The 1996-97 state championship trophy stands between a pair of state runner-up trophies outside the gymnasium at Lincolnview High School. The undefeated Lancer team will be honored during the semifinals of the 2017 OHSAA boys state tournament in Columbus. (DHI Media/Jim Cox)
The 1996-97 state championship trophy stands between a pair of state runner-up trophies outside the gymnasium at Lincolnview High School. The undefeated Lancer team will be honored during the semifinals of the 2017 OHSAA boys state tournament in Columbus. (DHI Media/Jim Cox)
On March 23, at halftime of the Division IV 8:30 p.m. semifinal, the OHSAA will recognize the Lancers’ 1997 state champions — and for many good reasons.

On March 22, 1997, Lincolnview capped off a perfect 27-0 season with a 76-60 win over Zanesville Rosecrans. There is, however, more than that to this team’s story — much more.

The 1995-96 Lancers had also reached the state tournament, and they had been undefeated up to that point. In a very physical, loosely-officiated semifinal, Lincolnview managed a courageous 83-73 win over Dalton. The Lancers’ two leading scorers, juniors Brandon Pardon and Wes Dudgeon, were both injured in that game — Pardon a lacerated eyelid, Dudgeon a concussion.

In the next night’s state final, with none of today’s concussion protocols in place, Dudgeon attempted to play, but was unable to continue beyond the first half. Pardon played with virtually one eye, and Springfield Catholic Central, led by 7-foot future NBAer Jason Collier, won it 75-52.

“During their sophomore year they lost to Ottoville in the district finals, and that hit hard,” said then-coach Dave Evans. “That was something that was on the bulletin board the next two years. Then to lose in the finals (in 1996), that was definitely something that made them work harder and want to get back there. From the time we walked out of the locker room until we walked back in a year later, that was the bottomline for them — to get back to that game.”

It was to be a far different ending in 1996-97. In the semifinal the Lancers crushed Norwalk St. Paul 88-49 in what is still the largest victory margin in a Division IV state tournament semifinal game. All 12 Lancers scored in that one.

While few teams could match the Lancers’ starting lineup height — all seniors — 6-7 Chad Pollock, 6-6 Dudgeon, 6-5 Kyle Rabe, 6-4 Frank Kill, and 6-1 Pardon — Rosecrans had two big starters at 6-7 and 6-6. Thus, on paper it looked like the final could be a good one, and for a few minutes it was.

Kill, however, had other ideas.

Lincolnview’s “free spirit” and fifth leading scorer — behind Rabe and career 1,000-point scorers Pardon, Dudgeon and Pollock — had the game of his life with 23 points and 11 rebounds as the blue-and-gold cruised to a 76-60 win.

“It’s a dream come true,” Kill said after that game. “When you’re growing up and you’re playing on the driveway, you like to play like there’s two seconds left and you have a last-second shot…then you’re out there and the adrenaline is really flowing. Thirteen thousand people are watching you, and you’re having the game of your life. It feels really good!”

For Pollock the victory had special meaning. Three years earlier, his mother and younger twin sisters had died in a tragic auto accident, leaving just Chad and his father, Bill, a great player in his own right back in the day.

“I’ve seen him about three times already,” Pollock said of his dad a half hour after the game. “I told him I love him. He’s the one who taught me to play the game. I owe him a lot.”

It was a fitting end to the high school careers of the seven seniors — Pollock, Dudgeon, Rabe, Kill, Pardon, Scott Kemler, and Matt Owens. The remainder of the 12-man roster consisted of junior Wayne Longstreth, who played a lot, and four other juniors who played more sparingly, Phil Duvall, Brad Mendenhall, Adam Owens and Matt Frey.

“I think the favorite memory is the tournament runs, spending time, whether it’s in hotels or the bus rides, just being with those guys,” said Kill, now the athletic director and head boys basketball coach at Lima Central Catholic, where he won Division III state championships in 2014 and 2016. “I tell my high school kids to cherish the moments, because I would do anything to go back and relive my senior year. Outside of having kids and a wife, that was the most fun time of my life.”

“They played together since fourth or fifth grade,” said Evans of his seniors. “Kyle (Rabe) came over (from LCC) as a junior to join them, although he had played with them for a long time. What made them special was their determination and hard work. They lived in the old gym that we had here. They were in there all the time. I was up here on Sundays doing laundry or whatever; the back door was always unlocked. I’d come back and they were always in there shooting. If I wasn’t here, I’d get calls all the time about wanting in the gym.”

