Rats’ Nest Corners and Other Fantasies

My new book “Pass the Nuts” is now available. Here’s a sample from the book—taken from Chapter 13.

When The Plain Dealer was the biggest newspaper in the state, we had unlimited resources, especially on the high school beat. If we needed more part-time helpers to write games on Friday and Saturday nights, we hired them. I ran into Doug Clarke in a Lakewood bar one night in 1964 and hired him. He later became a sports columnist for The Cleveland Press. We had the space to give every school in our circulation area a headline and at least a paragraph in the Saturday and Sunday papers. That was a policy inherited from Ed Chay, who ran the high school beat from the mid-1950s until 1964.

Our Thursday high school page—a wide-open sheet uncluttered by those annoying ads—offered unlimited possibilities for creativity. We used it for some oddball things now and then. For example, one Thursday I teased cheerleaders for their silly antics, which led to a back-and-forth debate between the cheerleaders and me that went on for two weeks. Was it news? No. Was it fun?

Yes. In those days, nobody accused us of not having fun. I would walk in the building every day with a smile on my face. When the state basketball tournament began, we used that big Thursday page for predictions. Eight members of our staff picked eight different state champions and made an argument for each one. Essentially, they were informative profiles of the top teams in the state, ranging from as far away as Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, all on one page. According to our status as the state’s largest paper, we took a statewide approach to the tournament. If you wanted a serious preview, we gave it to you. But we also had to do it with a different twist. For several years I picked mythical schools, so tiny that no one had ever heard of them. I took some liberties. Although my fictional schools were minuscule, I picked them to beat the biggest schools in the state. No one complained.

Wally Mieskoski, a friend from the old days, insisted that I include some of them. This sampler is for you Wally. I hope you’re right, that others from four decades ago will appreciate the puns.

The Plain Dealer, March 6, 1969

It was by the merest accident I uncovered the only team capable of unseating Columbus East as the state high school basketball champion. I pondered the chances of John Adams and Maple Heights, Euclid and St. Joseph, Lakewood and Berea, but the old crystal ball didn’t react. It went wild, however, over the long shot chances of the Fighting Fieldmice of Rats’ Nest Corners Consolidated Local High School.

You may be unfamiliar with Rats’ Nest Corners and its mystery team with an unbelievable record. The school is just coming off a long suspension for trying to recruit a nine-foot aborigine from Australia some years ago. That episode is a black mark in Rats’ Nest Corners’ history.

As you may have surmised, Rats’ Nest Corners is a moneyed community. It used to be a boomtown in its fur-trapping era. Since the pelts petered out, it has more recently gained a considerable reputation in business and government circles with a thriving moonshine distilling industry.

This year the team did not have to recruit primates because it has reared its own. The five starters are all brothers. The sixth man is their sister, an oddity worth mentioning. They are the only students in the high school. Actually, Rats’ Nest is a Class A school, but chose to enter the big Class AA tourney. This posed a problem for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, but in its wisdom the OHSAA gave permission.

Fieldmice coach Hymie Cohen, a former Italian who was a bigwig in the Mafia before he changed his name, is confident his Fieldmice will spring the surprise of the tourney. The Fieldmice have a lanky front line of 6-11, 6-10 and 6-9. They are the Frickard triplets, Frank, Fred and Fink. Fink is the highest scorer with a 27-point average. Fieldmice fans are wont to chant at appropriate times, “Fink is the King.”

The guards are the Frickard twins, Nick and Mick. Each is only 5-2. A big play is for either Nick or Mick to dribble between the legs of Frank, Fred or Fink and sink a layup. Their sister, who confesses to being somewhat of a tomboy, is called Tom.

Rats’ Nest Corners compiled an 18-0 regular-season record with much of its competition being semi-pro outlaw teams. Its only loss was in a secret scrimmage with the New York Knickerbockers in Scranton, Pa. “We took an early lead but they nibbled away at it and beat us, 120-119,” recalls Fieldmouse coach Cohen.

When asked if East had a chance against Rats’ Nest, one observer replied, “Gnaw.”

When Columbus East coach Bob Hart learned of the Fieldmice entry in the big school tourney, he reportedly declared in agony, “Rats.”

The Plain Dealer, March 4, 1970

A little-known school in southeastern Ohio with the improbable name of Echo Springs Consolidated Local is the surest shot to win the state Class AA basketball championship since Rats’ Nest Corners, our ill-fated pick last year.

(Rats’ Nest, you’ll recall, was declared ineligible at the last minute because it scrimmaged against the New York Knickerbockers and each player lost his amateur standing.)

Echo Springs is only a two-year-old school located along the polluted banks of Carstairs Creek, named after a family of early settlers who were lynched for giving firewater to the Indians of that region. Echo Springs remained a backward community until the roaring twenties, when it became a favorite haven for bootleg truckers, who rested and gassed up on their way from the production centers of Kentucky and Tennessee to the consumer centers in the east. It was then that the community prospered and built a little red schoolhouse.

