the 2016-17 league title in the preseason by multiple sources and have opened the season with a 10-4 record.
“We’ve won a lot of games in recent years,” Coffman said, “and everybody has had a part of the growth.”
Other top stories from this past year include the following:
Komets legend passes
Longtime WOWO Sports Director and Fort Wayne Komets broadcaster Bob Chase died Thanksgiving morning at Parkview Hospital on Randalia at age 90. As announced in a News-Sentinel story in October, Chase had been battling congestive heart failure for several months.
Perhaps no one in Fort Wayne history did more to promote the city, just as it’s possible no one has ever introduced hockey to more new fans or caused more to love it. Chase’s voice was known to generations across the country and throughout several countries during his 63-year tenure with WOWO radio and the Komets.
Throughout the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Chase’s broadcast on WOWO was the only one throughout the International Hockey League and the only hockey broadcast throughout much of the rest of the country. During the era of six NHL teams, the game he saw was the only one to visualize for many young fans who’d fall asleep listening to their transistor radios hidden under the covers. Today there are millions of hockey fans because Bob Chase introduced their fathers, grandfathers and maybe even great-grandfathers to the game.
“I think Bob’s listeners realize he’s not just broadcasting the game, but he’s a conduit between the fans and the players,” said NBC Feature Producer David Picker while doing a piece on Chase in February. “The fact is that Bob is an incredible part of the game.”
Born Jan. 22, 1926, in Negaunee, Mich., Chase’s actual name was Robert Donald Wallenstein. However, when he came to Fort Wayne in June 1953, WOWO Program Manager Guy Harris thought Wallenstein was too long. He changed his last name to Chase, his wife Murph’s maiden name. Her father, who was blessed with five daughters but no sons, loved it.
Because he served four years in the United States Navy and then spent four years studying at Northern Michigan University, Chase was 27 when he came to Fort Wayne. He started as a co-announcer of Komets games with Ernie Ashley, and then took over sole duties in 1954.
This would have been his 64th season with the Komets. The team added his name to the franchise’s retired honorees banner at his 40th anniversary in 1992, and honored him again for his 50th year in 2002 and his 60th in 2012.
He received countless awards during his career, highlighted by the Lester Patrick Award from USA Hockey and the National Hockey League in 2012 for service to the sport in the United States. That year he was also given a key to the city by Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry and was inducted into the Northern Michigan University Hall of Fame.
Saint Francis finally completes journey
On the game-turning play of the NAIA national championship, University of Saint Francis wide receiver Seth Coate was afraid he was going to drop the ball.
This seems preposterous on the surface. He’s the best receiver on the team and maybe the best in the NAIA. He was wide open, having made a double move that left the safety falling down.
Quarterback Nick Ferrer lofted a beautiful spiral.
“The ball was in the air so long,” Coate said. “I thought, ‘Oh, crap, I’m going to drop this.’ “
He didn’t drop it, of course, and the Saint Francis Cougars finished off a 38-17 win over Baker to take the first national football title in school history on Saturday at Municipal Stadium. Saint Francis had been runner-up three times.
There were a number of moments that could be considered key to the win, starting with the Saint Francis defense forcing a field goal on the opening Baker possession. Jason Nicodemus’ fourth-down run set up the first of Coate’s three touchdown catches. Then there was Cougars linebacker Eric Dunten’s forced fumble, recovered by Lucas Sparks. Then running back Justin Green’s 39-yard touchdown sprint on the next play.
The list is lengthy.
And the reason the Cougars finished 13-1 and holding the trophy has everything to do with the interlocking effect of all those plays.
“People ask me, ‘What makes this team special?’ “ coach Kevin Donley said. “It’s unique people who care about each other, they love each other and they have a passion for the game. It’s really important to them. We had a tremendous commitment from all these guys the last 11 months.”
Sports icon Parker passes away
Eugene Parker, an icon in Fort Wayne sports history, who expanded his reach nationally as an African-American pioneer in the sports representation industry, passed away in April. He had been diagnosed with kidney cancer in November of 2015.