The group never lost a game in junior high school — or even had any close ones. Greg Leeth, now the Lincolnview athletic director but then a seventh grade coach at Wayne Trace, describes the Lancer eighth graders of 1992-93. “They beat us by 50 plus points, and that team (Wayne Trace) went on to win the eighth grade (Green Meadows) conference championship. Incredible!”

“Even in eighth grade I saw the potential,” said Evans. “They all were really good. They were scoring 50 or 60 points a game, and in a lot of cases those guys were only playing a half or 2 1/2 quarters. There’s a lot of junior high teams everywhere that have that kind of ability, but were they gonna put in the extra time to make themselves better? You knew from those kids as incoming freshmen that summer, they were coming to all the open gyms, and they had that drive. You could tell that they could become a very, very good team.”

Pardon and Dudgeon started immediately as freshmen in the 1993-94 season. Pollock was on the JV team, but saw some varsity action late in the year. None of the other freshman played varsity. The Lancers went 13-10 that year.

In 1994-95 the Lancers went 18-5 and won the NWC championship. They lost to Ottoville in the district final. Pardon, Dudgeon, and Pollock started that year. Kill didn’t start, but was a role player on that team.

It was in 1995-96 that Lincolnview became a serious state champion contender. They were 26-1. Rabe came over from LCC and made a major contribution. The starters were four juniors — Pardon, Dudgeon, Pollock and Kill — along with senior Shawn Thatcher. Another NWC title ensued. The Lancers didn’t have many close wins, the exeptions being Kalida (70-65), LCC (51-46), Edgerton (59-51 in the regional final), and the aforementioned state semifinal.

Needless to say, it was a storybook 1996-97 season. To prepare for its big challenge, Lincolnview had scrimmaged some big schools and had added Elida, a Division II perennial Western Buckeye League championship contender, to the schedule. Rabe moved into the starting lineup, replacing the graduated Thatcher.

The Lancers were tall, talented, and fast. They averaged 80.6 points per game while limiting the opponents to 53.1. They shot 54 percent from the field and held the opponents to 39. They out-rebounded the opponents by an incredible 35.1 to 20.8 margin. They averaged 20.9 assists per game, with Pardon accounting for 10.6 of those. Pardon averaged 21.0 points, Dudgeon 16.1, Pollock 14.4, Rabe 9.3, Kill 9.1. Dudgeon and Pollock were the leading rebounders at 8.4 and 7.0.

The first close game came in the district final against Delphos St. John’s.

“For the first time all year we were down going into fourth quarter and still down with four minutes to go,” said Evans. “The thing I remember is Mr. No Emotion Wes (Dudgeon) hit a shot inside the lane, got fouled, knocked on his butt; he came flying off the ground just throwing his fist. I think that was just a turning point for everybody, to see Wes popping up with all of this excitement. I think from there we outscored them by 10 and won by eight (60-52).

Leipsic also made it interesting in the regional final. Although Lincolnview led by as much as 16 points early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings rallied to get within two. The Lancers eventually prevailed 69-62.

Kill was the state finals MVP. Pardon was later named the Division IV Ohio Player of the Year.

It would be almost impossible to over-estimate the effect of that team on Lancerland. Extra chairs were brought in and it was still standing room only for every home game.

“Obviously, the kids were an important part of that, but the tremendous sense of community, the fan base, Lancermania, it was everywhere,” said Leeth, an assistant coach on that team. “I don’t know if the kids understand how they drew a community together, and how important that is. Twenty years later we still talk about them.”

“We had a lot of very, very mediocre years between 1997 and last year (2015-16, when the Lancers again made it all the way the state final game),” said Brad Mendenhall, a sub on the 1996-97 team and now the principal at LHS. “We have had an amazing run of season ticket holders that is unprecedented in many schools. It’s unreal how many loyal Lancer fans we have that continue to buy season tickets through good and bad.”

As an example of this, for the 2016-17 season Lincolnview sold 578 season tickets (out of a possible 609), a number that few, if any, schools can duplicate.

Coincidentally — or probably not coincidentally — after the 1996-97 season, the Lincolnview school district easily passed a levy to build the new elementary school — totally financed by local funds with no help from the state.

Pardon went on to play a year at Wright State and three years at Bowling Green where he piled up some impressive numbers at point guard. He played two years of professional basketball in Europe, one in France and one in Austria.

Dudgeon played four years at Malone where he excelled on the court (two-time all-conference) and in the classroom (two-time NAIA scholar athlete).

Kill had a fine four-year career at Defiance College where he scored 1092 points, an average of 10.2 per game. He made the All-Heartland Conference first team in 2000-01.

Pollock played a year of basketball at Ohio Northern, then switched to football where he became an all-conference offensive lineman. Adam Owens graduated from LHS in 1998 and became a solid football player and baseball player at Defiance College.

