Gene Ammirante has a lot of fond memories on the basketball court. The latest coming Friday night between games of the girls'-boys' doubleheader on Guernsey Street.
The former Bellaire High School boys' hoop guru was standing at midcourt inside "The House of Champions" surrounded by members of one of the greatest - if not the greatest - teams in school history.
"This brought back so many memories ... so many," Ammirante said after receiving a plaque from former BHS player and current high school principal Kevin Roseberry.
THE 2003-04 Bellaire High School boys’ basketball team was honored during a 10-year reunion Friday. Players and coaches were brought onto the court inside “The House of Champions” during games of a doubleheader between St. John Central and Bellaire. Team members included Josh Fisher, Mike Fisher, Aaron Agnew, Andrew Bobka, Adam Lucci, Wayne Dipple, Justin Ward Peltz, Jerrod Ryan, assistant coaches Jerry Ammirante, J.R. Battista and the late Dave Ice, who was represented by his wife Annette, and head coach Gene Ammirante.
FORMER BELLAIRE head boys’ basketball coach Gene Ammirante, left, is congratulated by high school principal Kevin Roseberry Friday night after Roseberry presented Ammirante with a plaque in appreciation for all he did for the Big Reds.
Rewind 10 years ago to the 2003-04 season.
The Big Reds were the top team in the Ohio Valley. They captured sectional, district and regional titles en route to becoming the only team in school history to reach the Final Four in basketball.
A heartbreaking, 68-64, Division III semifinal loss to Versailles in double overtime brought the much-cherished ride to an end at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus before 13,771 fans. Bellaire finished at 22-5. The Tigers then lost the title game to St. Henry.
Fast forward to Friday night.
"When I look at those guys, it's easy to see why we were so successful," Coach A. said.
"I can still see the fire and competitiveness in their eyes. When I look at them, I said to myself 'some of those guys could still line up and play.'
"The guys like the Fishers (Josh and Mike), Aaron Agnew and Andrew Bobka. It's a shame that not all of the guys could make it back."
Team members on hand included the aforementioned Fisher brothers, Agnew and Bobka, along with Adam Lucci, Wayne Dimple, Justin Ward Peltz and Jerrod Ryan. The coaching staff consisted of Ammirante, his son Jerry, current Bellaire boys' head coach J.R. Battista and the late Dave Ice, who was represented by his wife, Annette. Also honored was long-time scorekeeper Tom Rataiczak.
Not able to make the 10-year reunion were Chris Palmer, Jay Ofat, Luca Magistro, Todd Coyne and Nate Davis, who was the team's leading scorer who would have a brief stint in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers as a quarterback.
"I appreciate all of the guys who came back," Coach A. continued. "But what really caught my eye was all of the old timers in the crowd. It's been 10 years, but the ball rolls on."
Another thing that Coach A. thought about during the brief ceremony was Dave Ice.
"Dave is no longer with us .. his wife came out with us tonight, but he would have basked in the glory. He was Mr. Big Red if there was ever one."
When talking to some of the players, it was easy to see why the Big Reds were so successful that season. In addition to being tall (Agnew was 6-10) and talented in many different styles, they all got along and liked their coach.
"The kids all like me and I liked all of them," Coach A. offered. "That was a big key for us. Everyone got along and everyone knew their role. We actually had four 1,000-point scorers on that team. Each of them had big games along the tournament trail.
"Aaron had some big games along the way, as did the Fishers, and Nate had a big game in the regionals," Coach A. recalled. "Heck, in the Final Four game, Andrew Bobka was our leading scorer after one quarter.
"Whatever the opponents were willing to give us, we were ready to take advantage of it. They were definitely role players, bit I wasn't stupid, either. We assembled a good group of players that season
"We had a 6-10 kid in Aaron that many schools around here will never have," he continued. "We had the athletes in the Fishers and Nate and then a guy like Bobka running around."
But it just wasn't the starters that filled their roles.
"Then there was a guy like Adam Lucci who didn't get much playing time, but there was a game at home against Wheeling Park and Aaron got into early foul trouble. Adam came in and scored double figures.
"There were so many memories from that season."
The Fishers had nothing but praise for their former head coach.
"It was a great time to play for Coach A.," Mike Fisher said. "He's a very good coach. He's the type of coach that cares about his players. He was always there for us and he still is only a phone call away.
"It was a great time," Mike Fisher said of playing in the Final Four. "We were all buddies ... all friends. We played together growing up our entire lives. It was pretty cool to be able to do that and then come back here and be recognized for it."
Josh, who won his weight division at last year's Ohio Valley Toughman Contest and plans to enter again this year, echoed his brother's thoughts.
"Coach A. was a great coach. He cared about his players, not only on the court, but off, as well. He still cares about us."
Josh, the older of the two by a year, said it was a real pleasure to be able to play with his brother on that team.
"That was a memory that I will never forget" he said. "There were a lot of memories from that season."
Agnew, who still towers over everyone, found it hard to put into words what that season meant.
"For a team like us to make it that far, it's hard to describe the feelings," he said. "I learned a lot from Coach A. He let me leave in the summer time so I could go travel and play AAU ball. When I came back, he didn't have a problem with it, so I had a lot of respect for him. I still do."
Agnew played a year at Iowa State before transferring to Robert Morris where he played both basketball and football. He has also dabbled a little in boxing and works in the oil and gas industry now.
Lucci, who owns a pair of restaurants in the valley, recalled that game against the Patriots that Ammirante referred to.
"I was lucky enough that everyone was better than me, so Wheeling Park didn't think they had to guard me that much," he said with a huge smile and laugh.
"It was a great experience," he said of being a member of that team. "Ten years later, it's still a very important part of my life. It's one of the greatest things that has ever been done at Bellaire High School. I'm very thankful that the school was able to bring us back for this night."
Unfortunately for Lucci, he had the task of banging bodies with Agnew on a daily basis.
"It was like football without pads and helmets," he was quick to point out.
According to Rataiczak, who has been keeping the Big Reds boys' scorebook for longer than most people can remember, had nothing but good words about that team.
"As a team, they were one of the most overachieving teams in Bellaire history if you look at the picture in the (school) lobby and say 'they were at the state level.'
"They played as fierce as a team I've ever seen."
Memories. And a lot of them!
North can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org