Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University and pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeye baseball team from 1971 through 1974.  He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league league umpire for seven years, working in the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA).  He has written for numerous websites and outdoor publications, and for the past ten years has served as a regular columnist and photo editor for Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press.  Widely knowledgeable on that period of American History, Fulks is a frequent speaker on the Civil War at local roundtables throughout the Midwest. He and wife Mindy have two grown children and live in Covington, Ohio.

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The reigning champs in Division IV boys basketball lost a lot from last year’s title team, but are still winning…thanks to a  combination of coach, community, and “culture”.

New Madison, Ohio  –  I arrived for my appointment with Josh Sagester early…too early.  He was out of the office for lunch.

“He’s usually gone for about an hour,”  said his secretary, smiling broadly.  “There isn’t much to do in New Madison, but if you haven’t had lunch you might go down the street to Schlechty’s.  They have great food.”

Two things.

One, the average high school basketball coach doesn’t have an administrative assistant.  But Josh Sagester isn’t average.  His primary responsibility to the Tri-Village school district is that of district superintendent.  However, some people within the community might argue.  They’ve grown accustomed, and appreciative, of the winning culture of basketball he’s instilled during his twelve-year tenure as head basketball coach.  They proudly wear the mantel of being reigning champs in Ohio Division IV basketball, as remote and off-the-beaten-path as any small-school champion in the 93-year history of the OHSAA championships.

And two, she was right on the money with her suggestion for lunch.  Bob Schlechty serves a great submarine sandwich, as good as you’ll find anywhere, and he’s just as affable as his food is good.  He was more than willing to give personal insight on why high school basketball is so special in his hometown.

“Josh has done a great job,”  he shared, speaking of Sagester.  “And, we have great kids here.  We’ve never had football here until last year, so basketball is what we do.  Everyone enjoys it and everyone looks forward to basketball season.  We enjoy the kids and we always feed them here…all of the kids.  Doesn’t matter what sport it is, we like having them and supporting them.”

If it sounds quaint, and colloquial – too good to be true – that’s fine.  No one in New Madison apologizes for the “Hoosier-like” appreciation for basketball that led to the Tri-Village Patriots’ first-ever state championship last March, an exhilarating, nail-biting win on a last-second shot by Colton Linkous to beat Harvest Prep High School, from suburban Columbus.  Nor should they.  As the popular commercial states, the Bob Schlechtys of the community are very comfortable in their own skin.

And when I finally did sit down with Josh Sagester, right on time and feeling good from lunch, he smiled as he spoke of the irony of small-school basketball that comes with an expectation of winning and turning the next page in life.  The two scoring leaders of last year’s championship may have moved on, Linkous to Cedarville College and Damion Cook to Edison State Junior College, but the Patriots are making their way.  Through the third week of January they have lost but twice, to Northridge High School and Winchester, Indiana, and are again ranked high in the state.

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“Defensively, we’re going to guard you to the best of our abilities and make you do things you don’t want to do.”

“We have moved on.  We have turned the page,”  said Sagester, his office adorned with the mementos of past success – trophies, nets, game balls, and photos…lots of photos!

“We don’t talk a lot about last year.  We have some kids back, like Tyler (point guard Tyler Van Winkle), but we have some who weren’t here and didn’t go through that experience.  We talk about some of the intangibles that that team had.  I show clips of the season, of how Damion and Colton did what they did, do some comparisons of things, but really we’re a different team now and if anything we just try to build off what we’ve done in the past.  There’s no doubt about us being different, but the culture of winning and expectation is the same.

“It’s not that we don’t think about last year, because there’s not a day goes past that I don’t.  How could you?  It puts a smile on your face.  But it’s also a motivating piece.  It’s a learning piece.  We’re the hunted now, the measuring stick of high school basketball, and so far so good.”

The “culture”!  You cannot talk very long with the youthful coach of the Patriots without him invoking the term.  By definition, what he’s built through basketball relates like tongue and groove with the community he serves – his present, his future, reminiscent of his roots.

A diminutive point guard at nearby Brookville High School, he scored 1,800 points during his prep career with aspirations of playing college basketball at the highest level.  He was a “camper”, driven to travel, to compete, and to exhibit his skills to any Division I coach who would show interest.  Ohio University’s Larry Hunter took notice, but he didn’t take Sagester.

“I scored like 41 points in a game that Hunter came to see and afterwards he took me aside and talked to me,”  Sagester remembers.  “He said he liked my game, but he also said I was too small, not strong enough, and told me I was probably the kind of player who’d be successful at Wittenberg.  It crushed me, but it put a chip on my shoulder to go out and prove something.”

