Patience paid off
Conneaut wouldn't let Heidi Litwiler play varsity ball until her sophomore season, but she and her classmates made up for lost time in a big way
By KARL PEARSON
Second of a series...
In everyone's life, there come times when they are too young to be permitted to do some things. Later on, they find they are too old to do other things. It all boils down to being born too soon or too late.
Heidi Litwiler certainly knows what the first aspect in all about. When she was growing up, she found herself in an era when students in the Conneaut Area City Schools were not allowed to play varsity-level athletics until her sophomore year of high school because Conneaut High School was only for athletes in grades 10-12.
Unlike today, when freshmen are an integral part of the athletic scene for the Spartans, because Litwiler was a student at Rowe Middle School when she was in ninth grade, she had to sit and watch older girls carry the load, even though there is a strong suspicion she would have been at least an important contributor to the Conneaut teams of the early 1980s.
Litwiler also had the misfortune of playing high school basketball before a 3-point line was instituted and when girls basketball was played with the same-sized basketball as boys did. It wasn't until two years after she graduated in 1985 that the 3-pointer existed in high school and a smaller ball was used in the girls game.
Heidi Litwiler of Conneaut soars to the basket between helpless Poland defenders Nancy Barnes (left) and Kelly Milliken during a Class AAA sectional championship game at Hubbard on Feb. 20, 1985. Litwiler will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on March 28.
"I was only allowed to play my sophomore through senior years because Conneaut was only a 10th-12th school back then," the daughter of Doris and the later Roger Litwiler Sr. said.
But there's also one thing eminently clear about Heidi Litwiler. She never let obstacles stand in her way. She never got mired down in what could be, although she wonders sometimes now what might have been achieved had circumstances been different. She just attacked the situation that was available to her with a special drive and passion.
Because she took that approach to her situation, sports at Conneaut and at Lakeland Community College were the better for her efforts. The basketball and softball teams at both schools enjoyed some of their greatest moments fueled by the fire that burned within Litwiler. In fact, the Spartans enjoyed their first great era in girls basketball during her career.
The Conneaut basketball teams of which she was a part in her junior and senior seasons were particularly special. The 1983-84 Spartans of coach Paul Ruland finished 18-4 and to earn a share of its first Northeastern Conference championship with the Harbor Mariners of Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame coach Frank Roskovics which featured two other ABCF Hall of Famers, Roberta Cevera (Blakeslee) and Chris Fitting.
Her senior year was even better. The Spartans went through a perfect 20-0 regular season in which it was only really tested in one game to an undisputed NEC title. Eventually, they advanced to the Class AAA district semifinals at Hubbard High School before losing to the host Eagles, 50-47.
It would be another 13 years before the Conneaut girls qualified for the district tournament and another 15 seasons before the Spartans would claim an undisputed NEC title, both under the tutelage of ACBF Hall of Famer Tom Ritari.
Litwiler could do it all for her Spartans. Even though she stood only 5-foot-7, she could drive to the basket, shoot from outside, rebound with the tall timber, play the bandit with her quick hands or make her teammates look good with razor-sharp passing.
"My passion was actually passing the ball," the 42-year-old Litwiler said. "I always led the team in scoring, but if I thought you were open, you'd better be ready for the pass because it was coming to you.
"It was emphasized to me to be a well-rounded player. I could post up, drive inside, shoot from outside and break the press. I usually played at power forward."
There is one factor that has always driven Litwiler.
"I always strive to be the best," she said.
The 1984-85 Conneaut Spartans, who put together a perfect regular season and finished 22-1, enjoy one of the special moments of that season. They are (from left) Laura Horwood, Candy Clough, Heidi Litwiler, head coach Paul Ruland, statistician Amy Laituri, manager Paula Carney, Stacey Maleckar, Cathy Horwood, Stacey Cover and assistant coach Mike Clancy (partially obscured).
Now, Litwiler can say she is definitely among the best. On March 28, she will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame.
"It's an honor," she said. "It's great that female players are recognized, too. This shows I can be among the best."
She's pleased to be joining old rivals like Fitting and Cevera and Pymatuning Valley product Melody Holt (Nowakowski), whom she never played in high school, but teamed with at Lakeland. She also had the distinction of playing against Ashtabula's Diane Davis, the county's all-time leading scorer for players of either gender.
"That means a lot," Litwiler said. "Those were great players. I played against Diane when she was a senior and I was a sophomore. She's the best female player I ever saw."
