By TED RADICK
NEW RIEGEL — Steve Lucius wasn’t sure what to think when he took over the New Riegel girls basketball program in 1985.
The Blue Jackets were coming off an 0-21 season.
Included in that campaign were two losses to Bettsville — the second win over New Riegel being the last game the Bobcats won before a 130-game losing streak that lasted more than six calendar years.
“In their defense, they were a really young group,” Lucius said. “They were all freshmen and sophomores playing a varsity schedule. They were some talented kids, hardworking kids and it was an ideal situation to get into.”
Fast forward to 2013, and the New Riegel job is still an ideal situation for Lucius.
Thursday, with a 52-9 victory over Old Fort, the Blue Jackets’ mentor won his 500th career game. New Riegel finished the regular season with a 17-5 record, bringing Lucius’ career mark to 500-136.
Lucius laughed when he thought about the beginning of his varsity coaching career. He’d coached boys at the freshman and junior varsity level, then had taken a couple years off.
“I was looking to get back into coaching and the guys coach at that time (Rick DeMoss) said, ‘Why don’t you take over the girls program?’ I said, ‘Really?’
“One of the girls, that first year, had a conflict with our first Bettsville game. She said, ‘But coach, it’s just Bettsville.’ And I said, ‘Yes, Bettsville, who beat you twice last year. Did you forget that?’
“We still hadn’t won a game yet. We had lost our first game so we had a losing streak of our own. But, we won that one and we’ve been moving on ever since.”
That 74-51 victory over Bettsville was win No. 1. By the end of his first season, Lucius had flipped that 0-21 team into a squad that won a share of the initial Midland Athletic League title.
Lucius and St. Wendelin’s Mike Lee shared MAL Coach of the Year honors.
“We had success right away, and I think that helped the girls right off the bat,” Lucius said. “You know, ‘Yes, we can be successful.’”
That sucess has continued for the Blue Jackets, who improved to 17-2 with the victory over Tiffin Calvert and are currently ranked 13th in the Associated Press Division IV girls basketball poll.
Lucius has his theories on how a small village like New Riegel can produce a winning team year after year.
“We have great volunteers at the younger levels, we’ve had great stability at the junior high level and, you’re right, they’ve really done a great job of getting kids ready to play for us,” he said. “Our JV coach, Michelle (Yeakle), I think this is her 26th year.
“We’ve had a lot of good assistants and volunteer help, and as you know that makes a great program. We’ve had great help from the parents, too, making sure our girls get the work in during the summer and that they work on their skills.”
It’s a family affair in New Riegel.
“A lot of our kids are daughters of ex-players, both from the past guys and girls teams, and that never hurts, either,” Lucius said.
“It’s a really high participation sport here. We might have, some years, close to 50 kids playing basketball, both boys and girls at the high school, which is more than a third of our student body.”
The girls game has improved by leaps and bounds during the course of Lucius’ career, and he said that has helped his players improve over the years as well.
“Back then, there weren’t nearly as many good players and not nearly as many good teams stocked with good players,” he said.
“Kids now put so much more time into it in the offseason. You used to have several breathers every year, now you don’t have that. Look at the MAL, look at the (Blanchard Valley Conference). There’s just so many good programs these days.
“I think a lot of schools maybe didn’t put as much emphasis on a girls program as they do now.”
The improvement in the level of play has made Lucius raise his game as well in the coaching box.
“I feel like you learn so much every season you’re involved in,” he said. “I think I know more about the game of basketball now than I did five years ago, let alone 10. You keep learning and getting better, I hope.
“When you’re around a young person’s game, you don’t feel old. It keeps you young. At least, I hope so.”
Lucius, 60, said he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“As long as it’s fun, I’m going to keep on doing it,” he said.
Even as he is, at this point, one of the old war horses among area coaches.
Among area girls coaches, Arcadia’s Randy Baker has a couple more years in and Leipsic’s Gary Kreinbrink also started in the 1985-86 season.
“If you notice, the programs that are really doing well, there’s some stabilization there,” Lucius said.
“There’s some guys and gals who have been doing it for a while. The kids know the system. I’m thinking people like Amy Sheldon at Wynford and Dave Klemen at Ottoville. The programs doing well have a stable staff.
“There’s a few of us still around. Baker, Gary Geller at (Fremont) St. Joe, although this is his last year. A few of the younger guys say, ‘I can’t believe you’ve been at it this long.’ The years do fly by.
“If they’re having fun like I’ve had, they might look back one day and say ‘25 years, where did the time go?’”
By TED RADICK