While watching Whitmer defeat Canton Timken for the Division I regional basketball title at the University of Akron last year, the man sitting beside me found out I was from Northwest Ohio.
His first question was, “Where is Pemberville Eastwood?”
Eastwood has a statewide reputation, most likely from its recent success on the gridiron, wrestling mat, and in track and field.
But on February 20, Eastwood is celebrating 50 years of basketball — a sport in which the school has posted a 604-444 record all-time heading into this season.
Over half a century that’s a winning percentage of 57.6 percent, which includes a decade competing against Northern Lakes League schools. Not bad.
A school board member from another Wood County district e-mailed that his daughter and her friends refer to Eastwood as “the evil empire” because of its dominance in the Suburban Lakes League.
In reminiscing about Eastwood basketball with former coach Steve Stoller, former player and current assistant coach Dave Michel, and former player and Pemberville businessman Dennis Henline, the upcoming celebration is not about wins and losses. It is about family.
“It’s all about family and tradition. If Eastwood’s such a bad school district, why do we have a guy go out to college, stay in the school system, and now he’s the head coach?” Henline said.
Dennis was referring to his son, Todd Henline, the current head coach.
“I could never figure out why Todd wanted to do it, but the light bulb is starting to come on. You can mold these kids and you have the best seat in the house,” Dennis says.
This season’s team, which is on the verge of clinching another SLL championship, has five players that are part of father-son combinations that have played for Eastwood.
Todd Henline played on the 1987 team that Stoller considers his best over 22 years at the helm. That makes the word “family” even more in line with Dennis Henline’s philosophy.
“This is 50 years of tradition at Eastwood, and in 50 years, we’ve won over half of our games, but more importantly we have developed a community that is inter-twined in every way,” Dennis says.
Dennis was the sixth man on the 1966-67 team that went undefeated through the regular season and finished 22-1 under Coach Dale Bruning.
“These guys that coached over the years — the Dale Brunings, the (Doyce) ‘Frenchy’ Filieres, the Steve Stollers, the Todd Henlines — it’s not just about dribbling the basketball,” Dennis said.
“Why do we sit in a room like this and reminisce about things that happened 34 years ago? The answer is because that’s the only place where we can pay five bucks, go into that gym, and reminisce about the good ole’ days and hope that your grandson makes the shot. Hope that he’s not afraid to pull the trigger and shoot the ball. It’s awesome.
“A basketball team is like a family. It is so delicate. Everybody’s got to be healthy, has to have the right attitude, and then things click. If your coach has his head in the bucket, it isn’t going to work. It’s such a delicate thing that people don’t understand.
“When some team goes to Columbus, like when (former Macomber player) Jimmy Jackson went there a couple years back — they were good. But it’s still delicate,” the elder Henline continues.
Henline is fan of Stoller’s, too. Stoller won more games (273) than any other coach in Eastwood history. Out of the top 10 teams all-time at Eastwood, Stoller coached five of them.
“We were lucky enough to have a guy like Steve Stoller come along from out of nowhere and spend 22 years of his life here. Todd has to spend unlimited amounts of time, so it’s not just about a 50th reunion about basketball. It’s about families and communities and how strong it makes a community,” Henline said.
Stoller echoes Henline’s words comparing basketball to life’s challenges.
“In my opinion, that’s what has made America,” Stoller said. “Athletics teaches people how to survive and be successful. Get knocked down and get up, make a commitment, discipline, teamwork, and you can go right on down the line. I think for most people that are successful I bet they were involved somewhere in that realm. Not all, but most.”
Every game has a winner and loser, Stoller acknowledges. He says lessons are learned either way.
“Life does, too,” the former Eagle mentor said. “Today, I think our society has lost so much because we’ve become an ‘I’ society. You know, you lose perspective of what it’s all about. To be honest, you have ‘I’s’ out here in the world, and it comes across in our society, but we need to work together as a team. That’s how we’re built — everybody has a job to do — a role to play.
The best thing to being head coach is the relationships, and the teaching and molding people as human beings. That’s the reward,” Stoller added.