Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University where he pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeyes from 1971 through 1974. He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league umpire for seven seasons, working for the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA). He has written for numerous websites, and for the past fourteen years has served as columnist and photo editor for The Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press, in Lincoln Nebraska. His interests include history, support for amateur baseball, the outdoors, and he has a music degree from Ohio State University.

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The first-year coach of the Piqua Indians led them to a winning season…and visions of a consistent and competitive future.  They hadn’t won seven games in a row since the 20th century.  They have now.

Tipp City, OH – Patience is hardly a virtue when you’re a proud sports community like Piqua, a place that used to pack the old Roosevelt Field House on Fridays and Saturdays to watch Bill Kennon’s Indians win the ‘original’ Miami Valley League in 1968.

That same year they defeated a good Bellefontaine team to win the district tournament at Hobart Arena, and then lost to eventual state champion Chaminade-Julienne at Cincinnati Gardens in the regional semi-finals after losing a double-digit lead in the second half.

Patience is no comfort when you can remember the Dave Zeller-coached teams of the 70s and 80s that won league titles and always seemed to promise more and better the following year.

In Piqua there are people still around who remember those teams, those days, and players like Mark Mathews and Bernard Newman, and the consistency of winning basketball.  That went away when administration let Zeller walk away in the early 90s, and since his departure Piqua basketball has been anything but consistent.

Coaches have come and gone in dizzying succession – Don Hole, Karl Ratermann, Terrill Collier, Russ Sponsel, Marcus Bixler, Heath Butler, Steve Grasso – all believing that they could make it work again.  And there were years when it did work.  Bixler would have back-to-back success for the two years he spent (2005-’06, 2006-’07), but consistency and continuity go hand-in-hand – too many coaches over too many years!

“We’ve got good athletes, and we’ve got kids who want to compete.  But they’ve got to get the fine skills part of it down.  To do that we’ve got to be in the gym.”

So when Athletic Director Chip Hare introduced Brett Kopp last spring as the next in that long line of Piqua basketball coaches, it was acknowledged differently than if he had introduced the successor to Bill Nees.  Nees is an institution at Piqua for his 25-year tenure and sterling record as the school’s football coach.  Kopp…was the next basketball coach.

All of them had had some moments of success.  There were winning seasons, but no winning legacy.  None ever captured the culture of Piqua basketball in the manner of Kennon and Zeller.  None of them ever captured the imagination of the community.  None of them ever stayed, for one reason or another…or made people wish they had.

But Brett Kopp has made a good first impression…one that has some wondering if he might not be on to something.  He led the Indians to a 13-9 record.  But more, he won the predictable games – the games they should have won.  And since losing to 17-4 Milton Union on January 22, he coached the Indians to seven consecutive wins before losing to Troy, 43-38, on Friday night.

What’s the big deal with that?  No one could remember for sure if ANY Piqua coach had won seven consecutive games in the 21st century.  There’s no guarantee that they hadn’t, but given the culture of Piqua basketball during that time it’s worth noting…that no one could remember.  That’s what Kopp inherited when he left Bethel High School last year after six years to take the Piqua job.

“I guess it would be a matter of perception,”  he said Saturday, explaining why the reputation of Piqua being a tough job was appealing to him.  Some people just like a challenge.

“I had a very good conversation with Chip Hare (athletic director).  I had coached against Piqua in the past and knew about the athletes that they have here.  It sounded like they just needed someone to add some discipline to it.  I am by no means Bill Nees, and probably never will be.  But I want to run the basketball program the same way he runs the football program.  We’re going to do things the right way.  We’re going to win eventually, and we’ve had a pretty decent year.  But we’ll win consistently if we do things the right way, and that’s why I took the job.  I’m going to do things the right way.”

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Because of the athletes, they have always had periods of promise and those occasional wins against teams that were unexpected.  But consistency, whether by doing things the right way, or just by playing hard for 32 minutes, has evaded them.  After getting off to a fast start on Saturday against Tipp, they faded in the second half and lost by 22 points.

“We’ve had some games where I thought we played for 32 minutes,”  says Kopp.  “But tonight (speaking of the Tipp loss) I’d say we played for about 19 minutes – a slow start and a spurt in the middle.  But they (the kids) know.  They know that if we can play for 32 minutes we’re going to be pretty tough to beat.”

“I believe that we need a culture of competition with everything we do.  We’ve got good athletes, and we’ve got kids who want to compete.  But we’ve got to be in the gym.”

People who remember the days of Kennon and Zeller call to attention the ‘culture’ of basketball back then;  packed houses and the fact that those two men were the alpha and omega of Piqua basketball.  Their way WAS the way.

“I agree with that,”  adds Kopp.  “But I believe that we need a culture of competition with everything we do.  And this summer will be a huge thing, a step towards us becoming more competitive.  I don’t need to have them for four hours a day.  I need them two days a week for 45 minutes to come in and shoot, and then practice for two other days.  We need to go to shootouts.

“We’ve got good athletes, and we’ve got kids who want to compete.  But they’ve got to get the fine skills part of it down.  To do that we’ve got to be in the gym.”

He was taken by surprise by the seven-game win streak being the longest in the century.

“I didn’t know that,”  he smiled.  “But I do know that 13 wins is the most anyone has had since, I think, 2007 (Marcus Bixler).  And that’s great, and something the kids should be proud of.

“I have high expectations, and we’re going to try and improve on those expectations.”

“But it’s got to be sustained.  And that’s why I was hired.  I’ve got to sustain that.  I know there were people who were shocked that we won 13, but not me.  I have high expectations, and we’re going to continue to try and improve on those expectations.”

Some of this sounds familiar, like days gone by and unfulfilled expectations of the past.  But watch him on the sidelines.  Observe how his kids compete.  Take stock of the talent that’s there.  And consider that no one has ever questioned whether Piqua had athletes – just how to make them a better, more consistent finished product.

“I like where we are,”  he concludes.  “We’ve got athletes, but they need to be willing to work.  We’ve got a good core group of juniors that are going to continue this next year as seniors.  I think they’ll lead the way for the younger guys.”

He’s made a good first impression, and one that can get better with a couple of tournament wins.  They open on the 16th against Tecumseh.  If they win that one there’s a possible match with Sidney. Win that one and you wonder just how much can you accomplish in just one year.  Kopp puts no limits on anything.  He’s not asking for patience.

His expectations are very high!

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