The 60-year-old rose to fame as a sports agent over the past 30-plus years following a standout athletic career of his own at both Concordia Lutheran High School and Purdue University as a basketball player.
“My career-long attorney/agent and lifetime friend, hero, brother and confidant Eugene Parker has gone on to be with the Lord,” NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Deion Sanders posted on Instagram upon his passing.
The 1974 Concordia graduate scored over 1,500 points with the Cadets, including a then-record 45 points in a 70-65 win over Wayne in the 1974 IHSAA sectional at the coliseum. Parker was a two-time honoree by The News-Sentinel as its Allen County Player of the Year and went on to star at Purdue.
While with the Boilermakers, Parker totaled over 1,400 points and finished as the program’s 21st all-time scorer. He was Purdue’s Most Valuable Player during his sophomore season (1975-76) and was selected in the fifth round of the NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs, but after spending a season playing with Athletes in Action, he took a graduate assistant coaching position at Vanderbilt University and began working toward his law degree.
He earned his J.D. from Valparaiso University in 1982 and entered the sports representation business when another Fort Wayne native and Purdue athlete, Roosevelt Barnes, asked for contract advice upon signing with the Detroit Lions.
Morrison the man for Concordia
After all those shots to the body and slams to the turf producing aches and pains that’ll stick around a few days, Concordia Lutheran senior quarterback Peter Morrison barely flinched after leading the Cadets to the IHSAA Class 3A state championship.
His tears flowed afterward, but they weren’t tears of pain.
Morrison unsuccessfully fought back tears during postgame interviews, thinking of his older brother David, of other past teammates whose seasons ended in losses, and of his current teammates. The scoreboard told the basic story: Concordia 56, Lawrenceburg 14. The record book will tell more as Morrison’s name is all over it.
His tears reflected the journey. What a ride it was.
Records will one day be broken. Morrison will forever remember how he felt Saturday.
“It’s all these great guys,” Morrison said. “This team is so great. I loved every single one of them. I had so much fun this year. Football was played at its finest with us, just ‘cause we all loved it. It was amazing.”
Morrison completed 17 of 25 passes for 376 yards and six touchdowns. The six touchdowns are the most in a title game for any class, topping the record of five set by former NFL quarterback Rex Grossman for Bloomington South against Homestead in 1998. Morrison’s passing yards set a Class 3A state game record. His 70-yard pass to Drew Bordner set a 3A state game record.
This past Monday, Morrison was named as The News-Sentinel Player of the Year.
TinCaps are tops nationally
Fort Wayne TinCaps president Mike Nutter paused for a comparison, and then put the franchise’s latest honor in perspective baseball fans can understand.
“It’s the MVP, the Cy Young, it’s that big,” Nutter said Thursday at Parkview Field.
The MVP goes to the most valuable player, the Cy Young to the best pitcher in the major leagues, and the John H. Johnson President’s Award to the best franchise in minor league baseball.
The TinCaps are 2016’s best in a field of 160 minor-league organizations.
“The neat thing is, it’s not just attendance, and we shake out well there,” Nutter said. “It’s not just how nice the ballpark is, and we shake out well there. It’s how are you doing for your region and your community and your downtown? How is your league? They told us we checked all the boxes. We’re pinching ourselves over this.”
The John H. Johnson President’s Award has been awarded every season since 1974. Minor league baseball senior officials select the winner to honor the most “complete” franchise.
Homestead divers shine
The Homestead swimming program has produced success stories for years and years, but 2016 was the year of the diver, as Spartans captured both the IHSAA girl’s and boy’s state championships this past year.
In the girl’s meet, freshman Jackie Brenn came out of the semifinal round with a lead after being third in the prelims and held on throughout her final dives to win the IHSAA championship with a score of 485.45.
Brenn topped Plainfield senior Molly Fears (479.55) and Center Grove senior (470.55). Of the final 16 divers that advanced to the finals, there were only two freshmen, the other being Brenn’s teammate, Mallory Walker.
