Everyone knew Oak Harbor's 1982-83 boys’ basketball team was going to be
special. The veteran coach, Dave Christie, knew it and so did the players.
The success of the 1981-82 team, which finished 21-3 and lost to Swanton 63-60 in the district finals, was the precursor for what was to come.
What those Rockets didn't realize before the start of that 1982-83 season was how they would bring an entire community together and, in essence, become rock stars in Oak Harbor and in gymnasiums throughout the Suburban Lakes League.
"I remember walking into gyms before the jayvee games even started and they were already sold out," recalled Larry Fizer, then a 6-2 senior co-captain. "It was that kind of atmosphere the whole season."
The '82-'83 squad was a selfless bunch of gym rats who'd played together since they were in grade school.
The team consisted of seven seniors, four juniors and two sophomores, including the coach's sons, senior scoring machine Dan Christie and junior point guard Don Christie. Dan would be named the UPI Player of the Year at the end of the season, while Don was a third-team all-state selection.
"It was a great group," Dan Christie said. "It was a very enjoyable mix of junior and senior class. We all grew up together from the third and fourth grade. Don was a year behind me, but both classes had done a lot together through the years. We worked together for a long time with a common goal to win a state championship."
They were 32 minutes from pulling it off.
The road to Columbus
The '82-'83 team returned seniors Fizer, Dan Christie, Dan Wasserman, Doak Pfaff, Bobby Guerrero, Eric Witt and Danny Weirich and included juniors Bill Detzel, Dennis Schiets, Don Christie and Doug St. Clair. They were joined by sophomores Dave Weirich and Mike Thorbahn. Joe Bibb was an assistant coach.
The starters in '82-'83 were Wasserman, Dan and Don Christie, Danny Weirich and Schiets, who at 6-3 was the team's tallest player. Fizer, who started as a junior, was the Rockets' sixth man and saw extensive playing time along with Witt and Detzel.
Oak Harbor didn't have a big team, to say the least. Don Christie and Wasserman both stood 5-8 and Danny Weirich was 5-10. The Rockets' forte was quickness, speed, unselfish play and a full-court defense that thrived on forcing turnovers.
Coach Christie, who was then in his ninth season, said, "We came here and the superintendent let me start a fifth-grade basketball program. We (coaches) saw these kids were going to be quick as fifth-graders, and we had no size at all. We started teaching them man-to-man defense and we started pressing a lot with them. These kids played (together) all the time.
"Dan, at 6-1, jumped center for us. We were very quick and I had three point guards - Dan, Don and Dan Wasserman - and we just controlled tempo. If we got into foul trouble, which we did a lot, we would just hold the ball. We put so much pressure on teams that if they had a big man, they had trouble getting the ball into him."
The offensive catalyst was Dan Christie, who had started since his freshman year and finished his career with 1,876 points to become Oak Harbor's all-time leading scorer.
Don Christie also started as a freshman, and Wasserman was a starter on the junior varsity team as a sophomore. Coach Christie was setting the table for what would occur over the next two seasons.
"We had those kids ready by the time Dan was a junior and Don was a sophomore," said Christie, the 1983 Class AA UPI Coach of the Year. "You could just see, man, we're going to put a hurt on people. Dan's junior year, we had a good year that year. My goal was to get to regionals. The next year, we thought, we had the possibility to get to state.
"They were smart players. I ran things with that ('82-'83) team that I had never run with other teams, and they really handled it well."
The Rockets ended the regular season with a 20-0 record and a No. 2 ranking (behind Columbus Whitehall) in the UPI poll. Columbus Bexley, the team Oak Harbor would face in the Class AA state championship game, was also ranked in the top 10.
The Rockets averaged 76 points a game and allowed 52 points a game. Dan Christie scored 23 points per game while Don Christie and Wasserman, a second-team All-SLL pick, averaged 17 and 10, respectively.
Oak Harbor's tournament run started with a 33-16 win over Lakota in the sectional finals, followed by a 15-point win over rival Port Clinton in the district semis. The Rockets won the district title with a 49-48 nail-biter over Cardinal Stritch.
In the regional semis, Oak Harbor routed Columbus East 66-49 to set up a tough matchup against Lima Central Catholic. The winner would advance to the state semifinals in Columbus.
"Lima was probably the best team we had played to that point," Coach Christie said. "They always had tough teams coming out of there."
St. John’s Arena
Oak Harbor dropped the Thunderbirds 53-50 and would next meet the Wellsville Tigers at Ohio State's St. John Arena. The other state semifinal pitted Columbus Bexley against a talented Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary squad, which was coached by current Scott coach (and former Waite coach) Joe Suboticki.
One of Coach Christie's assistants scouted that game, but he left at halftime figuring SVSM couldn't possibly blow a 20-point lead. Bexley, however, came back and won the game in overtime, 65-58.
"We thought we were going to play St. Vincent-St. Mary," Coach Christie said. "I did not want to play Bexley because they were tall and extremely well-coached. Their frontcourt was 6-6, 6-5, 6-5 and they had two really nice guards."
Oak Harbor struggled at the free throw line but held on to beat Wellsville, 50-48, to improve to 26-0 and set up the matchup against 26-1 Bexley for the state title. The Lions proved to be too strong for the Rockets.
"Their back line just beat us to death underneath," Coach Christie said. "Their guards were so good, we couldn't get them to turn the ball over on our press. That's where we got our points, on defense. The 3-point shot wasn't in yet. We got down 15-2 early and then cut it back to about six points by halftime.
"Don had picked up a staff infection in his elbow at regionals. They drained it and it kind of affected him the second game there. But, it wouldn't have made any difference. We couldn't have beaten Bexley. They double-teamed Dan everywhere. It was a great move on their part, and Don was hurting.
They took him right to the hospital when we got back to Oak Harbor. The next day, Larry Fizer was in the hospital with mono. He hadn't told anybody."
Said Fizer, "I didn't know I had it. I just knew I was real tired."
Bexley used a strong-shooting second half to hand the Rockets a 77-58 loss.
"At halftime I thought we were doing just fine and we could pull this thing off," Dan Christie said. "They got so hot that it wasn't just one guy who hit shots, it was five guys. Midway through the third quarter we thought, this could get bad. But making it that far, for our group, was pretty amazing."
Despite the loss, the Oak Harbor community welcomed the team home with an outpouring of support the players will never forget.
"We decided to stay in Columbus that Saturday night, and the guys were pretty dejected," Coach Christie said. "When we got to Tiffin, I started seeing cars covered with red and green. Don woke up and said, 'What's that?' I said, 'look behind us.' He said, 'Don't those people know we lost?' I said, 'Don, I don't think it makes any difference right now.'
"By the time we got to Fremont, it was getting really big. By the time we got into town, it was miles long. They opened up the high school and the mayor was there. It just lit those boys up. They were so dejected and all those people were there to welcome those boys home. It was amazing."