It fielded its first basketball team last year and Echo Springs went on an 18-game victory binge. Unfortunately, its coach, Jack Daniels, who had recently moved to Echo Springs from Tennessee, wasn’t familiar with the high school rules and neglected to register with the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

Therefore, Echo Springs was ineligible for last year’s tournament, which surely was a shame. “We had a corkin’ good team,” lamented coach Daniels, who is typical of most coaches in that he cries in his beer too much. Led by the Scribner brothers, who averaged 73 points between them, the team has the town of Echo Springs hopped up. As proof, Echo Springs mashed 18 straight foes this year with a smooth blend of offense and defense, pouring points through the bucket at an average of 98 a game and keeping their opponents thoroughly bottled up.

The Scribner boys’ father also is sports editor of the weekly newspaper.

Because he ran their pictures in the paper every week, the townsfolk delighted in referring to the paper, the Echo Springs ECHO, as a Scribner and Sons publication. This brewed resentment, however, with two other families in town, the Simon and Schuster clans, whose sons also are starters on the team.

Thirsty for notoriety and anticipating a state championship, the giddy townsfolk have settled their petty differences and have funneled their efforts toward a common goal (except for the Wetz and Dries, two old German families who have been at each other’s throats for generations). With a year of aging behind it, Echo Springs has the formula to go all the way.

The Plain Dealer, March 4, 1971

A tiny Ohio River town that has been kept a secret from the modern world will explode into the headlines later this month when its high school basketball team wins the state championship.

My pick is Coffin Corners, a mysterious hamlet located near the most southern tip of Ohio between Ironton and Portsmouth. Named because its main industry for more than a century was providing wooden caskets for the legendary family feud between the Hatfields and McCoys across the river in Kentucky, Coffin Corners was once a graveyard for coaches, as well.

Last year, however, a new coach from Transylvania State Teachers College in Lexington, Ky., was imported to instill new life in the team. His name is Frank N. Stein.

“He’s created a monster,” moaned the coach of a rival team that was buried by 59 points.

Stein took a group of dead-end kids and, through his electric personality and personal magnetism, changed them into the most devastating machine in high school cage annals. Following extensive pre-season spadework and hours of experimentation with intricate plays, the Galloping Ghosts, as the team is called, nailed down their conference title and put the lid on a perfect season in which they laid to rest 18 straight foes. Each of the five starters is a deadeye shooter and they have killed every opponent on the boards. Their skeleton key to victory, however, is an adaptation of the box-and-one defense, which Stein calls the “one in a box.”

It was almost the end of the trail for Coffin Corners in its first tournament game, though, when the Ghosts came perilously close to digging their own grave. They committed so many fouls the other team enjoyed a procession to the foul line. They survived a bone-chilling overtime thriller, however, when a lanky center named Bill Lagosi shoveled in a field ghoul in the dying seconds.

“We won’t have a scare like that again,” promised Stein. “After that close call, we’re going to take out revenge on every team we play.”

It looks as though there’s only one thing the other teams can do—say their prayers. Coffin Corners is unbelievably terrifying. That is my grave prediction.

The Plain Dealer, March 9, 1972

Anybody who doesn’t agree that Seville Junction can win the state championship should have his head examined.

Seville Junction is not to be confused with the town of Seville in Medina County or with Saville Estates in Montgomery County. Seville Junction of newfound basketball fame is an obscure little hamlet in southeastern Ohio almost completely surrounded by abandoned strip mines. For lack of work and because of the repugnant sight of the bald landscape, much of the population moved away in recent years. Even the former mayor of Seville retired and is now living in Washington Courthouse.

One of the few who remained is the barber of Seville. A stern disciplinarian, the barber always insisted that his five sons keep their hair closely cropped. He believed that the barber’s sons should set an example for their shaggy-haired classmates. As a result, life has been miserable for the boys—12th grade twins, 11th grade twins and one 10th grader. Their classmates rejected them, especially the girls, who often pointed at them and called them “squares.” The student council president, Dan Druff, even tried to get them suspended from school for having short hair. He came within a whisker of accomplishing the dastardly deed, too. Even at a young age the boys grew accustomed to finding their own diversions, which consisted mainly of shooting baskets in the neighborhood park. They never had trouble getting use of their town’s one court because when they arrived everyone else left. As a result, they became the best basketball players in the school. They refined intricate plays with razor-sharp passing.

The basketball coach, Harry Lax, knew it would be a sticky situation when they came out for basketball practice in November. If he kept the barber’s sons, the other players would quit and that would cause problems with other families. He also knew the only way to save his scalp was to keep the boys. Winless in four seasons, his job hung on a thin strand. He combed his mind for a solution.

Ultimately, the decision was easy. Although he hated to make waves, he believed that the barber’s sons were a lock to win the state title. The five-man crew cut through their regular-season schedule like shears through lamb’s wool. Their only close shave was a hair-raising 70-69 brush with elimination in their sectional finals. In the last second the 10th grader curled behind a zone defense and his shot from the side burned the cords.

Regardless of whether the barber’s sons net the state championship, the self-styled snippets scored a major victory of sorts. As a sign of acceptance, the principal, Ms. Gloria Stineman, shaved off her beard.

Excerpted from the book Pass the Nuts, copyright © Dan Coughlin. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

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