CONVERSE, Ind. — Jack Keefer worried his players would get off the bus Saturday near the crossroads that border three tiny Indiana towns and scoff. His Lawrence North players hadn’t even heard of Oak Hill.
Mention Oak Hill to them and they’ll tell you about the prep academy in Virginia where NBA stars like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant played. But little Oak Hill High School, made up of 533 students from Converse, Sweetser and Swayzee, Indiana, is Keefer’s.
This is the gym where he played until 1961 and later started a legendary coaching career, highlighted by four state titles and more than 700 wins. He learned so much with the Golden Eagles, including how easy it is to overlook and move on from a place like this.
Saturday was his first time back since he moved to Lawrence North in 1976, when the school was founded.
“There was a little hesitation in driving back up there,” Keefer said with a chuckle. “I never liked being the ‘big guy,’ and they’re the ‘small guy.’ Because the small guys, they play harder.
“My kids might walk in that gym and say, ‘My God, look at this little place.'”
Maybe the reason Keefer is so scared of being the’ big guy’ is because he was once the ‘small guy.’ He upset eight-time state champion Marion twice, in Oak Hill’s first two seasons. That rival just 11 miles to the west was always bigger and better, until Keefer made sure they weren’t.
He almost toppled Marion again as head coach. He knows what it’s like to be the little guy, so he told his team pretty bluntly not to mess this up Saturday.
“We’ll run,” he told them, “until you’re dead, if you get beat.”
This year’s Oak Hill squad entered Saturday’s game 12-4, with high hopes for the postseason. They’ve got eight seniors, part of a class that lost to 2A state champion Lapel in a regional two years ago. They’re tried and tested, but wanted to really push this team.
So after kicking the idea around for a while, they got around to inviting Keefer and his big, bad Wildcats back this season. The visiting LN squad (12-4) won, 61-37.
“We’ve had such a vast difference in talent,” Oak Hill coach Kevin Renbarger said. “It didn’t make any sense to do until we had a team that was at least somewhat competitive.”
Oak Hill played host New Castle in the Hall of Fame Classic earlier this season. They lost by 20 to the top team in 3A, then turned around and lost 62-56 in overtime to 4A Floyd Central — the only team to beat Romeo Langford’s New Albany squad.
Point being: Their four losses, including one to Covington Catholic in Kentucky, were to quality opponents. Caleb Middlesworth (15.8 points per game) and Spencer Ballinger (15.3) have made sure this year’s Oak Hill squad is nobody’s punchline. They’re coming off consecutive sectional titles, too.
Keefer figures his players must have pictured an old creaky wood floor “with a single light hanging down above it,” when he told them Oak Hill played in the same gym he did in the early ’60s. That’s wasn’t the case, but they did find a vintage, cozy gym mostly full of fans — many of them in reserved single bleacher seats, a rarity for high school programs — eager to see their old coach return.
“It’s not that big, but it’s a good gym,” Keefer said. “You’ll see seats on the end, probably the same people who had those seats when I coached there. They never give them up, no, they will them to their kids.
“They love their basketball.”
All Keefer remembers from the 1960 sectional win over Marion is catching the ball and hitting a lay-up. He sunk what would become a legendary game-winner and the celebration began.
“It was before class basketball, when basketball was real basketball,” Keefer said. “We were playing Marion, the big bully of the grand county, and we beat them.”
Added Steve Fagan, who later was the trainer for Keefer’s team at Oak Hill: “It was special in a lot of ways A new school walking into the Hoosier Hysteria atmosphere and knocking off the powerhouse? It was huge.”
And they did it again the next year, with Keefer hitting two free throws to again put Marion on ice. Keefer laughs as he recalls that second win.
“I guess,” he said, “I had a good run against Marion.”
The run wasn’t so good once he started coaching.
In four seasons, from 1972-76, he went 61-26. It’s not a win over Marion that sticks out this time around, but a stinging sectional loss that Keefer feared had killed his chances at moving to a bigger school.
It was 1976, and he’d put out his application to Lawrence North. He had a comfortable lead, six points or so, over the host team. Mr. Basketball winner Dave Colescott had been limited to just 11 points, a mark Keefer remains proud of.
He thought for sure he’d done it, punched his ticket to Indianapolis. But then the whistle blew.
The ref called Oak Hill for three seconds in the lane. The coach lost his head, because he was sure it was a mistake, since the ball hadn’t made it across half-court yet.
“The call just wasn’t possible,” Keefer said with a laugh. “You can’t make that call if the ball is on the other half of the floor. We just got a wild call.”
Sure enough, Marion converted a three-point play. Then they stole an inbound pass. That lead was gone and all his memories of beating the big, bad Giants might as well have been from a different life.
“Well, that probably screwed up my chances of going down to Indianapolis next year,” Fagan remembers Keefer telling him.
Of course, it didn’t. Bill McCauley, who had been principal at Marion when Keefer was an assistant at Oak Hill, was tasked with finding Lawrence North’s first coach.
He hired Keefer with a promise to the board that the young talent from Northeast Indiana would bring them a state title.
“He wanted me to coach,” Keefer said. “He interviewed some of the best coaches of the day — I didn’t have any business interviewing against them — but (McCauley) was in my corner and I got it.”
Keefer landed in a much different situation with Lawrence North. He had few athletes and not a single senior. One of his first recruits from within the student body was a tennis player.
He just needed someone, anyone, who could run the floor. He asked himself then: Why did I leave what I had at Oak Hill?
But in 1989? He won his first of four state titles with Lawrence North. The next year, the late McCauley retired. Keefer concedes now that it was a good move.
“I’ll be darned,” Keefer said, “we won the state before (McCauley) quit.”
Keefer himself was being asked by players Saturday when he’s going to hang it up. After 46 years, Keefer has seen it all in Indiana high school hoops. But he doesn’t seem intent on stopping just yet. Just take his reaction when his former point guard, Jeff Pearson, told him he retired.
“What the hell is this?” he asked, as he grabbed Pearson by the arm. “One of my former players retiring before me?”
Just a moment later another former player walked through the gymnasium doors.
“They told me you were dead!” Keefer shouted at him.
That’s the kind of greetings you give and get after leaving a place for 40-plus years. It’d been so long since he saw them. Such a long time since he got off the bus at his Oak Hill.
“You get away from some place,” Keefer said. “And it’s hard to get back.”