Editor’s Note: With the Ohio High School State Boys Basketball Tournament not being played this weekend due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Northwest Signal is taking a look back at the three state championship boys basketball teams from Henry County. Today’s story focuses on the 1981 Napoleon Wildcats.
After losing in the regional finals a year earlier, the Napoleon Wildcats finally broke through to win the 1981 AA state title at St. John Arena on the campus of The Ohio State University.
The Wildcats avenged their loss in the regional finals to Willard the week before, having to rally in the final minutes to secure their place at the state tournament.
“It was a relief to be there,” said Jeff Lauf, who was a senior on the 1981 Napoleon boys basketball team. “Everything was like the cherry on top after we beat Willard. It was like now just go win the darn thing.”
That is exactly what the Wildcats did.
In the Class AA semifinals, Napoleon thrashed Dresden Tri-Valley 61-43. The Wildcats forced 14 turnovers in the first half and led 30-20 at halftime.
Using a deep bench, Napoleon used nine players in the game. Barry Sonnenberg, who was first-team All-Ohio, led the Cats with 20 points in the semifinals, while Tim Badenhop came off the bench to scored 14 and Lauf added 12 points.
In the championship game, defense again paced Napoleon, which defeated New Lebanon Dixie 60-48.
The Wildcats forced 22 turnovers and led 14-4 after the first quarter. They pushed the lead to 32-17 at half and cruised to the school’s only state title in boys basketball.
“Defense ran everything for us,” said Lauf. “It started our offense. Having Big Barry (Sonnenberg) in the middle was such a big deal.
“We practiced some man-to-man, but to be honest it was our pressing zone,” Lauf continued. “People would ask how we could be so good sitting back in a zone. There was never any sitting back, it was always pressing ... at every level.”
“With Barry back there, as a guard, you could gamble more,” said Badenhop. “We weren’t just pressing, we were trying to get the other team to throw an errant pass. You might not get the steal, but you were the one forcing them to throw the bad pass someone else could steal.”
Dave Smith, who was second team All-Ohio that season, led the way with 18 points, while Sonnenberg added 14 points and 16 rebounds. Badenhop again came off the bench to tally 8 points.
“For most of the tournament teams played a box-and-one against me,” said Smith. “They (Dixie) didn’t. I was never the world’s best ball handler, so I was not good at creating my own shot. When they played a regular defense against me, opportunities opened up.”
“We ran a four-guard rotation,” said Badenhop, who scored 22 points at the state tournament. “Two in and two out. You knew you weren’t going to play long, so you went in played hard and got out.
“In the semifinal game the shots were going down for me,” Badenhop continued. “When you can make shots in that kind of atmosphere it’s really special. It’s something you remember.”
The state title culminated a three-year run for Napoleon when the Wildcats won 75 of 78 games. It was also the final game for legendary coach Fred Church, who retired with 425 wins.
“Our senior class, when we were sophomores, got to get a taste for what a state run was like,” said Smith. “As juniors, with Tim Reiser, who we thought was the best player in the state, we really thought we were going to win the state title. It was a devastating loss to Willard.
“Beating Willard and winning the state title was like the ending to a three-year run,” added Smith. “It was very exciting.”
After winning the state title, the Wildcats returned to Napoleon conquering heroes. According to a story in the Toledo Blade, around 15,000 fans welcomed the team home.
Fans lined the streets and packed the grandstand at the Henry County Fairgrounds, where the team was introduced and the players spoke.
“It remember it being mind-blowing,” said Lauf. “Micael Reghi, who was the (radio) announcer at the time, announced us at the fairgrounds. It was the best time.
“It was really neat to see the whole community down in Columbus,” added Lauf. “It was like we kept building momentum and by the time we got to state our Napoleon fans were joined by Henry County fans rooting us on.”
“None of us ever expected to be movie stars or anything like that,” said Badenhop. “This was as close as we were going to get.”