Huskerland Bob got in his car Thursday to do his Huskerland Bob thing and when he stepped out it was February, 1980. Or so it seemed.
While doing my research for which tournaments I'd like to see this weekend I came across the Loup Valley Conference bracket and saw where my conference, the dear old LVC, was playing afternoon semifinal games into the evening. I rearranged my schedule, no doubt dropping the ball on a number of responsibilities in the office, and raced (at a safe, sane speed of course) to Broken Bow.
And that's when the whole 1980 thing hit me.
It all happened so fast for Michael J. Fox, in the blink of an eye, but in my back to the future moment unfolded over the next few hours, with me driving to the LVC semifinals in Broken Bow, recalling memories of the greatest two days of any basketball tournament I've ever covered.
MY FIRST WRITING JOB after high school was at the Custer County Chief in Broken Bow. There was a sense of destiny there, I guess, as having been the first baby born in Custer County in 1958 me and mom had our picture on the front page of the Chief the second day I was alive. Some call that destiny, some call it foreboding, call it what you will 21 years later I was hired as the paper's sports writer.
With all due respect to the other men who hired me during my career - Keith Kemper at the Alliance Times-Herald, Bill Nuckolls at the Fairbury Journal-News and Jim Kelly at the Lexington Clipper-Herald - the job Harry Purcell hired me to do at Broken Bow is the best of my career. (And not just because he's the only boss I ever had who gave me a raise I hadn't asked for...) I've told this story before but with no wife, no kids, no mortgage, no money all I had was my job and I loved it the way you love a new puppy the first day he's in the house. (Later on there were messes in my career, too, but that's another story for another time.)
Hired in June of 1979 - I had my own desk with a phone on it! - just a few months later it was time for the 1980 LVC tournament. Only a few years removed from high school myself (Arnold High, Class of 1976) I probably identified with the players and teams in that tournament in a way that never happened again, either. It truly was my first time and as it should be with any first time, it was unforgettably great.
THE BOYS SEMIFINALS featured four outstanding, evenly matched basketball teams and any doubt that is a fact would be eliminated that Friday and Saturday. Callaway, Ansley, Anselmo-Merna and my alma mater were not only all exceptional small school basketball teams they all had players, team leaders, with star power.
In the tournament final, Arnold rallied late, real late, with Mark Larreau getting a steal and a basket at the buzzer to help the Cardinals beat Ansley, 54-52. Arnold's team was led by John Kilmer, and he had a team-high 14 points that night, but Larreau's basket was part and parcel of the best basketball weekend of his career, his clutch play the difference for AHS in both games it played. Duane Bowers scored 12 points, Larreau and Troy Tickle 10 for Arnold in that game while Ansley was led by its own star, Alan Smith, who had 18, Mark Peterson who had 13 and Steve Cherry - yes Kearney High fans, THAT Steve Cherry - had 11.
In the consolation game there was more craziness as Russ Arnold made a jumper with four seconds left in overtime to give Anselmo-Merna a 78-76 overtime win against Callaway. Arnold, like Kilmer and Smith, was a special high school player, though he played with a certain edginess you frankly didn't see much in high school back then. He finished the night with 29 points and 10 rebounds while his wingman, Randy Leibhart, had 21 points and 13 rebounds. Callaway's Steve Dodge, probably the best player in the field, had a huge night with 26 points and 19 rebounds and Steve Brestel scored 19 points.
Ansley had reached the semifinals with a 49-47 win over Anselmo-Merna when Peterson made a tip-in with one second left in regulation. Arnold outlasted Callaway in the other semifinal, 72-68, with Larreau scoring three late baskets to provide the winning margin. Kilmer and Larreau had 16 each that night but it was Eugene Andre who led the team with 18 points. Dodge again came up big, finishing with 16 points and 17 rebounds.
See what I mean? Two days, four games, great ones all, with each team's star players coming through when it mattered most.
FLASH FORWARD to Thursday. Things have changed - Arnold and Callaway have merged their sports teams to form the South Loup Bobcats - but the thrills are still there. In the boys semifinal I saw Thursday Mullen held the lead the entire game until there was 1.9 seconds left in regulation when South Loup's Isaak Cole was fouled while shooting a three-pointer.
Showing some real steely nerves, Cole made the first two free throws, waited through Mullen's last timeout, then made the third to give South Loup it's only lead of the game, 54-53; the buzzer sounded and, voila, it was 1980 all over again.
Oh, and who was standing beside me watching it all unfold? Rachel Kilmer, the rising young sportscaster at KNOP-TV in North Platte. Kilmer you say...could it be?
Yes, Rachel is the daughter of John Kilmer, who with considerable help from his teammates like Mark Larreau won the championship in the 1980 LVC tournament, the best I've ever covered.