It was quite an unusual spring to end the 2016-17 high school sports year.
Returning this weekend after a long vacation in sunny Florida — well, actually it wasn’t so sunny as I took all that rain from the spring regular season around here with me and ended the drought down there — I expected to pontificate about a pretty good spring season.
After all, South Central softball reached the Class A semistate final and had a one-run lead late before falling short against Tri-County, 4-3. There was that satisfying 9-3 victory earlier in the day against Porter County Conference rival Morgan Township.
(By the way, am I the only one who finds it odd and illogical that conference foes can meet at the semistate in the postseason instead of much earlier? This also happened in volleyball back in the fall when Duneland Conference rivals La Porte and Crown Point had to travel all the way to Huntington North to face in a semistate semifinal match.)
It was pretty good for baseball, too, as the Satellites and La Porte won sectional titles, and I haven’t even gotten to track, tennis or golf yet.
But the feel-good smiley rosy cheeks column will have to wait because I have returned to the region with a bit of melancholy as two of my favorite coaches are without a job.
At least that’s what the coach himself told the News-Dispatch on Friday.
The latest La Porte coach to be relieved of his position is boys basketball coach Tom Wells, who informed our sports reporter, Zack Eldridge, that he was notified he will be “recommended for non-renewal” during Monday’s school board meeting.
This comes after a really good campaign for the Slicers — 19-7 overall record (18 regular season wins), double-overtime loss to eventual sectional champ South Bend Adams in the semifinals — and Wells, a 15-year coach at La Porte, being given the dreaded vote of confidence by his immediate boss, athletic director Ed Gilliland, in an evaluation back in April.
Instead, superintendent Mark Francesoni told Wells his contract would not be renewed.
Wells won three sectional titles with the Slicers, including one in 2004 when the team went 21-4 and lost a close game to Valparaiso in the regional final.
He came from Portage, where I first met him while writing for another local newspaper. With the Indians, Wells succeeded despite long odds playing in a tough sectional most years (just like La Porte). The most memorable was 2001 when Portage was just 11-9 in the regular season, but then defeated host Michigan City, Chesterton and South Bend Washington to win a sectional title — beating Washington 81-73 in overtime in the final. The Indians lost a close game to Penn in the regional.
But what I’ve taken away most from my interactions with Wells is that he’s one of the classiest coaches in any sport I’ve covered over 18 years. The first event I covered for the News-Dispatch back in December, 2014, was a Slicers’ road game at Lowell in which they lost a heartbreaker 51-50. Instead of being disgruntled, Wells saw me and was surprised I wasn’t with my former media outlet. We talked a bit about my situation as he was able to be cordial despite the tough loss.
If Wells still wants to coach after 24 years as a head coach (he started at Prairie Heights in 1993 before going to Griffith in 1995, then Portage in 1999), he won’t be without a job for long.
La Porte also lost its longtime softball coach Bob Severs more than a week ago. But Severs, a fellow Green Bay Packers’ fan, went out more on his terms. He started at La Porte as a football coach, and leaves as its most successful softball coach, producing two sectional titles and 10 winning seasons in 12 years.
And like Wells, he’s a classy dude.
“I will always be proud to be a Slicer,” Severs told reporter Michael Raines. “I think this is a great community. I always have, and I always will. It's been fun.”
Gilliland didn’t want to comment on Wells — it’s still an ongoing personnel matter, and I don’t think I’d want to comment on it, either, if I recommended my classy, successful boys basketball coach to stay and it wasn’t happening — but he had nothing but glowing words for Severs.
“I am very appreciative of the contributions of Bob in both football and softball,” he said. “I believe the goal of any coach is to leave their program in a little better shape than when they started and I think Bob accomplished that goal.”
Is that true for Wells? Pretty much. After a very successful run by Joe Otis from 1993 to 2001 (producing six straight winning seasons, five straight sectional titles, two regional crowns and a semistate title in the memorable 1996-97 campaign), Scott Myers became the Slicers’ head coach in 2001, and had just one season with a 10-11 record. Wells came in and had 36 wins in his first two years with that 2004 regional final appearance.
Sure, there have been some ups and downs from a record standpoint, but his last season was the program’s best since 2004 and he’s still going to be gone unless there’s a revolt on Monday night (not that I’m advocating that, but if I’m there, it would be tough for me not to say something out loud).
More important than records, though, is how a coach impacts the kids. One of his former Portage players still has fond memories of Wells.
“I remember looking up to Coach Wells when I was in middle school,” said Buster Battreall, who played one season under Wells before the coach left for La Porte. “He was very involved with the younger kids and I thought that was cool. He moved me up to varsity when I was a freshman; I felt like he really believed in me even when I didn’t think I could play with the older guys.”
It turns out Wells was right about Battreall as he eventually earned all-area status. Wells had that kind of impact on plenty of players at Portage and La Porte over the years, and will likely keep doing that if he chooses to keep coaching after a very disturbing dismissal (or non-renewal, if you prefer).
Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at email@example.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.