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 game was anything but compelling, and as it turned out, not even the best story…as old colleagues and coaching friends squared off (and showed up to watch) as Russia dropped Houston out of the Piqua sectional.

Piqua – It wasn’t a great game, nor was it billed to be.

Houston had only won three times in 22 previous outings during the year; and Russia was 18-5 entering the game with way too much size, firepower and experience. They were the #1 seed. And as it turned out, those who turned out in support of the 3-20 Houston Wildcats did so largely expecting the outcome. The final score, you see, was Russia 80…Houston 44.

Not that it wasn’t competitive for a while, because it was. Russia only led by a point, 14-13, at the end of the first quarter.

And Houston, at the 5:02 mark of the quarter, actually led by 3 points – its only lead of the game.

But there must have been something in the Raiders’ Gatorade between quarters, because they came out shooting, and hitting, from the paint, from the corners, from the top of the key, the wings, beyond the three-point arc…everywhere. And combined with some Houston turnovers it fueled what turned out to be a 16-2 run by Russia, that eventually turned into a 23-5 quarter second quarter, and then a 37-18 halftime margin.

Many would have, or could have, left. But no one did. For beyond the fact of a blowout basketball game the people were there to show support for the respective schools, communities, and for the special coaching bond that symbolized the close relationship between Houston (pronounced How-ston) and Russia (pronounced Roo-shee), Ohio.

It’s about eight miles on the map of Shelby County, but miles don’t matter to Russia coach Spencer Cordonnier, or Houston coach, Brad Francis.

meyer_scal_embedFrancis lives in Russia, taught and coached under then coach Paul Bremigan for nearly twenty years…and actually coached Cordonnier back in the day as a Raider assistant. Cordonnier enjoys telling this story.

“Brad was a math teacher and he tutored me in math,” laughed Cordonnier before Wednesday’s game. “And trust me, I needed it. I wasn’t very good in math. Spent a lot of nights at Brad’s house…and we became good friends, anyway.”

Francis left teaching and coaching five years ago to go into private business, only to hook up with former student and Raider protege’ Eric Rosenbeck last winter as an assistant under Rosenbeck at St. Henry. It sparked the competitive flame in Francis, who suddenly realized how much he had missed coaching. And when the Houston job opened last spring (long time coach John Willoughby had moved on to take the Sidney job), Francis applied for the position, and was hired.

Russia's Drew Poling plows through Houston's Howie Ludwig on his way to the rim in Wednesday's win.

Russia’s Drew Poling plows through Houston’s Howie Ludwig on his way to the rim in Wednesday’s win.

He didn’t inherit a lot talent, size, or experience, but he was enriched by a wonderful legacy of basketball support from the Houston community. Anything that’s good takes time, and Francis and his legion of support vowed to make it work.

If there was anything uncomfortable about going back to coach against his old school, his team, and his friends, Francis should have gotten it out of his system during the regular season. Houston and Russia played twice, and Russia won both games.

But Wednesday was different. It was tournament time, and somehow…reflective. It was the inevitable end to a trying journey for Francis and his kids; and the good people of both Russia, and Houston, turned out to show that on one hand they remembered. On the other…they were there to show their appreciation.

Outside of Lima Central Catholic’s Frank Kill, there is no one more animated, more energized, and more enthusiastic in his sideline demeanor than Brad Francis. He not only competes, he puts heart and soul into the experience for the sake of his kids. He carries a wadded up towel, ala former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian. And in the most stressful or frustrating of moments, he clamps down on that towel, ala “Tark the Shark”.

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And as he spoke to reporters outside his locker room Wednesday, it was evident that 3-20 may have subdued his outward fire for the moment, but the inward flame was still burning.

Sophomore Tristan Freistuhler snapped off a pair of three's and said later, "Our season is not

Houston soph Tristan Freistuhler snapped off a pair of three’s and said later, “Our season won’t be made by wins and losses, but by moving forward and looking to the future.”

