The trend for the past few years has been the emergence of a younger generation of hoopsters. No longer content with the occasional upset, the kids were getting to regional Finals with regularity and had even crashed a couple of Final Fours. It seemed that for one of them to win the whole shebang was not a matter of if, but when.
This year was a little different. To be sure, the youngsters still won their share. But the resurgence of the Old Guard was something to see as a record-tying 36 players contested the first heat. As veterans Jeff Mullet, Roger Taylor, Bill Edwards, Pete Stein and Bryan Collars won game after game over younger opponents, you could almost hear Larry David cackling in the wings. After all the fouls, free throws, technicals, and junk defenses had cleared, Pete Stein was on to the Final Four for the third time in the past three decades.
The March of the Greybeards continued in the second heat, which drew a respectable 26. It was not quite the bracket-busting affair of the first, as three-time champ Marvin Birnbaum used his uncanny knack of drawing a top seed to power through a tough field, including wins over all-time champ Bruce Reiff and a resurgent Jeff Martin. Nicole Reiff saved some face for the youngsters by beating both Mullet and Coleman before bowing out to Jeff.
Heat 3 kept it going with 27 more teams, including appearances from several former champs. The big surprise of the heat, however, was occasional player Ewan McNay—who must have thought he had stumbled into a heat of basketball Britannia—emerging with wins over Bruno Passacatando, Chris Bauch, and defending champion Scott Nerney, before finally falling to Terry Coleman in the regional semis. Terry then pulled out a close game over Bruce Reiff (still without 2016 wood), to once again make the Final Four.
The Friday evening heat, with just 18 present vying for the fourth seat, was smaller than usual, but the games were, if anything, even more hotly contested. The curse of the top seeds was back to normal in this heat, as both Chris Bauch and Roger Taylor fell to the wayside, courtesy of Doug Porterfield and Jeff Finkeldey, respectively. The games ran the gamut from tight defensive struggles, such as a 58-56 squeaker by Roger, to a wild high scoring affair between Carrie Lewis and Jeff Finkeldey, which turned out to be one of the most entertaining games of the past few years. Jeff played a Halfcourt Trap, only to have Carrie void it. Carrie rolled 18 (three sixes) on two consecutive rolls. The two teams’ benches combined for more than 40 points. Jeff’s left guard scored 18…in the first half. The Offensive Specialist card was successfully played twice. Even the cleanup guys were scoring seven or eight points apiece. But there was no way that both sides could keep it up and eventually, Jeff pulled out a victory. In the heat final, Jeff would face Dennis Nicholson, who had edged Terry earlier. At the end of regulation, it appeared that overtime was imminent. Terry was fine with this, as his B defense would be less of a liability in the extra period. Dennis, knowing this, decided to take his timeout and go for the win. His bold decision worked, and he moved on with a wild win over Jeff in the regional final. This marked Mr. Nicholson’s first Final Four appearance since 2001, when he won it all.
As our Dinosaurs of Rock: Final Four tour got on the road, there were several questions to be answered. Could Dennis triumph again, after a decade and a half away from the winner’s circle? Would Marvin continue to scoff at the dreaded Top Seed curse, or would he end up like some player featured on the cover of Madden? Terry, despite his four chanpionships, had not held the title for seven years; would this year be different? And finally, could Pete Stein finally win, after coming so close in 1993 and in 2012?
Stein would answer the call first. His solid win over Marvin caused the loser to comment that, “I don’t know why people say you aren’t that good at this game. You always kick my (behind).” Meanwhile, Terry was wishing he had been able to knock off Dennis in the earlier heat. Everything Terry tried, Dennis had an answer for. He built up a lead, bit by bit, and despite a late comeback by Coleman, Dennis was in control of the game throughout, placing him in his first championship game in more than a decade.
In the Final, the two friends sparred early on, and Pete built a 4-point lead halfway through the first period. Dennis had set up his center with a Super Effort and a +1 card, but Pete countered with a Blocked Shot. The outcome would have given Pete a foul, but also would have wasted the scoring potential of Dennis’ best player, so Dennis took a timeout. After the re-rolls, Dennis outscored Pete at center by 11-6, which seemed like a good outcome at the time. However, it would return to haunt him later as Pete finished the half with a six-point advantage. The strong bench and guard play of the 1960 Ohio State team helped Dennis to narrow the gap to one midway through the first half, and the outcome was very much in doubt—especially since Dennis had his superstar center to fall back on. Again, however, Dennis had already used his timeout, which left him with fewer options as the game clock wound down. Pete was able to get his Zone defense set just in time, and that reduced the effectiveness of Dennis’ front line players. Dennis then countered with his own Zone, but Pete swapped out his Zone for a Box and One before the final resolution. So, any remaining offensive cards Dennis had were rendered useless. Despite the tension inherent in such a close game, Pete stayed patient, until he finally got his own Super Effort card played on the final position. When they finally resolved, with the crowd chanting ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ Pete rolled a 4 on the die, which was just enough to pull out the game, and to earn Pete his first hoops title.
Congratulations to Pete for his terrific win after more than two decades of trying, and to all of the regional finalists. Special thanks to Dennis for his excellent recap of the championship game and his sportsmanship throughout the event.
We’ve had seven different winners in the last nine years which speaks to the balance in this event—and also to how competitive the overall March Madness field has become. Despite the drop in WBC attendance this year (which I am sure will grow over time in the new locale), March Madness actually broke its own attendance record. So, thanks to everyone who played, attended the demo, or stopped by to cheer the competitors on—you make this a treat for me to run every year.
So, we’ll hope to see you again next year, when we expect the young sharpshooters to exact their revenge on the dinosaurs who defied Father Time once more. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can find some more local teams to add to the March Madness pool.