Ruland left Conneaut after that special 1984-85 season and has gone on to great distinction at Troy Christian in southwestern Ohio. He certainly felt blessed to have a player of Litwiler's skills, even if it was only for three seasons.
"Back then, AAU basketball wasn't the big thing it is today," he said. "Kids today get to play against top competition all year long. It's a little hard to compare eras, but if Heidi had had that, and she'd been allowed to play, I think she could have helped us as a freshman. And I had pretty good teams back then.
"If they had the 3-pointer back then, I think Heidi would have set a record for 3-pointers because she could hit from 20-22 feet."
The early years
Litwiler came to basketball as one of her athletic endeavors relatively late. Her connection to the sport came about almost by accident.
"I had been playing softball since I was 5 years old," she said. "In the sixth grade (at Southeast Elementary School), we were outside on the playground and my teacher, (the late) Jack Lyons, showed us the game rround the world (shooting from different spots on the court). I stuck with him and he said I should try out for the seventh-grade team (at Rowe)."
Intrigued by that possibility, the youngest of the Litwiler's four children coaxed her father into putting up a basketball hoop on the garage at 407 Main St.
"We lived across the street from the old Kroger's store (now the site of the Rite Aid Pharmacy)," she said. "My dad put the hoop on the garage and I'd go out and shoot by myself. Later on, my dad would come out and shoot with me after dinner."
That was possible because Heidi was pretty much an only child by that time since her older siblings Debbie (now deceased), Roger Jr. and Jeff were grown and out of the home while she was still in elementary school.
"I was the mistake," she said with a laugh. "There's 10 years between me and Jeff. It was like being an only child."
Actually, that status had its own perks.
"My mom (who now lives near her in Erie) and dad (who died in 1993) were there for every game every year when I played," Litwiler said. "They were the best support anyone could ask for. They drove me and my friends all over. They did all they could for me."
Eventually, a couple of her future Spartan teammates, Stacey Cover and Laura Horwood, got hoops at their homes, too, so they took turns hosting shooting sessions in their driveways.
It was not without some trepidation that Litwiler took Lyons' advice and tried out for the seventh-grade team at Rowe. It's there that she first encountered Mike Clancy, who is still in the coaching realm in the county.
"Mike Clancy and Sandra White were my first coaches for my first organized basketball experience," Litwiler said. "I was really nervous about it, but it went fine.
"I had girls like Candy Clough and Stacey Maleckar on my team. And Mike kept moving up with us all the way until I was playing JV ball (in her sophomore season)."
Clancy had an impact on molding Litwiler into a complete player.
"He really emphasized being a well-rounded player," Litwiler said. "I'm naturally left-handed, but he taught me to use my right hand. He made it so you wouldn't have known which was my best hand unless you saw me shoot the ball."
Since there were few other female players to look up to at the time, Litwiler focused on some NBA stars.
"Once I figured out I was good, I started to follow players like Dr. J (Julius Erving) and Magic Johnson," she said. "I tried to compare myself to them. I think I figured out early I had a knack for the game."
It was a gradual growth process for that group of girls at Rowe, but eventually they laid the groundwork for a powerhouse.
"We were .500 or above in seventh and eighth grade," Litwiler said. "In my freshman year, we only lost one."
Litwiler inquired why she and some of the better freshmen weren't utilized with the high school team. The Conneaut varsity was 5-14 in that 1981-82 season.
"I asked several times about playing JV and was told we weren't allowed," she said.
When they did get to Conneaut High School, Litwiler and other sophomores like Stacey Cover found they had to spend a bit of an apprenticeship at the JV level.
"When we were sophomores, Stacey and I were a little frustrated because we felt we could help the (varsity) team (which finished 7-11)," Litwiler said. "We worked our way up to being full-time varsity players by midseason of my sophomore year."
Ruland knew he had the elements of a special team.
"We had a pretty good nucleus," he said. "We had good players like Barb Gamble, Heidi and (Cover)."
As her varsity career blossomed, and in the years since, Litwiler has developed an ever-increasing appreciation for the skills Ruland brought to the table.
"Coach Ruland was the best coach I ever had," she said. "He told us to be patient.
"He was so calm, and he knew the game inside and out. He loved to teach us new plays, and they worked. He'd get right out there and play with us. And he had us in shape, too. It was like church with him."
There was also Clancy on the scene.
"He helped out with everything," Litwiler said.
