IT happened 16 years ago today, but James Robertson remembers it like it was yesterday.
Franklin had just made a fadeaway 18-footer to take a 53-51 lead with only a couple of seconds left in the Columbus North Regional final. The host Bull Dogs had one final shot, but Robertson’s desperation heave from beyond mid-court bounced off the front of the rim.
“Everything just stood still for a minute,” Robertson said. “I’m still good friends with some of those (teammates), and they were like ‘I’m kind of glad you didn’t hit that shot.’ I said ‘Why?’ and they said ‘We’d never hear the end of it until we were 90 years old.’”
It may have seemed like it took that long for North to win another sectional title. In reality, it was 16 years until the Bull Dogs broke the drought with a 65-56 win against Bloomington South on Saturday night at Memorial Gym.
Robertson, who moved back to Columbus from Arizona three years ago and now coaches at Taylorsville Elementary, was at Saturday’s game. He recalled the 1996-97 season with fondness.
“We hung out 24/7,” Robertson said. “I’m still best friends with some of the guys on that team. The camaraderie is what really kind of drove that team. For the most part, we all got along.”
That doesn’t mean the season wasn’t without its ups and downs. The Bull Dogs suffered through a 10-game losing streak and went 4-16 in the regular season before downing Columbus East, Hauser and Edinburgh in the sectional and Lawrenceburg in the regional semifinals and falling to Franklin in the regional final.
“It was an interesting season,” Robertson said. “The one thing I remember when we were in high school is, we didn’t have class basketball. You kind of made your own schedule, and it seemed every year North always played the best of the best. It seemed like sectional would always come down to North and East. Our record definitely wasn’t what the boys record is this year (23-1), but we played top teams. Five or six of them were probably ranked in the top 15 that year.”
Robertson was one of four seniors in the starting lineup, joining Bill Kerkhof, Jonah Deaver and Jeremy Londeree. Sophomore Brent Phillips and junior Nick Brandt shared the point guard duties, and junior Matt Chadwick and senior Jamie Behrman also saw extensive action.
“We had some really good kids who were gym rats,” said Joe Preda, who was in his first of four seasons as North’s head coach. “We only won four regular-season games, but we kept getting better and better each week.”
“It was pretty tremendous,” Phillips said. “Being the young one on the team, it was great to see them go out as seniors.”
Phillips, who now lives in Fishers, was at last week’s North-East semifinal. While he thought the crowd for that game was nice, he said it didn’t match the crowds from the 1997 sectional.
“Memorial Gym was absolutely packed,” Phillips said. “That was the last year of one-class basketball. When we played Hauser in the semis, there were people sitting in the stairwells. The place was absolutely jam packed.”
Robertson said North having a complete team this year helped it end its sectional drought.
“When you have a town the size of Columbus, you’re going to have your spurts of great players coming through,” Robertson said. “They have a team this year. The last 10 or 15 years, they had pieces, and they were missing certain pieces to put them over the hump. The nice thing with North this year watching them play, they have all the pieces. It’s nice to see them actually have a complete team.
“Then of course you have class basketball,” he said. “Bloomington North and Bloomington South have been tough teams over the years.”
Aside from 2008, when East Central broke through, Bloomington North and Bloomington South had won each sectional involving the Columbus schools since class basketball was introduced in the 1997-98 season. Bloomington North went to the state finals in 2000, and Bloomington South won state titles in 2009 and 2011.
“I think just a lot of it is luck of the draw and the teams that are in your sectional,” said Preda, now the coach and principal at Decatur Central. “If you look at the history of that Columbus Sectional since it went class, there was probably a top-10 if not two top-10 teams in the state in that sectional 12 of the 16 years. That’s what North and East have both run into. The Bloomington schools have been really strong.”
Phillips agreed that the competition has been tougher in the class basketball era.
“We beat Hauser in the semis and Edinburgh in the final,” Phillips said. “Since then, there was a stretch of about 10 years where both Bloomington schools had high Division I talent. Class basketball, it just took North awhile to catch up. North and East were the top programs in the one class, and with class basketball, they got passed up. With North’s weight room, it looks like North is catching up, but class basketball has stunted both Columbus schools quite a bit.”
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