It’s a 25-minute walk from my house to North Side Gym, the 7th-largest high school arena in the country. At the time of its construction in 1954, North Side seated 8200 spectators and was the largest in the country. Now 7373 can squeeze in, though it’s been many years since the place sold out for a high school game.
Both Elkhart Central and Elkhart Memorial’s varsity teams call the gym home. The old Elkhart High School split in 1972, one year after running all the way to the state finals, where they fell 70-60 to East Chicago Washington. In recent years Memorial has had the better of Central, winning two sectional titles in four years. They advanced to semi-state last season, finishing 24-2, while Central’s Blue Blazers slumped to a 5-18 season, bumped in the first round of the Elkhart Sectional.
In the mid-to-late 90s, however, Elkhart Central ruled Elkhart County hoops, hearkening back to the Elkhart High School glory days, when the unified school won 11 sectional titles, eight regionals and three semi-states between 1954-1972. From 1994-1999 Central won four sectionals, three regionals and two semi-states, spanning Indiana’s transition to a four-class system in the 1997-1998 season.
On Friday night my wife and I dined on home-made spaghetti and a glass of milk, looking out over the frozen Elkhart River from our glass kitchen table. We’ve just moved in too 206 Marine Avenue, house-sitters for three months in this spacious two-story house near downtown.
Several thousand miles removed from our previous home in Moscow and furnished with living space five times that of our 1-bedroom apartment in the Russian capital, I still get just as many butterflies before a sporting event as I did then. In Moscow we took the metro around the city to basketball and football games hosted in arenas ranging in size from BC Khimki’s cozy 6000-seat Sports Complex Novator to Russia’s central football stadium, the 76,000-seat Luzhniki Arena. Now it’s just a chilly walk north across the Johnson St. Bridge, west on Beardsley, north again on Cassopolis St. past train tracks and the lumber yard, until the solid brick rectangle of North Side Gym, fronted by a futuristic iron facade, appears a few hundred yards west on Lawrence Street.
When we arrive at twenty till 6, the gym is almost empty. The Central Blue Blazers and South Bend Adams Eagles girls varsity teams warm up on the original 1954 floor, the first in a girls/boys varsity doubleheader. Of the 7000-plus available seats, maybe half are blocked off, the lower bowl and upper bowl bleachers facing the scorers’ table still open.
Nikki and I settle into our seats two rows behind Central’s bench. There are close to 100 people in the gym at tip-off, including the Central boys varsity team, relaxing in dress shirts, slacks, and ties behind the basket nearest us. Blazers coach Will Coatie gathers his girls together one last time after introductions and runs down their defensive assignments. Central’s leading scorer, Tia Garnett, doesn’t start the game, but will ultimately have a game-high 14 points.
The Eagles, though not any taller, score most of their early points via offensive rebounds. They’re stronger and quicker to the ball, which helps them grab easy buckets. The Blazers, meanwhile, can’t sniff an open shot as Adams covers them up on the perimeter and swarms anyone with the ball down low. It’s 12-4 Eagles through one period. During the break, Coach Coatie emphasizes toughness.
In the second, the visitors quickly race out to a 17-5 lead. Coatie understands his team’s difficulty creating baskets and stresses that the team has to rebound and push the ball up the floor every time. Soon after, Madison Vaught, a 6-0 junior forward, gets trapped bringing the ball up by herself after all of her teammates take off for the fast break. The Central bench gets their attention, though, and the Blazers avoid a turnover. Soon after Garnett rips off six straight, pulling her team back within six, 17-11, but the half ends poorly, 23-11 Eagles.
By halftime the lower side of our gym is filling up, perhaps 220 folks in all as attendance builds for the boys game. When the second half starts, Will Coatie preaches energy. The band starts setting up in the area where the boys varsity was seated.
The girls come out hot, closing within six points again, 23-17. The subs on the bench and the junior varsity seated next to us in street clothes keep up steady support, though the rest of the gym is largely silent. If the crowd was going to get loud, however, they missed their chance. After failing to score in the first 3 minutes of the half, the Adams Eagles surge to a 33-20 lead by the end of the quarter. The home team enjoys their best quarter, but can’t cut the deficit, 10-9 in favor of the visitors.
The Eagles keep pulling away to start the fourth, scoring seven unanwered. Coach Coatie paces the sideline, telling his bench and the girls on the floor during timeouts: “Play the game. Don’t play to score. Scoring ain’t going to help us.”
