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Monarchs find new place for home games




The Monarchs' home opener wasn't at home.

But the basketball court long known as Kennedy Middle School gym turned out to be a good substitute for Al Billinger Fieldhouse, players and coaches both agreed.

"I thought it was wonderful," Thomas More Prep-Marian High School girls' basketball coach Rose McFarland said. "We had a good crowd; it was noisy. The guys (TMP students) on the stage were yelling and screaming.

"This was Friday night basketball. I love it."

The TMP basketball teams were forced to start the season playing their home games away from the fieldhouse, affectionately called the "pit" by Monarch boys' basketball coach Joe Hertel.

"I just like the old 'Hoosiers' atmosphere," Hertel said of the fieldhouse. "I'd like to be in our 'pit.' If you can't, I love playing here."

Friday was the first designated home game of the season that normally would have been played in the fieldhouse. However, the ball was tipped at the St. Joseph Parish school gym, formerly Kennedy Middle School and still commonly referred to as Kennedy gym.

TMP was notified by letter from the State Fire Marshal's office in early November the maximum number of occupants safely allowable in the bleachers at Al Billinger Fieldhouse was 49, based on the location and capacity of the exits. Until renovations are complete, the Monarchs will have their home games away from their home court. Friday's action against Ellinwood was the first test.

"We're going to evaluate it," TMP Athletic Director Gene Flax said. "I'm going to talk to the coaches; I'm going to talk to the visiting coaches. I'm going to talk to the officials, get their input."

Flax said the players were told to carpool to the game, due to limited parking. He also informed Ellinwood officials parking and seating could be limited.

"We didn't know what kind of crowd to expect, with both schools going into Christmas break," Flax said. "We got a nice turnout here. It's been a good atmosphere, for the most part."

Clarence Dreiling, who has been going to TMP games for almost 20 years at the fieldhouse, attended Friday's game, too. He had a front row seat with some friends; they all sit together at Monarch games. They have a different view of the action at Al Billinger Fieldhouse.

"We sit up top, in chairs," he said of the fieldhouse. "We took lawn chairs with us."

Dreiling said it was too noisy Friday to suit his taste.

"The noise isn't as loud (in Al Billinger Fieldhouse) as it is in this place here," Dreiling said.

The noise -- thanks in part to a boisterous student section standing on risers on the stage behind one basket -- helped create a good atmosphere, said Monarch junior guard Kameron Schmidt, who canned five 3-pointers in the second quarter alone.

"I liked the enthusiasm of the crowd," said Schmidt, who played basketball for the Irish when he was at Kennedy Middle School three years ago. "With it being smaller, you could hear (the noise) more. The crowd was louder (Friday); that's what I liked about it."

Kaylor Gottschalk, a junior forward for the Monarch girls, also is a Kennedy alum. The noise did have an effect, she said.

"It was a lot louder than it usually is," she said. "A couple times we were all confused because we couldn't hear the plays."

Gottschalk was OK with playing away from Al Billinger Fieldhouse.

"I was all right with it, because we don't have any other choice," she said. "It's nice to play at TMP, but the atmosphere here is all right, too."

Fans packed the gym, and there was an announcement made to scoot closer together. Some of the Ellinwood players in the boys' game had trouble with the dimensions of the court, which was a little smaller than at the fieldhouse; a handful of times, they had a foot on the line while receiving a pass.

The cheerleaders were on top of the court, too, which still displays the leprechaun logo of Kennedy's Fighting Irish.

Curtis Wolfe, who works for St. Joseph Parish and a former maintenance worker at Kennedy Middle School, wore a green Kennedy shirt Friday while using the dust mop on the floor between games.

During the boys' game, even a window was opened to let in some cold air -- just like at Al Billinger Fieldhouse.

The Ellinwood radio announcer was seated at a table on stage behind one basket, while Hays' Eagle Communications announcers were at a table in the corner, near the TMP bench.

Play-by-play announcer Jeremy McGuire had to save a laptop from crashing to the floor when a loose ball headed their way during the boys' game.

"It'll be loud," McGuire predicted before the start of the varsity girls' game. "I couldn't hear the buzzer go off in the JV girls' game."

TMP won that game on a basket at the buzzer. The Monarchs' varsity girls lost 67-52 but the boys won, 74-47.

"It was fun to play here," Hertel said. "I think my players -- all of whom are Kennedy Middle School alums -- I think it was kind of a nostalgic feeling for them, too. I'm happy about that."

Friday was about basketball, but it was about making a home away from home, too.

As the final seconds ticked off in the boys' blowout win, the TMP student section -- with many wearing Santa hats, and even one wearing reindeer antlers -- serenaded the crowd with a raucous version of "Silent Night" while swaying back and forth, arm in arm.

They finished to applause from the fans.

On this night, maybe it felt like home.