WESTERN HILLS – In 1984, legendary Western Hills High School baseball coach Ken Selby had a feeling. Call it a premonition, hunch or suspicion. Selby knew in two years time his Mustangs would be good.
He was right. But, the steely coach, defined by his own toughness, had no idea his 1986 team would become one of the most successful and memorable teams in Ohio High School baseball history.
In a state championship weekend that took three days to complete, West High won the 1986 Ohio AAA state baseball championship in a 12-inning final game. The Mustangs overcame Westerville North 11-9 for the title.
“When (the seniors) were sophomores (in 1984), I told them ‘If you guys continue to work hard we’ll win the state,'” recalled Selby, who coached at Western Hills from 1975-1994.
Enquirer reporter Tom Groeschen dubbed it “The Weekend That Won’t End.” It began when the state semifinals, slated for Friday, were rained out, pushing the games to Saturday. In that semifinal game, the Mustangs mauled Mentor 12-5 to advance.
Sunday’s state championship against Westerville North was so tense and exciting, both teams played the lights out. Literally. After four and a half hours, West High and North were tied 7-7, and after 10 innings officials decided to call the game due to darkness (Ohio State University lacked lights in ’86).
So, the Mustangs had to come back the next morning, Monday, and finish the game, which did not make them happy.
Selby said the team checked out of its hotel Sunday as the players and staff didn’t have the money for another hotel stay. Westerville North was about 15 minutes outside of Columbus so the Mustangs decided to drive home Sunday night, then back the next morning for a 10 a.m. start. That was until a Western Hills alum stepped up and paid the hotel charge for another night, which Selby considered money well spent.
On Monday morning, the Mustangs got dressed in the same dirty uniforms they played in the day before and went out to win the school’s fifth state title.
“I don’t think we would have wanted (our uniforms) washed,” said Mike Lindsey, a senior in 1986, and now an assistant coach at La Salle. “We loved each other, and we did it for each other as much as we did it for ourselves.”
When play resumed Monday, both teams went scoreless in the 11th inning, then in the top of the 12th, West High plated four runs. As reported by Groeschen, senior Rick Neville scored after a walk and singles from Jeff Homan and Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes. Troy Roark grounded out, and Jerry Schoen was intentionally walked. Brad Kuehn singled to score Homan and Rhodes, then Rod Hutson singled home Schoen. In the bottom of the 12th, Westerville North added two runs but Rhodes put the game and team into the record books with a bases loaded strikeout.
When it was all said and done, the Mustangs, who finished with a 29-6 record, had 18 hits and 10 errors in the title game. Lindsey summed it up, “Good teams find a way to win.”
“They had good camaraderie,” Selby said. “They were a good group of kids; I didn’t have to worry about them.”
They were the definition of a team; they came from different places with different backgrounds, and worked together in a way few team’s ever do, he said. They had a lineup that could hit top to bottom and two top-of-the-line starting pitchers in Rhodes and Neville, both lefties who threw in the state final.
West High’s players didn’t just win state; they peppered the state record books. In ’86, Schoen, who went on to play at Creighton and Eastern Kentucky, had 70 hits, which ranks second all-time in the state for hits in a season. Neville won 15 games — tied for fifth all-time in a single season. As a team, the Mustangs had 442 hits, which is second all-time in a season in Ohio High School history, according to the OHSAA.
A week prior to state, Rhodes was drafted by the Houston Astros in the third round. He played five MLB seasons, with the Astros and Chicago Cubs, before playing in Japan from 1996-2009. In 2006, Rhodes tried to catch on with the Cincinnati Reds but was cut in spring training. He returned to Japan.
“We were all friends…and we did not want to lose,” Schoen said. “We fed off (coach Selby); he was a hard-nosed guy and we played to his demeanor.”
West High’s pitching coach in 1986 was a spry Mark Thompson, who eventually landed the head job at Elder where he’s enjoyed a storied career and two state titles of his own.
“To say ‘proud’ is an understatement,” said Neville. “Only so many people get to (win a championship) in their lifetime. Your parents and friends are in the stands. It’s a fairytale story.”