July 1, 2016

Mostly cloudy

Boys basketball: Golden Eagles still playing despite school closure

The scene is remarkably familiar to any high school basketball fan.

The pregame music blares. The five cheerleaders sing the national anthem. The lineups for each team are announced. There’s a half-court contest at halftime and a 50-50 raffle shortly thereafter.

Reimer Road Baptist Christian players Jake Hickernell, left, and Josh Albright battle for a rebound during practice. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

Reimer Road Baptist Christian players Jake Hickernell, left, and Josh Albright battle for a rebound during practice. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

Parents and kids alike cheer for the Golden Eagles’ white, green and gold jerseys, and the players are unselfish offensively and aggressive defensively. Their coach, who played collegiately, never argues with the referees certified by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

There’s a catch to this normalcy: The school being represented no longer exists.

Welcome to the world of the Reimer Road Baptist Christian boys basketball team, which readily accepts that pretty much no one knows who it is or what it’s about.

Senior guard Lance Stillings smiled when asked to explain what’s its like playing for a “school” that closed in the summer of 2009. His lightning-quick response oozed with sarcasm.

“I just say I play for a private school,” he quipped.

To understand how the Golden Eagles reached this point, one must start from the beginning.

Located across from the Wal-Mart/Home Depot shopping plaza on the north side of Wadsworth, Reimer Road Baptist Christian School opened in 1977. It was a longtime member of the Ohio Christian Athletic Conference — a non-OHSAA organization that now-defunct Medina First Baptist dominated in the 1990s — and won the 1982 Division II state championship in boys basketball.

The struggling economy and defections to the relatively new Ohio Christian School Athletic Association reduced the once-strong OCAC to four schools — Massillon Christian, Mentor Christian, Faith Christian and Heritage Christian.

Reimer Road Baptist Christian closed nearly five years ago when it did not have the 120 students needed in grades K-12 to simply break even financially. The basketball team went with it.

It was a bitter pill for Stillings to swallow after quickly coming to enjoy his only year — seventh-grade — at Reimer Road after attending Norton City Schools.

“It was a really good atmosphere at the school,” he said. “The teachers were able to be more one on one with the students and the coaches were good. We had smaller teams, mostly, so it was really nice.

“It was really heartbreaking (when the school closed) because I came from public. I got here for one year and they closed it.”

A year passed before an idea was posed: What would it take to restart the athletic program at a level higher than simply CYO?

None of the former Reimer Road parents were kidding themselves. Their children weren’t talented enough to see significant playing time at their public schools — at least on the varsity level — but still had a burning passion to be part of a team.

First was coed soccer — it is no longer offered due to lack of participation — and volleyball. Basketball naturally followed. The school obviously still had a gym, and athletic director/groundskeeper John VanHyning, a 1983 RRBCS graduate, ordered new reversible jerseys for the middle school team shortly before the school closed. Ticket money covers the $120 needed to pay officials.

Rules were then set in place. The players do not have to be members of the church, but must attend at least one function per week to be eligible. A Wednesday bible study qualifies, but most of the players attend church services as well. They also are required to practice and find transportations to games.

It was music to the ears of Stillings, who lost his love for the game after playing two years for Norton High.

“I was pretty excited when they brought it back because I was looking for somewhere I could play basketball my junior year,” he said.

The schedule features bite-sized Christian schools from Niles (Victory Christian), Wilmont (Faith Christian), Millersburg (Gospel Haven Academy) Mogadore and Cleveland. A home-schooled team Geauga County and another called Christian Home Educators Co-Op Family Academy are other opponents. Reimer Road hasn’t played an OHSAA school since the late 1980s.

The Golden Eagles have a 15-man roster, many of them recruited by starting center Drew Newton, the son of RRBC Pastor Jim Newton. Most of them attend Wadsworth City Schools, but three live in Norton and one goes to Highland.

They range from seventh-graders to seniors.

“As a team, you’re more united,” said first-year power forward Josh Albright, who played freshman basketball and football at Wadsworth. “In other (non-school) leagues, everyone is one-on-one. Here, you know what each other is going to do and you get closer to your teammates.”

Heading into last Friday’s game at CHEC Family Academy, the Golden Eagles were 6-2 and averaging 63.4 points. Though they are remarkably balanced — all nine rotation players average at least 3.1 points — slick-dribbling junior point guard Janzen Alleman (13.8 ppg, 15 3-pointers), the athletic Stillings (10.8) and the versatile Albright (10.3) are the top guns.

Unlike 99 percent of the varsity teams in Ohio, Reimer Road will not play for a championship of any kind because it is not a member of a league or even a state athletic association. The players play for the love of the game — something that was tested when they were forced to change coaches early in the season.

A scheduling conflict created the opening, as the initial coach was busy fulfilling his church duties in Massillon. Dan Turner was already in attendance watching his daughter’s boyfriend, Stillings, so the players asked him to step in.

The team then adjusted its schedule so Turner, who works in Wooster, could attend practices and games. The Reimer Road middle school coach in the 1990s preaches balance, quick passing in the paint despite having just one player taller than 6-foot-1 and aggressive man defense.

The entire endeavor has been a pleasant surprise for Turner, a Florida native who played at Palm Beach Community College.

“They’ve been fantastic,” he said. “I’ve known some of them since they were real little. It’s been great to come out here and spend some time with them and teach them the game.

“They’ve actually come quite a ways since I started working with them, so it’s been a joy.”

The team has no intentions of fading into the sunset. The Golden Eagles will “graduate” just two players from this year’s team, and are still trying to regain membership to the OCAC so they can potentially add more banners to the gym.

Titles are secondary, though, because Reimer Road doesn’t scour the hallways of nearby public schools or AAU tournaments in an effort to create a powerhouse.

The message of developing young men in the community prevails above all else.

“These guys really enjoy it,” Turner said. “Some of these guys are on that level where they could be a seventh, eighth or ninth man (at a public school), but this gives them an opportunity to play and get excited about the organized game of basketball.

“We’re also not only teaching kids about basketball, but we’re also getting them in church. We spend a lot of time with them and they’re here on Sunday mornings with our youth pastor, Justin Gruelle. We give them a little more accountability as a person.”

Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.

Albert Grindle About Albert Grindle

Albert Grindle is a sportswriter for the Gazette. He can be reached at 330-721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.