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03/11/2017 - Motz: Why '87 Class A Championship Still Hurts For Longtime LNE Fans

By Jeff Motz

It’s been 30 years since the Norfolk Panthers broke the heart of a Lincoln kid, just 11 days shy of turning 10-years-old, and countless other Lincoln Northeast fans, when they captured the Class A boys state basketball championship.

The kid would be me, a young Northeast fan dreaming of the day to wear a black and white jersey.  Less than a decade later, I would play on two future state championship teams at Northeast (1995 and 1996). 

Today, Norfolk will go for their second Class A title in school history when they play in the 6:30pm championship against Papillion-LaVista at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Why does that 62-61 Norfolk victory in 1987 bother me to this day?  That Northeast team served as inspiration for kids my age to work hard on the driveway or gym to get better at the sport we loved so much.

Plus, they earned their way to playing for a championship.

The Rockets had a great group of seniors (Dave Svehla, Brad Richardson, Louie Sheridan, D.J. Vokalek, Mike Peterson, Mike Ripley), talented juniors (Josh Trambly, Dan Lesoing, Nate Johnson, T.J. Oschner, Troy Plumb, Ron Wittler and Dean Drake).  Northeast finished in the 1986 Class A semifinals in hall of fame coach Ed Johnson’s final season after 37 years.  The 1987 squad stormed back from a late season slump under first-year head coach Rick Collura to win the district title and get statebquarterfinal and semifinal wins over Omaha Westside and Millard North.

Norfolk entered the state tournament with a 17-3 record.  One of their three losses was to Northeast in January that season (63-59 loss to the Rockets in Lincoln).  But the Panthers managed to play it close through the quarterfinal, defeating defending state champ Omaha Burke and future Husker and NBA veteran center Rich King 58-57.

In the semifinal, Norfolk kept it close with Lincoln East, who got to state on a wildcard berth after a loss to Lincoln Southeast in the district semifinal.  But the Panthers managed to get a late basket and held on for a 67-65 win over the Spartans, making it the first time that a school outside of Omaha to reach the Class A championship game since 1972.

The rematch of the Northeast-Norfolk game in the Class A final had that “Hoosiers” feel to it, some of the roles reversed. 

Collura played the role of Norman Dale, who in the based-on-a-true story movie came to fictional Hickory, Indiana to resurrect a school from the bottom of the barrel in Indiana high school basketball by turning them into champs against the big city powerhouse.  Only Collura was coaching the big city boys, in our case Northeast.

Norfolk coach Dave Oman, who had been at the school since 1977, only coached five Panther teams to state prior to the 1987 final.  This was a school who never won the big prize, whereas Northeast had eight state championship trophies.

The Bob Devaney Sports Center was rocking on that rainy March Saturday night.  Remembering back to that night, it seemed like every seat in the house was occupied.

Northeast got off to a cold start and saw early foul trouble from Svehla, the second leading scorer on the team.  The Rockets had trouble overcoming Norfolk’s offense, trailing the Panthers 27-20 at halftime.

Norfolk guard Rob Faust caused fits for the Northeast backcourt through the first three quarters, by slashing to the basket on offense or forcing turnovers defensively. Svehla and Mike Peterson had fouled out and the Rockets had to find someone to provide a spark.

Seldom-used junior Dan Lesoing seemed to be the hidden ingredient Northeast needed.  He came off the bench late in the first half to miss his first two shots, but got six points in the third quarter that kept the Rockets within an 11-point reach heading into the final quarter.

Lesoing, junior guard Josh Trambly and senior center Brad Richardson would lead a Northeast charge in the fourth quarter.  Richardson hit two big baskets, as part of his 18-point performance, including a basket that narrowed the deficit to four. 

Then after the Richardson basket, Trambly scored after stealing the ensuing inbounds pass.  After Norfolk’s Troy Drahota missed a shot on the next possession, Lesoing hit a 15-footer from the right elbow of the lane to tie the game at 58 with 51 seconds left.

Still, there was plenty left to happen.

On the next Northeast possession, Richardson missed the front end of a one-and-one, tried to score off an offensive rebound when the 6-2 Lesoing grabbed the miss and got a three-point play with 32 seconds left putting the Rockets up 61-58.  He finished with 15 points.

Norfolk called time out and drew up a play to get the ball up court for an open shot.  Enter junior guard Chris Price.

Nicknamed “Parking Lot” by his teammates, he told then 10/11 sports director Dick Janda in a postgame interview because of his outside shooting ability, Price nailed a deep shot from the left corner (before the three-point rule was in effect) that pulled the Panthers to within one. 

Out of a Norfolk time out, Northeast’s T.J. Oschner was fouled but missed the front end of a one-and-one.  However, Norfolk’s Chad Feuerbacher, who grabbed the rebound, fell to the floor and was called for travelling. 

Richardson was fouled by Panther sophomore forward Eric Braesch, who fouled out with 15 seconds left.  Northeast’s chance to extend the lead and force a tie was diminished when Richardson missed another front-end of a one-and-one.  An outlet pass to Faust allowed him to quickly pass the ball down the court to Price, deep in the left corner.

Price elevated and hit the 20-footer with 8 seconds left, causing a frenzy in the Norfolk crowd and silencing Northeast fans.

The Rockets desperately tried to get a shot off right before the buzzer, but no whistle on contact made on Richardson.  Buzzer sounds. Norfolk 62-61 over Northeast. 

Panther fans stormed the court and stayed out there until the Devaney Center staff turned off the lights. Norfolk became the first team outside of Lincoln and Omaha to win the Class A boys basketball championship since Columbus did it in 1972.

Northeast fans watched in shock as their chances of a ninth state title were diminished in an instant.  Chris Price’s name became legendary at Norfolk High, while forever became the foil in Northeast basketball history.

Just like before turning ten, I look back now as I approach 40 and wonder what it would have been like, had Northeast won that game.

Coach Collura would have become the second coach in school history to win a state title in his first season.  Ed Johnson did it in 1950, a year after the Rockets won the 1949 title under Dawdy Hawkins.

The six seniors on that Northeast team would have forever been known as one of the school’s championship teams to grind out a hectic tourney run.

But things happen for a reason.  To their credit, Norfolk had a great run in 1987.  It became the benchmark of their youth basketball program success that continues today.

Northeast would make more state tournament appearances and after losing in the finals two more times, Collura and the Rockets won four state titles in a row from 1995 to 1998.

After appearances at state in 1993, 1994 and 1995, Oman left Norfolk a few seasons later to coach at Grand Island.  His first season there, the Islanders made the state tournament as an eighth-seed and ran the table to win that school’s first state basketball title in more than 50 years.  Oman and Grand Island would get another basketball title in 2002.

As for Chris Price, he’s now a doctor in Norfolk and has a son, T.J., who plays for the Panthers.

If you go to the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame exhibit at the NSAA headquarters, Norfolk-Northeast finish is on a video kiosk you can watch.

I can say this about Norfolk fans.  They are truly passionate and supportive of their team, through thick and thin, first or second place.  

In my opinion, Norfolk's gym is the roughest environment in the state and it works to their advantage. That's something to be proud of, period.  

Panther fans are hoping today's championship comes from out of the pages of Kansas City Royals baseball history, win a title 30 years after the first one.

Sit back and enjoy!
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