COLUMN: THE EXORCISM

Thirteen years have done little to ease Ryan Penning’s pain. He’s a newlywed, has a job he enjoys with the Ankeny Parks and Recreation Department; all in all, a life that gives him plenty to smile about.

But Saturday, March 3, 2001 will be a date that haunts him forever.

Eight seconds – that’s all it took to crush his dreams.

“The sting will never go away, at least for me,” Penning, an all-state guard for the Hawks during his playing days, said in a phone interview Tuesday morning while talking about the infamous “Shot” that denied his No. 1-ranked South Hamilton basketball team a spot in the 2001 state tournament. “One of these years I should let it go, but I just can’t.”

South Hamilton was a juggernaut throughout the snowy winter months back then. The Hawks spanked 21 consecutive opponents leading up to a substate date with AGWSR and while they knew it wouldn’t be a walk in the park inside the Roundhouse in Marshalltown, they fully expected to be celebrating.

What they got instead was a dog fight, and AGWSR sophomore point guard Adam Viet was the pit bull. The future UNI Panther scored 19 points and his exploits were instrumental in forcing the Hawks to put all of their focus on him when the Cougars threw the ball inbounds at half court with 8 ticks left in a 55-55 game.

Viet had nowhere to go though. But instead of throwing up an off-balance shot, Viet saw teammate Evan Willms open about halfway between the center stripe and the 3-point arc. Willms took the pass, soared and put up the 25-foot rainbow a fraction of a second before the horn sounded.

Nothing. But. Net.

AGWSR players rushed the court, a la Jim Valvano in the 1983 NCAA championship game. Penning and teammates like Aaron Wirtz, Jason Willis, Adam Hertzke and Travis Anderson could do nothing but crumble to the hardwood.

It was as if every AGWSR player had put on steel-toe boots, taken a running start and kicked each and every one of the Hawks in the you know what.

“I’ve moved on, but I still haven’t gotten over it because of the kids,” Bill Mueller, back then the Hawks’ head coach who now serves as the middle school principal for Harlan Community Schools, said when interviewed on Tuesday. “I could get out my iPhone right now and show you pictures from that game of Aaron Wirtz and Ryan Penning laying on the floor. There are some things you take with you to motivate you … that’s something I’ve transferred over and that was 13 years ago.”

The pain comes from the fact that South Hamilton wasn’t just good in 2001. The Hawks were special; a real threat to cut down the nets and bring home the life-sized trophy from Des Moines.

“Sometimes teams are rated No. 1 and you still wonder ‘are we the best team in the state?’ That year I definitely thought, in our class, we were the best team,” Mueller said. “If there are some things I could redo in life, I want that night over again. If we play them 10 times, I think we beat them nine. I really do.”

AGWSR went on to finish second at the state tournament. Penning and Mueller weren’t there to see it though, nor do they want to relive their worst moment on the court.

“I have never gone back and watched the tape of that game and I don’t think I ever will,” Penning said.

Penning says he intends to be in the stands on Monday though when South Hamilton officially ends a 23-year state tournament drought. The Hawks earned their ticket to Des Moines on Monday – eerily 13 years to the date of the 2001 nightmare – with a bite-your-fingernails-to-the-nub 58-53 overtime victory over perennial power Fort Dodge St. Edmond.

South Hamilton led 45-43 with – seriously, I’m not making this stuff up – 8 seconds left in regulation when St. Edmond snagged a rebound off a missed free throw and took off towards the basket.

Ryan Penning instantly popped into my brain.

But instead of looking for the potential game-winning 3, the Gaels opted to drive and dump the ball off to soon-to-be all-state center Robby Burke, who laid it in with 2 seconds remaining to force overtime.

Not great, but not exactly the end of the world.

South Hamilton didn’t buckle in the extra session and, in the end, was able to exorcise some of the past demons that hovered over the program like a black cloud.

“It sounded like a pretty exciting game with a lot of similarities between our game (with AGWSR),” Penning said. “I’m happy for (head coach) B.J. (Terrones) and the school district. I actually ran into B.J. last year and he told me he wanted to model his team after our ’01 team and that was neat to hear.”

The truth is there really are similarities.

Standout freshman Collin Hill was still in diapers when Penning dazzled with his poetic shooting rhythm, but he’s taken on his elder’s role of Mr. Cool. If Hill isn’t an all-state player I’ll kiss your backside.

Senior point guard Matt Hislop has a lot of the same qualities that Wirtz possessed – attack, attack, attack, the main one. Hislop can get out of control at times – Wirtz did too – but that reckless abandon is also what makes him great. Just like Wirtz, his leadership qualities are second to none.

Senior shooting guard Trevor Ullestad is Jason Willis 2.0; both redheads who are/were cash money from long distance. And did I mention they’re both redheads? Well, they are.

Ullestad’s 3-pointer from the top of the key (his fourth of the game) in the final minute of overtime on Monday with South Hamilton clinging to a one-point lead – as cold-blooded a basket as you’ll ever see. No hesitation. Just turn, face the basket and fire away … and it was perfect.

Time will tell if the 2014 Hawks can completely right the wrong of their brothers of 13 years ago.

No matter what happens, the what-ifs will always linger for Penning. But watching his alma mater do something he himself couldn’t do … maybe, just maybe, it would make his already good life that much better.