Unfortunately, Central has nothing left on offense and staggers through their worst period of the game, 14-5 in favor of Adams, 47-25 overall. The coaches and team manager pick up the paper cups and trash left under the bench then head to the locker room after their team. Central falls to 2-15 (0-5 in NIC); Adams improves to 9-7 (3-2 in NIC).
Then the boys teams come out. The band’s all here now, pumping away on the Central alma mater as the Blue Blazer cheerleaders circle the court. The Central boys are in blue-and-white pinstripe sweats with white tops, while Adams is decked out in red, white, and blue. After the alma mater, the tune fast forwards a few generations to Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite.”
By tip-off there are roughly 500 spread throughout the gym. A few spectators settle in the top row of the bleachers opposite us, far above the American flags suspended in a square above mid-court. We stand for the national anthem; Central senior J.J. Stahl appears to be singing along softly. The lineups are announced next and the Blue Blazers put juniors Genoris Crawford, Tre Taylor and seniors Terell Street, Blake Brouwer, and J.J. Stahl on the floor first. Brouwer and Stahl are 6-6 and 6-5 respectively; Adams doesn’t have anyone taller than 6-3 senior A.J. Glick.
Stahl once again has my attention with several athletic rebounds. He’s an easy favorite only five minutes into my first Central game. A few moments later he brings most of the crowd to their feet with a phenomenal sequence. It begins with a vicious block; going the other way on the break, Central misses the lay-up, but Stahl, trailing, rises through the paint, gathers the ball off the rim and throws down a one-handed slam. Adams flies the other way and Stahl just misses another block, shaking the backboard instead with a heavy slap on the glass.
The Blazers lead early 10-6, but three early turnovers are troubling. A couple more plague the end of the first period and Elkhart’s lead drops to two, 12-10. In the beginning of the second quarter the wheels fall off: The hosts commit three quick turnovers, dooming their offense, while the Eagles rips off eight straight in just a minute and a half. The gym goes silent and the stress is clear on the Central players’ faces. They’ve lost five straight by a combined 15 points and the senior-laden squad does not want a repeat of last season’s 5-18 fiasco, not after all the hard work they’ve put in.
As if on cue, Stahl, Street, and Brouwer help pull the team within one, 22-21. The crowd is plenty loud again, but the Eagles control the rest of the quarter, leading 28-23 at halftime. Adams isn’t shooting well from beyond the arc, but a horrific 13 Central turnovers in the half have kept them on the defensive.
At halftime, fans have the chance to shoot 3-pointers for a buck a piece. A make wins you a 2-liter of pop. Pretty poor entertainment and a minimal payoff, but dozens line up and are still shooting when the teams come back out 10 minutes later.
Terell Street, Central’s senior leader and top scorer, has had a bad game so far. Though he scored a handful, he was the main culprit in the team’s 13 turnovers and will feel pressure to step up in the second half. The team also lacks any outside shooting, Brouwer the only one to connect yet. They’ll need to take care of the ball and stop Adams on the break to win the ball game.
Midway through the third, the Adams faithful get riled up by a series of fouls called against their boys. The Blazers draw within one, 36-35. For the next 10 minutes, neither team grabs more than a 3-point lead, and exchange two ties and six lead changes. The pace is frenetic and both Nikki and I remark later just how worn out the game made us feel. The climax comes with under three minutes left in the game. Terell Street is called for a charge, causing Blazers coach Troy Noble to go ballistic. He nearly earns a technical, but settles for peeling off his suit coat. His team trails 49-48. Adams senior Joe Beard drives to the basket and gets fouled on the next possessions, making 3 of 4, for a four-point lead.
Central’s doom appears at hand. Stahl, on the bench most of the fourth quarter, yells out “Hey, keep playing hard, White!” The team does, pulling within 53-50 with 1:16 to play, but Adams wears the clock down and makes free throws the rest of the way. The final score: Adams 58, Central 52. The Eagles are now 8-1 (3-0 in NIC), the Blazers 2-6 (0-2 in NIC).
It’s a cold walk home, but relaxing after the intensity emanating from the Central coaches all evening. In the break between the third and fourth quarters, Coach Noble squatted next to his assistant for a few minutes, just catching his breath, before he could chip in. It should be an exciting two months at North Side Gym.