In the boy’s meet, Spartan senior Kevin Frebel won the state title for the second consecutive year in dominating fashion.
“He just has a gift,” said Indiana International School of Diving instructor Jill Eakright, who has taught Frebel since he was 8 years old. “His body awareness and body type are tailored for diving.”
Frebel, who finished his prep career with back-to-back IHSAA diving state titles, excels by turning mental images of how a dive should look into outstanding results.
“Visualization is a huge part of it, because you have to see yourself doing it,” Frebel said. “Diving is a mental game. You have to trust in yourself and your coach.”
An eighth-place finish at state as a freshman showed Frebel what it would take to win Indiana’s biggest meet.
“I learned state was no joke,” Frebel said. “It was a lot of fun competing against the best, but I found out how much you have to put your mind to it.”
Carroll runs to glory
In both the boy’s and girl’s IHSAA Cross Country State Finals, Carroll showed that it truly has a balanced and elite program for runners.
In the girl’s meet, the Chargers finished runners-up for the second straight year, totaling 113 points to Carmel’s 44. Carmel won for the seventh straight year.
Carroll was led by front-runner sophomore Abby Green who placed second overall to DeKalb’s Tyler Schwartz in 18 minutes, 17 seconds. Also, fellow sophomore Meagan Hathaway was seventh in 18:38.
In the boy’s meet, by placing five runners inside the top 21 individuals, Carroll won the boys cross country state title. The Chargers totaled 71 points to finish ahead of Carmel with 117.
It’s the first time a Fort Wayne team has won the boys state title since North Side in 1968. Concordia Lutheran won a girls state championship in 1983.
Of the Carroll individuals, Cole Powers finished sixth in 16:04, Carter Meyer was ninth in 16:12, Draven Thompson was 17th in 16:25, Dawson Winters was 18th in 16:26 and Connor Goetz was 21st in 16:29. Braden Clements finished 27th in 16:36 and Cory Waldron placed 55th in 16:57.
Second-round surprise for recovering Jaylon Smith
Rod Smith had the first inkling. He saw the number pop up on his younger brother Jaylon Smith ‘s cellphone.
The Dallas Cowboys were on the line.
“I had a feeling,” Rod Smith said. “I had a feeling it could happen. You never know what’s going to happen in the draft. But when I saw the Dallas area code, I knew what time it was.”
It was a time for dreams, and time for a scenario that would be way too corny to make up. Here’s Jaylon Smith, knocked out of the first round (and maybe even the No. 1 overall pick in the draft) by a horrific knee injury on New Year’s Day.
Here’s the NFL call, with the third pick of the second round, coming from the Dallas Cowboys.
Here’s a fantastic twist: Rod Smith is a running back on the Cowboys roster.
Not enough? Here’s another: Their father, Roger Smith, has loved the Cowboys since he was 5 years old.
“It’s amazing. It’s a blessing. It’s the best day I could have,” Roger Smith said.
This is kind of a sideways twist, but it’s pretty incredible, too: The Cowboys once drafted a linebacker named Anthony Spencer, who played at Bishop Luers High School, the same school that produced Jaylon Smith. In fact, Jaylon grew up with Anthony Spencer’s younger brother.
“There’s some good vibes with Fort Wayne and the Dallas Cowboys,” Jaylon Smith said.
Except for that one awful day against the Ohio State Buckeyes, good vibes have followed Jaylon Smith everywhere. He was the Butkus Award winner as the best high school linebacker. He was the Butkus Award winner as the best college linebacker.
He excelled at every level and never got within a sniff of off-field trouble. His high school principal, Mary Keefer, remembers how Jaylon would holler with excitement whenever Jaylon ‘s mother, Sophia Woodson, stopped by the school.
Even in the midst of what most athletes would consider an unfair turn of events, Jaylon never veered from his upbeat approach.
“He’s always been that way,” his mother said. “He knows he has to stay positive. He has to stay focused. ... You have to work at it, but Jaylon has a plan, and he’s true to his plan.”