The achievements of the players on that team continue to this day. “When people talk to me about these guys, I don’t ever stop discussing that without going over what everybody’s doing now, because that just impresses me so much,” said Evans.

Four of the players now have “doctor” attached to their names — Dudgeon (Ph.D), Duvall (DVM), Rabe (DDS), and Matt Owens (MD). Three are in high school education — Mendenhall, Kill, and Adam Owens (science teacher at LHS).

That senior class still keeps in touch.

“Last year with Lincolnview’s run, I was literally sitting on my couch listening to the (regional) game, and the seven of us were in this group text,” said Kill. “They’re all listening to the game. It couldn’t have been more fun.”

Six of those seven came back the next week and sat together, along with Evans, at the 2016 state tournament.

“At some of the smaller schools what you try to do is get two or three back-to-back classes to go together,” said Evans. “We had two really good classes, junior and senior years, but that senior class was just full of talent. The juniors, who were very talented, had to pretty much play JV because of the class that was ahead of them. To get that many talented kids in one class is maybe a once in a lifetime experience.”

Dave Evans is now the athletic director at Elida. In addition to Leeth, Evans’ assistants during the 1996-97 season were Mike Bute and Mike Elston.

Where are they now?

Wes Dudgeon (6-6 senior) — Charleston, SC. Wife: Mandi (Kurzen). Children: Reese (5) and Wesley Price (1). College of Charleston: Chair of the Department of Health and Human Performance.

Phil Duvall (5-9 junior) — New Waverly, TX. Wife: Courtney (Duncan). Children: Camryn (8), Cayson (7). Veterinarian.

Matt Frey (6-5 junior) — Sagamore Hills, OH. Wife: Janel (Coleman). Children: Coleman (10), Tristan (7), Ella (5). Technical Consumer Products: Warehouse Manager.

Scott Kemler (5-10 senior) — Van Wert. Wife: Anna (Flick). Children: Ella (11) and Finn (7). Baughman Tile: Plant Controller and Purchasing Manager.

Frank Kill (6-4 senior) — Lima. Wife: Kris (Wherry). Children: Kenyon (11) and Carolina (9). Lima Central Catholic High School: Athletic Director and Head Boys Basketball Coach.

Wayne Longstreth (6-4 junior) — Delphos. Wife: Jessica (Straw). Children: Sylvia (10), Amelia (8), Oliver (5), and Finnegan (3). Allen County: GIS Coordinator.

Brad Mendenhall (6-2 junior) — Van Wert. Wife: Lydia (Clay). Children: Claire (20) and Annie (14). Lincolnview Schools: High School Principal.

Adam Owens (6-2 junior) — Venedocia. Wife: Morgan (Ainsworth). Children: Brezlyn (8), Elijah (6), and Grant (5). Lincolnview Schools: High School Science Teacher (also farms).

Matt Owens (6-2 senior) — Lima. Wife: Crista (Voss). Children: Carter (12) and Gwyn (7). St. Rita’s Medical Center: Physician specializing in rehab medicine.

Brandon Pardon (6-1 senior) — Fort Wayne. Wife: Johanna (Sinn). Children: Jaxon (11), Briggs (10), and Zayva (6). Abbott Medical: District Sales Manager — Neuro-Modulation Division.

Chad Pollock (6-7 senior) — Van Wert. Not married. Children: Greyson (11), Keira (9), and Ashlyn (5). AFLAC: Regional Sales Coordinator.

Kyle Rabe (6-5 senior) — Tucson, AZ. Wife: Laura Robison-Rabe. Children: Connor (3) and Caleb (2). Orthodontist.

State tournament records still held by 1995-96 or 1996-97 Lancers

Most 3-point field goals by an individual in a D-IV tournament: Brandon Pardon 10 (1996).

Most points in a quarter in a D-IV semifinal: 30 in first quarter versus Dalton (1996).

Most 3-point field goals by a team in a D-IV semifinal: 11 versus Dalton (1996).

Most 3-point field goals by both teams in a D-IV semifinal: 16 versus Dalton (1996).

Largest margin of victory in a D-IV semifinal: 39 points versus Norwalk St. Paul 88-49 (1997).

Most free throws in a D-IV semifinal: 34 versus Norwalk St. Paul (1997).

Most rebounds in a D-IV semifinal: 55 versus Norwalk St. Paul (1997).

Most free throws in a D-IV championship game: 32 versus Zanesville Rosecrans (1997).

Most free throws by both teams in a D-IV championship game: 47 versus Zanesville Rosecrans (1997).

Most free throws in two games in D-IV tournament: 66 (1997).