ELIDA – Al Welch remembers back to the days when, as a coach just starting out in the business, he looked up to Dick Kortokrax, the winningest head coach in Ohio prep hoops history.
On Friday night in the Elida Fieldhouse, Welch and Kortokrax were coaching against each other in a Division IV District Final that featured a matchup between two coaches with a combined win total of nearly 1,300.
In the end, it was Welch's Wayne Trace Raiders prevailing with a victory, knocking off Kalida 56-36 to advance to the regional tournament.
“When I first got into coaching (32 years ago) I looked up to Dick,” Welch said, speaking over the roars of the crowd as the players cut down the net. “He is a great coach and a great man. It means a lot to be able to beat one of his teams, especially in a tournament game.”
Welch has already announced that he will retire once the season is over but he is assured of coaching in at least one more game after the Raiders, tied at 22-22 with the Wildcats at halftime, came out clicking on all cylinders in the second half.
They pushed their lead to 40-28 by the end of the third and never looked back, wearing down Kalida with an up-tempo game that the Wildcats couldn't keep pace with.
“They were like race horses in the second half,” said Kortokrax, who has nearly 800 victories in a career that has stretched over five decades. “We didn't have the legs to keep up. Once they got the running game going, it was over. We ran out of gas.”
Yet, Kortokrax admires Welch for what his team has accomplished this season. He believes the Raiders will win the regional title and advance to state for the first time since 2001 when it played against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary and some guy named Lebron James.
Wayne Trace (19-4) lost that semifinal tilt 56-50.
“I believe and identify with coach Welch based upon the principles we have,” Kortokrax said. “They are very similar. He is a hard-nosed, old-school type coach. You aren't going to play for him if you don't work hard and have the fundamentals. His teams play the game the way it should be played.”
Welch said he woke up Friday morning with a feeling that his team was going to play one of its best games of the year.
His players didn't let him down.
“Our coach is great and we wanted to get him to the regional,” LaBounty said. “It's a sweet experience and hopefully we can take him to state.”
LaBounty scored 10 points in the win over the Wildcats. Dane Treece went off for 20 points and Riley Linder added 10 as well.
Perhaps it is only appropriate that Welch will get a chance to coach his team in Bowling Green's Anderson Arena Tuesday night against Ayersville.
Back in the summer, his team was suppossed to go there for a tourney. Tragedy changed its plans.
“Our team goes to Bowling Green every summer for a shootout,” Welch said. “It's always our big trip and we stay overnight. But my daughter died the day we were going to leave and we didn't go. I told the kids the good Lord always gives back. Now we get to play there. It feels great.”
It seems almost storybook like that Welch has a chance to end his career with a state title. And yet, even he can't deny that perhaps something special is going on with this Wayne Trace team.
“Everything is falling into place so far,” Welch said. “I don't know if anything is written in the stars for us, but there is definitely something special going on with this team. I hope it continues.”
Kortokrax said he is likely to follow in the footsteps of Welch next year and retire. He will have five seniors on his team and hopes the presence of veterans will put Kalida in a position to do what the Raiders are doing right now.
“I told the kids that we have a chance to have a really great season next year. They just have to be willing to put forth the effort and offseason work to make it possible. But I wish Welch nothing but the best the rest of the way. It would be great to see him get his team to state. It would be a heck of a way to go out.”