Column: Loving "Love Valpo" Weekend
Seeing old friends was a ray of sunshine in a gloomy winter
I want to start this column with an apology for those who have been frantically refreshing their email looking for stories from the Valparaiso men’s and women’s basketball games this weekend.
I had every intention of filing stories from the Athletics-Recreation Center all weekend long. I attended all three games and conducted postgame press conferences. I sat down at my computer each night - some nights later than others - and gazed at a blank screen while trying to find the words. I just couldn’t bring myself to write the stories and it had nothing to do with the outcome of the games.
Honestly, I was too busy having fun.
For the record - in case you’re not up to speed on what happened this weekend - the women’s team all but erased a 15-point fourth quarter deficit to Indiana State on Friday night before failing to grab a key rebound late, resulting in a 70-65 loss to the Sycamores. The men’s team had the worst start imaginable on Saturday afternoon, trailing 11-0 just 2:42 into the game and then 21-2 several minutes later. Yes, the Beacons went on electric offensive run in the second half, knocking down 11 straight shots, but the crowd was long out of the game by that point and few stuck around to see the 96-78 final. Sunday might have been the toughest loss of all as the women’s team fell 71-68 to 2-20 Evansville after giving up four second chance points in the last two minutes and committing a crucial turnover with 10 seconds left in the game.
I’d been looking forward to this weekend from the moment I first heard Valparaiso was holding an All-Sports Reunion. It was an ambitious plan from Charles Small, who has proved in his two short years as Valpo’s athletic director that no idea isn’t worth exploring if it means bringing some extra juice to his department.
The weekend was going to be centered around three events. The Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Saturday morning, a Letterman Jacket Ceremony in the afternoon and an All-Sports Reunion Afterparty in the evening. It was all part of “Love Valpo” weekend and I loved it.
Look, I’m pushing 44 years old next month and that means I’ve been around this world long enough to know that not all things last forever. I walk into the ARC now and realize that few people have been hanging around that building longer than I have. Todd Ickow, Candy Jessen and Laura Yoder are the only three currently on staff that predate my 1999 arrival to Valpo. We can throw Lubos Barton into that group as well, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Carin Avery, Bob Brooks and Aaron Leavitt have been at Valpo since I came back to the area in 2005. Other than that, I’m one of the old people now. Which means I get weirdly sentimental when I see people come back home.
I know that not everyone shares that sentimentality. I routinely harp on coaches to connect with their alums, but their jobs are often rooted in the present, not the past. If I’ve mentioned this once, I’ve mentioned it a dozen times: I love how Illinois State does it. In the handful of men’s basketball games I’ve attended at Redbird Arena, they always seem to have a former player back. They honor him during the game with a video tribute and the crowd shows their appreciation. The players bring their spouse or kids back and their family members get to experience some glory for a few moments. Maybe the player leaves a donation on the way home, or connects the current coach with a potential recruit, or maybe it’s nothing more than a heartfelt reunion with no agenda.
Homecoming is my favorite weekend of the year at Valparaiso because you never know who is going to roll back into town. That said, Homecoming is generally a football-themed weekend that also focuses on the general alumni population. Other sports typically get lost in the mix, leaving the coaches up to their own devices in terms of planning alumni reunions. For the record, Jim Daugherty was always brilliant at this with his men’s tennis program. Swimming and cross-country have held alumni meets and women’s basketball has always been intentional at inviting alums back.
With that in mind, it wasn’t a surprise when Mary Evans told me that a few former players were going to be in town on Friday. There was a reception during the women’s game on Friday night and alums were invited to attend practice on Saturday to share stories of their careers with the current players.
Friday night was special. Jamie Stangel broadcasts games for Valparaiso and when we’re not fighting about Wisconsin and Notre Dame, we get along pretty well. I had the pleasure of covering Jeanette Gray when she was a coach in the area and I’ve always respected the hell out of her. Seeing those two is always nice, but we all live in the Region. When I saw Kristi and Kathryn walk in the ARC, my eyes lit up. They played at Valpo when I was a student. I got my start in this profession covering their games. It had been years, if not decades, since I’d seen either one of them. We talked and talked throughout the game. Kathryn told us about her love for pickleball and Kristi told us about her love for farming. We shared great stories about Rex Marskamp.
There were more. Tamra (Braun) Petzel and Krystal Taylor showed up, a pair of players from my first years working for the Northwest Indiana Times. There were also some legends from before my time. The incomparable Debbie Bolen and a host of players from the early 90s. Heidi (Diefenthaler) Bernardi, Carrie Forsman, Aimee (Forsman) Parrish, Michelle Russell and Cheryl (Wilbrandt) Leitner to name a few.
Bolen, Gray, Parrish, Petzel, Forsman and Leitner all rank in the top 20 of scoring in program history. Shay Frederick is also on the list and she returned to the ARC on Sunday along with recent grads Maya Dunson and Ilysse Pitts.