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He got his Division I opportunity eventually, at Mercer University, a member of the Southern Conference.  And after a workman-like career at the Macon, Georgia school he came home to coach and landed the Tri-Village job at the ripe old age of 25, taking over for the venerable Lee Falknor, who had known no small measure of success with 250 wins.  The past decade has been, in Sagester’s own words, one learning experience after another…one hurdle after another to clear.

“We’ve learned to prepare every night for everybody we play,”  he shares.  “We’ve learned along the way that it’s a building process, and a mental process.  We got to that first district final, against Houston, and got beat.  We came back the next year and we think we’re ready…and get beat in double overtime.  We come back again, and we think we’re ready, and get beat by Troy Christian in the regional semi-finals.  We come back again to get to the next level, to the state semis, and finally to last year.  It’s just been a constant process of learning how to get over the hump.”

And past bigger opponents!

“When I first got the job we went up to play St. Henry and I don’t think there was a kid on our bench who believed that we could beat a MAC team.  But now the belief of what we do is good enough.  And to me the talent pool is not that far apart at our level of basketball, so it’s a matter of doing the intangibles and having the right mentality.  You have that and it can put you over that hump.”

"Tyler

“Tyler Van Winkle’s just tough.  He’s a winner, a distributor, like a good point guard has to be.  He knows what it takes for us to win.”

The values of his personality are on full display 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Conservative, calculating, efficient…from his close-cropped crew cut to the sweater vests his staff wears on game nights.  He’s kind of ‘old school’, but with appreciation for the present.

“The thing that makes him so good is his approach to teaching the game,”  says one area colleague.  “Josh keeps the game simple and simple for his kids to understand.  They attack on defense and get as many easy shots as they can on offense.”

And those kids trust him now for what he’s learned along the way through observation and implementation.

“I went with my dad (Mick) to the state tournament for years to try and figure out what it takes to win there,”  he concludes.  “And after a while I decided it was to have a 6’4″ kid who was athletic, who could score inside, but also step outside the lane and hit the jump shot.”

When he finally got that advantage with Damion Cook and Colton Linkous, Josh Sagester proved last year that his theory, and other theories, were sound.  Now, ranked second in the latest AP poll, he’s taken on a different group, with a different look, putting those theories on the line in pursuit of the next hump.

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It starts with a talented point guard who’s been there, done that, and like his coach, loves the challenge of competition and of being taken for granted.

“Tyler Van Winkle’s just tough,” says Sagester of his senior leader.  “The kid’s a winner.  I mean, how can you win as many high school basketball games as he has without being a winner?  He doesn’t score a lot, but the other night he had 8 points, 9 assists and 9 rebounds.  He’s a facilitator, a distributor, like a good point guard has to be.  He knows what it takes for us to win.”

He implements his coach’s formula for success.

“We’re not an equal opportunity offense.  Guys who can score are going to shoot the ball.  And defensively we’re going to guard you to the best of our ability and make you do things you don’t want to do.  If we can those two things I think we have an opportunity to win.  We’ve been very good here at playing the percentages, of knowing our roles and accepting our roles.”

And you blend that with a roster of kids that have witnessed, and experienced, the workings of the culture.

“They’re just kids who grew up here, saw what basketball meant to them, and worked to be a part of this,”  says Sagester.  “And I’ve had a few guys who’ve moved in.  I’ll be honest about that, too.  And they’ve helped us keep this ship afloat.  But I’m not going to apologize for that.”

Having turned the page, his toughest challenge now lies ahead in the final month of the season…against Miami East, Bethel, and non-conference Coldwater.

Sagester_inset30123“It is a big test for us,”  he concedes.  “But you emulate those programs because you want to play like them.  We’ll always do that and that’s what I say to my board members and the community.  We’ve won a state title in basketball, but why not other sports, as well?  That’s really what we want to be about at Tri-Village.  We want to compare ourselves to other communities with high expectations, and be like them.”

And without fear, or question, that the inception of football last fall will someday threaten what Sagester’s worked so hard to build.

“Not at all,”  he assures.  “I think football will help make our kids stronger.  I think it’ll help make our kids more aggressive, which will help us in basketball.  And I think football provides an opportunity for that kid who has no other athletic outlet, the opportunity to be part of a team through football.”

It’s all good news for the town, and for the culture of small-school sports.  In the Cross County Conference, a league with a tradition of good basketball and four past state champions, Josh Sagester has no plans for the show to end, a Hickory, from Hoosiers – no plans of resting on his laurels.  He still has that chip;  he’s still willing to prove something.

He relates to the values of small towns.  “I still go back to Brookville to see Friday night football in the Southwest Buckeye League,”  he says happily.

Culture is a good thing.  Bob and Monyca Schlechty will be waiting to feed the kids.

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