Granger McLaughlin remembered watching when the field house at Licking Valley was built in 1985.
He looked on sadly late Friday night as it was destroyed by fire.
“Dads, volunteers did the electrical work, the painting and the masonry,” said McLaughlin, a star running back in 1988 on coach Randy Baughman’s first team to defeat Newark Catholic, go unbeaten, and make the playoffs. “I also wrestled some, ran track, and played baseball. It was a gathering place for all sports, where you would see parents come to pick up their kids.”
A state-of-the-art, multipurpose building is about three weeks away from completion at Valley. Until the fire, the field house was home to the weight room, varsity football locker room and equipment, some wrestling mats and equipment and the middle school wrestling room. It also was going to be the locker room for middle school and freshman football, and visiting football teams after the old building used for those was torn down.
McLaughlin said he recalled when weights from the old Nautilus gym on 30th Street in Newark were brought in to replace the Universal gym that was there.
“It was like Shangri-La,” he said. “At the time, it was one of the best facilities many had seen. I went away to college, would come home, and those weights would be nicer than the ones in college.”
Casey Brehm, who helped lead the Panthers to state runner-up honors in 2001 as Division IV Defensive Player of the Year, brought his son back to the field house and weight room in recent years.
“It was much smaller than I remembered,” Brehm said. “Then you smell everything, and you remember a lot of the good times you had and the friends you made. (The fire) is disheartening, but you have to grasp the positive things.”
Valley wrestling coach Jeremy Tate recalls the weight room as “pretty small and dingy. But we did the best we could with it and made the most out of it.”
“There were so many hours spent in there,” Baughman said. “All the good players we had were in there, night and day, trying to make themselves better.”
Tate, a state wrestling champion for the Panthers who graduated in 1994, also played football. Back then, the field house served as Valley’s varsity wrestling room.
“I grew up at wrestling practice every day at the field house, with what I learned from my dad (Rick) and Neil Cowen,” he said. “It was a lot of good times, and some bad times.”
Tate’s current team lost mats and singlets in the fire. “The big mat that burned up in there, we got it new when I was a freshman in high school, and we still used it,” he said.
Jason Osborn, a 1993 graduate who wrestled at 125 pounds for three consecutive years, remembered having to transport the old mats from the school to the field house.
“They were so heavy, it would take six or eight guys to carry them and get them in the pickup truck to take up there,” he said. “Then, we would have to load them up again to take back. With these new mats, one guy can roll it up and carry it.
“I spent a lot of time in that building,” added Osborn, who also coached biddy wrestling there for several years.
“We had a lot of fun, but we worked our tails off to the bone in there under Neil Cowen. The first couple years, we were trying to bring home the county championship, then it was about bringing home the (Buckeye Athletic Conference) championship.”
The football field, with its field turf and surrounding all-weather track, now is Randy Baughman Stadium. Its namesake and still football coach said perhaps the most unique thing about the field house was the display case he put up at the front of the locker room. It had pictures of all of his teams and what they had accomplished. Baughman wrote all the descriptions.
“When I started that, I didn’t know where it would go,” Baughman said. “It became much more of a drawing card than I thought. Players would bring their sons in and show them. That’s the first thing the players brought up (after the fire).
“We want to come up with a replacement for it in the new building, a nicer display. We’re reaching out to former players for old pictures they might have.”
McLaughlin now is president of the Licking Valley Gridiron Club, and echoed those thoughts.
“We want to try and rebuild that wall; it was his prize possession,” he said. “Players can call me, email pictures to me, or send them in the mail to me.”
Ironically, McLaughlin had been in the field house with a group of boys on Thursday doing off-season weight training. There also had been talk of putting signs up on the outside of the field house facing the track, with school and track records. Fortunately, the bleachers, track and field were not damaged. Also, no one was injured in the blaze, including the firefighters from the five departments and 23 trucks that responded.
Baughman, McLaughlin and the rest of the district still are stunned by what happened.
“The new field house is going to be better, but guys felt like they had a piece of the old one,” McLaughlin said.
“There’s so many guys who put so much effort into building it, plus the players; it was a second home to many of us, the only facility we had ever known since 1985,” Baughman said.
However, they’re taking a positive approach to the future.
McLaughlin wants to put in a walkway from the new building to the field with all the names and years of Panther players.
“Back when the old field house was first built, everyone was saying how nice it was,” he said. “Our community is very close, and it will happen again (with the new facility).”
“We caught a lucky break,” Baughman said. “We had 100 helmets that weren’t in the building because they had been sent away for re-conditioning. That saved us a major expense. We also had about 40 pairs of shoulder pads that had been sent away and weren’t in there.
“I think everyone will come together, be supportive, and we’ll be OK.”