Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Truth Photo By Larry Tebo The NorthWood Panthers and the Whitko Wildcats met Monday evening for the West Noble sectional title with the Panthers winning the championship 76-35. NorthWood's head coach Steve Neff didn't agree with a call.|107115 (AP)

NorthWood's coach Steve Neff talkes to his girls during a time out. Host NorthWood took on Wawasee in class 3A girls basketball sectional Wednesday Feb. 12, 2014 at the NorthWood sectional. The Panthers beat the Warriors 68-38. (Larry Tebo / The Elkhart Truth)

Long time rival coaches Kem Zolman of Wawasee and Steve Neff in his last year at NorthWood chat on the bench before the game. Host NorthWood took on Wawasee in class 3A girls basketball sectional Wednesday Feb. 12, 2014 at the NorthWood sectional. The Panthers beat the Warriors 68-38. (Larry Tebo / The Elkhart Truth) (Buy this photo)
Neff takes loss in final game with some wit and some ire
Posted on Feb. 23, 2014 at 4:11 p.m.

DECATUR — No cookies. That hurts.

For the first 20 of my 34 years of covering high school athletes, girls basketball was right there with football as my go-to sports to follow. I dearly loved the characters of the game as much as the character in the game.

Steve Neff proudly embodied both.

He is quite the character — in practice, during games or just shootin' the breeze. Neff could get on a kid for a bone-head play in practice one minute and crack a joke and elicit smiles the next.

And he possesses the level of character that his girls embraced. In his historic 37-year run on the NorthWood girls basketball sidelines, I'm sure there were players who didn't always take to his approach, but most had to respect his passionate wish to see athletes succeed on and off the court. 

It was never about him.

When it was announced before this season started that the 2013-14 campaign would be his last, he never wanted a celebratory tour. He just wanted to coach girls, win some games and maybe stuff a few more trophies into the school's decorated trophy case.

After the Panthers were unceremoniously eliminated from Saturday's Class 3A Bellmont Regional on a controversial call at game's end, Neff quietly blended self-deprecating wit with predictable ire.

"No cookies," Neff said with a grin as he wrapped up his post-game remarks.

Yup, cookies.

When NorthWood put up an impressive six-year run of regional titles from 1994-99, Neff, along with school administrators, headed to Fort Wayne for a semistate coaches meeting the following Monday morning. Most of these gatherings took place at the Allen County Coliseum.

Most of those years, Neff graciously offered an early A.M. ride to a few weary sportswriters. The trip always started with stroll through the school's cafeteria to pick up a few small bags of freshly baked and lovingly prepared chocolate chip cookies.

These were to-die-for kind of cookies.

I chose to cover NorthWood's regional journey this year because, win or lose, I wanted to be there for part of Steve Neff's final run through a tournament he dominated for a generation. For many of his 24 sectional crowns and most of his 10 regional championships, I had a front row seat. I didn't want to miss this.

But an unexpected whistle with no time on the clock led to a game-winning Norwell free throw which sent Indiana's winningest girls basketball coach home for the last time. His heartache for the kids more than out-weighed his sense of personal setback and disappointment.

"They battled ... they battled really well ... just didn't come out right," Neff said. "They tried their hardest. We had our chances.

"When there's no time on the clock and somebody with a whistle in their hands makes a team win, that'll stick in my craw for a long time."

Norwell later rode its victory over NorthWood into a regional title when the Knights came back at night at knocked off Muncie Central.

"My hats off to Norwell," Neff said. "You've got to get beat by somebody, he's a great guy. I'm happy for Eric (Thornton). I wish them the best down the route. He's put his time in and he needs to get out there and feel what it's like, too."

Neff's players, though, had their sights set on getting their guy one final triumphant moment.

"We all tried our best. We just didn't come out with a win," senior Morgan Olson said. "You've gotta know it's a game, you learn from your losses and just move on to the next thing.

"It's been so awesome to play for Coach Neff. We were all really trying to come out to get the win for him. It's been so much fun to play for him."

"We came out here and played our hearts out for each other," senior Inger Yoder said. "Same thing happened to us last year. I never thought I'd feel that same thing again.

"He's really encouraged me, pushed me to be the best athlete and best person I can be. As seniors, we wanted this game, but we wanted it more for Neff."

Deep down, I wanted a win for Steve Neff, too. But for 99 percent of high school coaches, no matter the sport and no matter whether they are retiring or continuing on in their career, seasons end with a loss.

The stunning finish to Neff's final tourney appearance will wear off in memory, he said, when he gets the next sunburn on his face and his first eagle on a golf course.

And now Neff can have all the cookies he wants. The good ol' boy who grew up in Wakarusa and stayed home to live and teach has earned them.

Congratulations, Coach.