My years at Wellsville High School were some of the best years of my life.
I did many things in high school, but nothing quite like when I was the “Voice Of The Tigers” for WHS athletic events.
I fell in love with my school when I was in the 6th grade. My dad took me to every WHS basketball game during the 2009-2010 season. I was always amped up to see Michael Johnston knock down three pointers from the white line while Jalen DeSarro took it to the rack. We were a pretty good team that season, but one team in particular stood in our way: the McDonald Blue Devils.
This team was and still is, the real deal. A game in their gym was an experience unlike any other. The team is led by their extremely animated head coach Jeff Rasile. I will never forget the sound of his black shoes stomping the floor as he was yelling at the top of his lungs, only to then bring in his players during the timeout and congratulate them like they were his own sons. He is a class act and an amazing coach.
But that’s only one part of the story. The McDonald student section was legendary for several reasons. They were the rabid Stu Cru. They started doing the rollercoaster in the crowd before student sections went viral. I always wondered if the Tigers could have anything like that at their games.
The funny thing is that we used to have something like this at our games. It was The Big Orange Machine. In the 1970s Tiger Basketball was at its peak under head coach Bob Dawson. Wellsville rarely lost in the old Beacom Memorial Gymnasium. The pregame player introductions were electric as the lights were out and the machine would make its way to a balloon that was the opposing team's color. The tiger claw would come down and smash the balloon and the crowd would erupt.
I was heading into my freshman year of high school and I decided that I had to bring the tradition back, just in a different way.
I dedicated my summer to finding out more about this tradition so I could bring it back to life. I met Jeff Campbell, a WHS grad who had been a part of the team when the Big Orange Machine was in action in the 70s. When I brought up this idea to him, his eyes lit up and he helped me every step of the way. He is the owner of Campbell’s Signs and Apparel LLC in East Liverpool. He designed and manufactured the new modern Big Orange Machine, and designed T-shirts for us to sell. I was incredibly grateful for Jeff’s help.
Tigers basketball then went on a magical four year run. We only had one loss at home in our first two seasons with the Big Orange Machine, so the pregame production definitely helped the team. We even played at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland against the rival Beaver Local Beavers. I was the PA announcer for this game and it made me feel like I was Olivier Sedra. We walked away with the win that day, so everything was perfect.
Getting to announce the Big Orange Machine and the games was exhilarating. Everyone on the team had a nickname. We had Camden “Agent Zero” Douglas, Nate “The Great Scott," “The Bad Mamma-Jamma” Seth Bradford, Branzen "Grodzilla" Grodhaus, and many more. We were a force to be reckoned with.
I announced every Wellsville sporting event in high school. I really appreciated that all the teams embraced me as a part of them. At the end of the Big Orange Machine’s inaugural season, the basketball team presented me with an orange and black basketball that the entire team and all of the coaches signed. That ball is still hanging up in my bedroom.
I lived in that gym, but there was someone else who did too, my brother Mitchell. Mitchell was the only student in our class to play on the basketball team for all four years of high school. He did not get to play a lot, but he never complained about playing time. He just wanted to be a part of the team. He was a prime example of how students should participate in sports for the love of the game.
I finally got to call Mitchell out as a starter for our Senior Night and final home game against East Palestine. Mitchell was nicknamed “My Brother From The Same Mother,” and the crowd ate it up. All of our friends watched Mitchell score 10 points and they were all proud of him for his perseverance and hard work. However, our senior year wasn’t over just yet.
OHSAA tournament time happened at Struthers High School just like every other year. The Tigers were set to square off in the district semifinals with the #1 Lisbon Blue Devils.
Lisbon was stacked as they only had one loss to their name. They beat us twice by double digits in the regular season, but tournament time was different.
We had the greatest student section since the original Big Orange Machine days of the 1970s and we roared passed Lisbon 74-55. It was truly the most fun I’ve ever had at any game. Our head coach David “Bug” Thompson approved of our student section’s performance.
But the road wasn’t over. We had to beat our old friend McDonald in the district final.
We hung with McDonald, but in the end it was not to be.
It was the end of my journey as the announcer for the team, and the end of Mitchell’s basketball journey. We again fell short to the team that we always wanted to beat in the postseason. At the end of the game, Mitchell and I walked to the bench as we embraced and burst into tears. It was a surreal moment that I will never forget.
WHS basketball games were some of the best times I’ve ever had, even though I didn’t play on the court. No matter where I go in life, I will always be a Wellsville Tiger!
Michael Reiner is a columnist. Contact him @firstname.lastname@example.org.