By Steve Ruman
After serving the Niles McKinley High basketball program for 56 years, War Memorial Gymnasium is on the verge of hosting its final game.
In early April, high school students in Niles will move into a new building, located next to the current high school on Dragon Drive. When the move is complete, the current school — gym included — will be demolished.
The move means the end of an era for one of the area’s oldest gyms, which will hold its finale on Feb. 16 when Niles hosts Howland. To honor the event, “Last Battle In The War” shirts are being sold by the athletic department. Other activities and ceremonies are expected to take place throughout the night of the final game.
Among the activities, fans can take part in a contest in which they will be required to hit a layup, free throw, 3-pointer and half-court shot in a span of 24 seconds. Those who succeed will have an opportunity to win an automobile.
War Memorial Gymnasium hosted its first game on Dec. 14, 1957. Playing in front of 1,500 fans, the Red Dragons defeated Youngstown Rayen, 54-44. The Niles starting five included Willie Moran, Tom DeMont, Jim Miller, John Mitrega and Tony Perrone. Dubbed the “Iron Men Five,” the starters were the only Dragons to see action against the Tigers.
The Dragons at the time were coached by Joe Bassett, who also coached the Niles football team. In fact, Bassett is believed to be the only coach in Ohio high school history to guide both football and basketball teams to an undefeated season in the same calendar year. Bassett accomplished the feat in 1954.
Niles school officials are unsure if the War Memorial Gymnasium name will carry over to the new gym. The facility will hold approximately 800 fans, a much smaller venue than the current gym which can hold in excess of 1,600 spectators.
CALLING IN SICK
Tim King has been a coach at various levels for nearly 40 years. In that span, he has seen his share of games canceled because of inclement weather. Until this week, he had never been part of a postponemen t due to sickness. That changed when his Western Reserve team was forced to scrap its Tuesday game at Wellsville
The Inter Tri-County League contest was called because too many Blue Devil players were out sick with the flu.
Western Reserve has 16 players in its program in grades 9-12. Last week, it played with just nine available bodies against Sebring. The same number of athletes were in practice earlier this week.
“We got the bug early, and it just seemed to linger with some of our players, then it gradually spread,” King said. “It was a tough situation for us, because we have low numbers to start with and we play against some very competitive teams in the Inter Tri-County League.
“It is what it is. We just have to battle through it. As a coach, it’s frustrating, because it will be 20 degrees out and snowing, and I’ll see kids walking outside in t-shirts and shorts.”
The postponed game will be made up on Feb. 16. Beginning Friday, the Devils will play four games in eight days to conclude the regular season. King hopes his team regains its health before the tournament, and in fact offers up a suggestion on how it can gain an upper hand.
“Maybe I’ll have our guys breath all over our opponents the next four games,” King said with a laugh. “If we meet them again in the tournament, they may be down with the flu.”
The Ohio High School Athletic Association 2013 state basketball tournament will take place at Value City Arena in Columbus. The Division II and III semifinals will be played on March 21, with the Division I and II semifinals to follow a day later. On March 23, the state finals will be held with the Division III title game taking place at 10:30 a.m. Title games will follow at 1:30 p.m. (D-II), 4:30 (D-IV) and 8:30 (D-I).
Last year, 126,958 fans attended the 12 state tournament games. It marked the first time in six years there was an increase in attendance at the state level. In 2006, a total of 181,186 fans attended the games before the numbers began to decline.