“I just told the kids inside that winning is hard,” said Francis. “Whether it’s basketball, football soccer, or any sport, it’s hard to win. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s what competition is all about. Sometimes it’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s about the ‘Jimmies’ and ‘Joes’. We gotta’ go back to work now and get better.”

And for that fact, he’s won the favor and the flavor of his locker room. Sophomore Tristan Freistuhler, the smallest Wildcat in uniform (5’4”), talked about the season, its end, and the experience of playing for Francis.

“I’ve loved every minute of it, of playing for him,” said Freistuhler. “He’s very passionate about basketball and he cares about us. I’ve definitely learned a lot from him because he’s so involved with practices. He loves to see us get after people. Our record isn’t good, but he tells us that our season won’t be made by wins and losses, but by moving forward and looking ahead to the future. I’m very encouraged. I can’t wait for the gym to be open so I can come back this summer and go to work.”

His eyes were red, and Francis was wrung out after a long post-game session with his kids. The emotions of the season, if not the fact of the game, had taken its toll.

“It’s really just another basketball game,” he said. “I appreciate that it’s against Russia, and I know the kids, the coaches, and all the people there, but when the ball goes up you just play. I tried not to think about it…as an outside distraction. I tried to think about my three coaches and my 15 players. In that first quarter we hung with them, but they’re pretty good. But in the other three quarters…there’s a reason they’re a #1 seed.”

Pausing, he succumbed to the moment – the circumstances.

“This has been very gratifying, sure. I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t. It’s fun to coach against Russia, but it’s fun to coach against other teams, too. It’s fun to game plan. It’s just fun to work with the kids. Now I had to tell them we have to get up in the morning and there’ll be no practice tomorrow. I’ll look at my wife and say, ‘It’s over’, just like I do every year. It’s so intense, so intense, so intense…and then it’s over.”

The Russia defense made it tough for Cameron Arnold and the 'Cats to score in the second quarter.

The Russia defense made it tough for Cameron Arnold and the ‘Cats to score in the second quarter.

His old protege’ and math colleague, Spencer Cordonnier, could appreciate the irony of Francis and any inward and outward struggles on Wednesday.

“He’s right about the fact of it being another game,” smiled Cordonnier, who moves on to play Ft. Loramie this weekend for the sectional title. Loramie knocked out Triad in Wednesday’s second game, 51-39.

“Once the ball goes up you just play. You have to. We really stressed to the kids tonight to go out and attack. The last time we played Houston we just stood around against their zone. I told them whether they’re on a drive, or open outside, whatever…just shoot it. Get it up in the air. We average about 35 shots a game, I think, and tonight we had 60.

“But it is very special,” added Cordonnier. “And for Paul’s sake (Paul Bremigan), too, because he’s got so many former players and assistants out there coaching now. It was just neat that Paul and Rosie (Rosenbeck) would come out tonight to support us. It’s VERY special.”

Coach and tutor Francis (right) congratulated Spencer Cordonnier afterwards.

Coach and tutor Francis (right) congratulated Spencer Cordonnier afterwards.

For the fact of the numbers, the Russia kids took Cordonnier’s advice and put up a lot of shots. They connected on 54% of them and had four in double figures – Jack Dapore (15), Daniel Kearns (11), Drew Poling (12), and Hunter Cohee (10). The Raiders were 7 of 19 from behind the arc (37%) and hit 9 of 11 free throws.

To illustrate the point about ‘Jimmies’ and ‘Joes’, Houston finished having shot 10 of 40 from the floor (25%), 6 of 18 from three-point range (33%), and 18 of 31 from the foul line (58%).

They were not deterred. Francis and Tristan Freistuhler left the gym Wednesday with that pledge that coaches and players have to come back better, stronger, and more competitive next season.

Their season was not determined by wins and losses, but rather the realization that winning is hard…like math once was for Spencer Cordonnier, who like Freistuhler, benefited from his time with Brad Francis.

“No need to talk about his math skills,” laughed Francis, as he left Wednesday.

Strange tourney fellows!

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