Today as teams from classes 1A through 4A compete for state championships at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, fans around the state will be reminded that 20 years have passed since the final single-class basketball tournament took place.
For longtime Noblesville Miller boys basketball fans, that year was memorable for additional reasons. That year brings to mind names like Coverdale, Leerkamp, Lawson and Murray. It summons memories of big free throws, pep rallies and a trip to Mackey Arena.
On March 17, 1997, legendary Hamilton County sports writer Don Jellison wrote the following in The Daily Ledger: "Thirty-four years from now folks will be writing about the 1997 Millers."
The 34-year figure wasn't totally arbitrary. It represents the gap between Noblesville's two most recent regional championships in 1963 and 1997. The Millers advanced to semistate one other time in 1957.
Well, we didn't wait the full 34 years, but, as Don predicted, folks are indeed still writing about the 1997 team. Twenty years later, it's time to reminisce about a truly special Miller season.
When Dave McCollough took the Noblesville head coaching job in 1994, expectations were low. People around the program told the new coach he might be able to eek out a decent season by his third year.
McCollough remembers responding, "You know, I really don't think we need to wait around that long."
He was right. After going 8-13 in his first year, McCollough's Millers went 16-8 in his second. The team won a sectional championship and lost in the regional final by two points in overtime to Plainfield.
The quick turnaround came, in part, thanks to the emergence of a stocky sophomore do-everything guard by the name of Tom Coverdale. Coverdale went on to become the greatest player in Noblesville basketball history - the school's all-time leading scorer and the 1998 Indiana Mr. Basketball award winner.
Coverdale was brilliant for sure, but entering the 1996-97 season, McCollough had a number of kids who could really play.
That year's starting five featured four guards who all stood around 6 feet 2 inches tall in juniors Coverdale and Ryan Murray and seniors Todd Lawson and Chris Leerkamp. Senior Ben Fonde rounded out the lineup as the lone forward standing at 6 feet 4 inches.
What the team seemed to lack in size, it made up for in versatility.
"They could all handle the ball," McCollough said. "They could all shoot it. They could defend on the perimeter. They could defend in the post. They all could be a threat all over the court."
Noblesville finished the '97 regular season with a 16-4 record and a share of the Olympic Conference title.
Along the way, the team's success triggered a level of school spirit and community pride reminiscent of the old days when high school basketball was truly king in this state. Scores of fans travelled far and wide to attend every game. Lawson even remembers Kenley's Super Market selling commemorative cereal boxes that featured the team picture. And the excitement only amplified as tournament time approached.
Noblesville hosted sectionals that year in its brand new gym nicknamed "The Mill." With a sold-out home crowd behind them, the Millers beat three tough Hamilton County opponents - Sheridan, Carmel and Hamilton Heights - in four nights capturing a second consecutive sectional title.
The win sent the Millers onto regionals in Frankfort where they first faced nemesis Brownsburg. The Bulldogs had defeated Noblesville in the regular season and five straight times overall. But with a trip to the regional final on the line, the Millers beat Brownsburg 60-53 behind 19 points from Leerkamp and 15 from Lawson.
That's when the drama really kicked in. Later that night Noblesville took on Frankfort for the regional title. After trailing for the entire game, Frankfort made a push in the final quarter. With four seconds remaining and the scored tied at 63, Coverdale was at the line shooting two free throws. He missed the first. And then, facing the possibility of overtime in another regional final, he bounced the second one in off the back iron.
"It hit the back of the rim and it bounced up in the air about three feet but it seemed like 10," McCollough remembers. "And then it was the most beautiful sight in the world because it came down through the basket."
Noblesville held on for a 64-63 win giving the Millers their first regional crown in 34 years. Ledger sports editor Erich Williams called it, "one of the most thrilling games in Noblesville history."
The scenes of the aftermath were unforgettable for those involved. A sea of black and gold clad students rushed onto the Case Arena court to celebrate. The team bus received a police escort back to Noblesville where an impromptu pep rally was held in The Mill.
"The way the whole town rallied behind that team is something we'll always remember," Coverdale said.
And the people of Noblesville certainly weren't done rallying. At least 2,500 Miller fans bought tickets for the team's trip to Mackey Arena for the semistate games.
The Millers played two games that next Saturday in West Lafayette. In the first, they were up against an athletic Gary West squad. As Murray remembers it, most weren't giving Noblesville much of a shot.
After watching Gary West game tape, the Noblesville coaching staff had other ideas.
"I remember as coaches we talked and I said, 'man, if Gary plays defense like this against us, Coverdale could go for 40,'" McCollough said.
Coach Mac was right again. Coverdale scored a school-record 44 points in that game shooting 12-of-14 from the field and 19-of-22 from the line. Half of his points including 14 of the free throws came in the final quarter as the Millers defeated Gary West 92-78.
Twenty years later a lot of the games and moments blur together for these players. But this performance was unforgettable.
"That's when Tom went off," Murray said. "I do remember that one."
"That was definitely one of my best games in high school," Coverdale said. "Getting to play at that stage in a semistate was definitely motivating. And I was just thankful it was one of those days where a lot of things were going right."
The win advanced the Millers to the semistate final, one game away from a trip the state finals in the RCA Dome.
Unfortunately, this is where the magical run ended. The Millers fell to a hot-shooting LaPorte team 69-59. Noblesville played the Slicers close for three quarters, but Coverdale got into foul trouble and the Millers couldn't keep pace in the final quarter.
It was a painful end for a team that came so close to advancing further than any other team in school history.
After the game, Coach McCollough remembers bringing his dejected team back out onto the court.
"I remember we walked down the ramp out onto the floor," McCollough said. "The lights were off. We just walked out there and looked around trying to soak up whatever we could. You never know when you're going to be back in that situation."
The Millers finished the season 22-5. Noblesville has not advanced back to semistate since.
"What a great season," McCollough concluded. "What a great run. What a lot of fun that was with those young men.