The party shifted from the ARC to a local restaurant and two eras of players became one big reunion. Stories were tossed back and forth like a ball in the backcourt and I had a front row seat for all of it. When a playful argument emerged about which team in the 90s averaged more points, I was quick with the answer: both the 1990-91 and 1992-93 squads averaged 91.4 points per game. That answer did nothing to quell the debate as all the players insisted they scored much higher.
The night came to a close - I’m sure the ultra-competitive 90s players would like me to note that they lasted longer at the restaurant than the younger alums. Cheers.
For as many years as I’ve been around Valparaiso athletics, it’s actually been a rarity for me to attend the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. As a reporter for The Times, I was often covering postseason basketball or state swimming championships and rarely was assigned stories on older alums who no longer lived in the area. Regardless, I wasn’t going to miss Saturday.
First off, Jordan Rutkowski was a blast to cover when she was blasting home runs for the softball team from 2008-12. Seeing her back in Valpo, along with a pair of her former teammates in Sara (Strickland) Musashe and Joylyn Ichiyama-Ramian was outstanding.
I’d heard plenty about Ozzie Young and his exploits on the gridiron, namely that he was named the Sports Illustrated National Player of the Week. When I arrived in Valpo in 1999, people still boasted about him. Jon Robisch was a two-sport athlete in baseball and basketball that I’ve read plenty about. Being in the room with those two and hearing their stories was something else.
The highlight for me however was seeing Raitis Grafs. We started at Valpo at the same time and I spent a lot of time with Grafs during my three years in undergrad. Long flights to exotic locations like Hawaii and Arizona. Long bus trips to exotic locations like Macomb, Illinois. I wrote this about Barton when he joined the coaching staff earlier this year, but I grew up with Raitis Grafs. As he grew as a college player, I grew as a college journalist, and interviewing Grafs was a fun challenge. He was (and is) a man of few words and interviewing him for three years made me better at my profession.
I bumped into Grafs and Barton before Saturday’s game and I asked if I could snap this quick picture of them. I posted it to Facebook because I knew there were plenty of my old classmates that would get as much joy seeing them back in the ARC as I did.
The three of us reconnected later in the evening with a group that included former Valparaiso players Tarrance Price and Ivan Vujic. Just a couple of kids from Kansas, Wisconsin, Croatia, Latvia and the Czech Republic sharing stories deep into the night. I’ll treasure the memory of Saturday night for a long, long time.
If you’ll permit me, I want to share two more memories from this weekend. The first is the Letterman Jacket Ceremony that was held on Saturday afternoon. Hat tip to Small and his staff for this one. While so much of this weekend was about the past, it was also about linking that past to the present. With that in mind, the school reinstituted the letter jacket and handed them out to eligible athletes in a ceremony on Saturday. The school put together a touching video that was voiced by former Major League Baseball player/manager and Valpo alum Lloyd McClendon.
The athletes received their jackets and then were invited to go through a handshake line with the recent Hall of Fame inductees. The moment was class all the way around and I’m always a fan when the athletic teams actually embrace the school colors.
Finally, in a weekend of amazing memories, I saved my favorite one for the end of this column. The men’s basketball team is down 21-2 against Belmont and I’m sitting there in disbelief at what I’m seeing. The air is out of the building and there are still 35 minutes left in the game. I want to be anywhere but the ARC. Then out of the corner of my eye I see him.
A handful of Ozzie Young’s former teammates have showed up to celebrate his induction into the Hall of Fame. Among them is Ronnie Sazone. I met Ronnie when I first arrived at Valpo as his playing days were winding down. Tarrance, Ronnie and I were on the same intramural football team. We were damn good too, mostly because they played and I didn’t. Ronnie graduated and stuck around town, later becoming the manager at Industrial Revolution. I’d see him at the restaurant or around town and we always chopped it up. Talked about Valpo. Talked about life.
Ronnie had a major health scare a year and a half ago. The kind that just rips at your soul and you wonder how something so horrific could happen to someone so beloved. A tumor had grown around his spine and broken his vertebrae. He had to have emergency surgery to save his ability to walk and that was just the beginning. It’s been a long road and he’s still on it, but on Saturday, that road brought him back to Valparaiso to celebrate one of his former teammates. Ronnie and I shared a conversation during the game and he told me it was one of his first times out of the house in almost two years, but he wasn’t going to miss it. I choked up as we were talking. I’m crying now as I write this.
Yes, the three games were brutal this weekend and those programs will need to come to grips with how to move forward for the rest of the season, but that’s a story for another time.
Seeing Ronnie back home was what this weekend was all about. Seeing Raitis and Jordan, Kristi and Kathryn, Krystal and Tamra, Tarrance and Vu. Everyone else that came back. When I think of all of them, whether they won or lost a game isn’t what sticks with me. It’s the stories. The laughs. The tears.
I’ve been around this world long enough to know that not all things last forever, but the memories of this weekend surely will.
Hope to see you next year.
(Photos courtesy of Valpo Athletics and me!)