THE LAST WORD: Leo’s undefeated regular season 25 years ago is a special memory

Kerry Hubartt

It was 25 years ago Feb. 28 when I attended Leo High School’s final regular-season boys basketball game at Southern Wells in my capacity as sports editor of The News-Sentinel.

I went to the game for two reasons — my senior son Nathan was a member of the Leo team, and I was covering the game because the Lions were on the verge of the school’s first undefeated regular season since 1945.

It made for a good story in the following Monday’s newspaper, because of some third-quarter drama in the Saturday night game in the domed gym in the middle of Wells County farmland that had begun like another runaway for Leo’s 20-0 Lions.

As I wrote in that game story, “Suddenly the cheering and excitement swept across the Southern Wells High School gym floor to the side of the home crowd. Hundreds of Leo fans in purple and white in the visitors’ bleachers stood hushed, many nervously looking at one another with eyebrows raised, biting their lower lips.

“Was this the end? Would little Southern Wells trip the Lions on the last step in their march to an undefeated record?”

Leo was playing for its 21st victory without a loss and the Allen County Athletic Conference championship against the Raiders. But in the third quarter, they suddenly found themselves trailing the home team.

Yet, the Lions rallied with a 22-2 fourth quarter for a 71-49 victory. That made Leo the first Allen County high school basketball team to finish a regular season without a loss since Monroeville did it in 1949.

The Lions averaged more than 76 points per game, including a 100-point effort against Heritage that season. The defense held opponents to a little more than 51 per game.

The 1993-94 Leo team, ranked 11th in the state, then began its much-anticipated IHSAA tournament trek on March 3 in the New Haven Sectional against Blackhawk Christian, and then beat Harding to win the title. But hopes for a deep run through the state tournament ended in the first round of the Fort Wayne Regional at the Memorial Coliseum, when the Lions lost to the Barons, a team (led by Indiana Hoosier-to-be Luke Recker) that Leo had beaten by 19 in the regular season.

Leo ended the year 23-1.

But finishing the regular season undefeated was a monumental feat, and a special joy for me because my son and the friends he had grown up with were on the team; also because I had played for Leo when I was in high school.

After that game at Southern Wells, Leo Coach Richard Butt said, ”We’ve had some games that were close going into the fourth quarter.” And that’s the time, he said, “these kids have had the ability to take it up another notch.” He said his team’s maturity made the difference. There were six seniors on the team, and four of them were starters.

The leading player on the team was 6-6 senior Jon Neuhouser, who went on to star at Butler University. He was named News-Sentinel Allen County Player of the Year, and ended his career as Leo’s all-time leading scorer. He averaged 22.7 points and 11.7 rebounds a game that senior season, and became the first player from his school to play for the Indiana All-Star boys basketball team in the annual series with Kentucky.

While he was the anchor of that Leo team in 1993-94, he had help from his fellow starters, 6-3 forward Mark Adams (18.5 points per game) and a three-guard perimeter of 5-11 Ryan Roth, 5-10 Andy Bollier (junior) and 5-11 Cary Cogdell, who is the current Leo varsity coach.

Other players included my son Nathan, senior Jeff Getz, juniors Jeremy Helmuth, Jason Testin, Ryan Minniear and Ryan Clark and sophomore Barak Coolman.

After losing to DeKalb in the regional, Neuhouser reflected on the aura of that special season: “Just the way the whole season was going,” he said, “it was like we planned it. It was like a dream — the perfect season.”

And while it wasn’t perfect to the very end, a perfect regular season was an achievement that should not be forgotten. And a quarter century later, for me, Coach Butt and the team, at least, it hasn’t been.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.