The big time
By the 1983-84 season, the Spartans were ready to roll. Even the players had a sense of it, and they were taking others along for the ride.
"In my junior year, we had a lot of confidence," Litwiler said. "Even the papers could see it all coming together."
To prepare herself for that season, Litwiler did something most girls of that era didn't, heading off to summer camp with Gamble at Kenyon College. It helped make their play that much stronger and built the Spartans, who also included Cover, Horwood, Clough, Maleckar and Jill Marshall, into a formidable group.
Ruland appreciated Litwiler for her intelligence as a player.
"I've had four players in my career who were extremely smart, and Heidi was the first of them," he said. "All four of them were not super quick or super fast, but they were always up there among the leaders in steals. They all had quick hands and really understood the game."
The NEC race that year became a two-horse chase, which eventually saw Conneaut and Harbor tie for the championship.
"We beat Harbor up there and they beat us (at Garcia Gymnasium)," Litwiler said.
"Those Harbor games are the ones I remember," Ruland said.
Litwiler went on to earn first-team Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County and Coaches' All-NEC honors in her junior season.
But, despite that accomplishment, there was a sense in the Spartan camp that the 1983-84 season could have been even better. It only made them that much more determined to top that year the next season.
"We figured we should be undefeated going into our senior year," Litwiler said. "We'd shot for it as juniors. We really felt we could have had an even better junior year, so we were really focused on going undefeated our senior year."
Litwiler became even more goal-oriented for her senior year after her softball season.
"We made it to regionals in softball my junior year," she said.
That special season
Remembering what that trip to summer camp had meant before her junior year, Litwiler and her old buddy, Horwood, made a trip to camp at Bowling Green State University before their senior season.
"We also played a lot of open gyms," she said. "We didn't play a lot of one-on-one. We did a lot of shooting and practiced things like alley-oops (passes)."
All the work paid off handsomely. The Spartans simply blew away the competition in the NEC. In fact, they throttled virtually all the competition, outscoring teams by a 55.8-36.0 average for the season.
"The only close game we played during the regular season was over at Geneva," Litwiler said. "They had Lori Belconis on that team (coached by Jeff Pizon). We only won, 33-30."
"That game was really tough," Ruland said. "They really slowed it down. It was a tough game, but the girls remained calm and Heidi had a couple steals at the end that really helped."
It was the only time that season that Litwiler, who averaged 16.1 points, was held below double figures, scoring just seven. Maleckar scored 14 to lead the Spartans. Belconis, who joined Litwiler on the first-team on the all-county and all-conference squads and went on to earn county Player of the Year honors the next season, had 18 that night.
When they had completed their perfect regular season, Litwiler said the Spartans had to do some serious goal readjustment.
"We really didn't know much about the (sectional) tournament," she said. "I think we had placed more of our expectations on going 20-0 than on the tournament."
Ruland had been trying to think ahead, knowing that the competition in the NEC and Ashtabula County at the time probably wasn't helping the Spartans much.
"I was the (athletic director) at the time, and I tried all season long to schedule a game with teams like Mentor, North or Lake Catholic, which were the power teams up there, but I couldn't get a game with them," he said.
So Ruland was the one most concerned about what the Spartans would face in the Class AAA sectional-district at Hubbard High School. They handled the sectional part well, beating Poland, 61-33, and Youngstown Wilson, 69-36, to set up a matchup with the home team.
The Spartans met their end in the district semifinals, falling behind by 17 points in the third quarter. Despite a furious rally and 18 points from Litwiler, Hubbard hung on for a 50-47 victory. The Eagles were led by Cara Hendrix, who went on to third-team All-Ohio honors, with 25 points.
"I knew Hubbard was a good, quality team, and we hadn't been up against that kind of team before," Ruland said in his phone conversation from Troy. "But the girls kept fighting."
"We were disappointed, but we'd had a great season," Litwiler said.
Litwiler reaped the benefits of her play after the season. She was named NEC Player of the Year and was also first-team all-county in a year when Holt, who averaged 25 points a game, was named Star Beacon Ashtabula County Player of the Year.
"Mel and I still debate that one," Litwiler said with a laugh. "I told her, ‘At least I passed the ball.'"
There was one other significant honor for Litwiler — selection as a special-mention All-Ohioan.
"It was great when I heard about being All-Ohio," she said. "They announced it at school. I think being an all-around player made it easy. I was glad people recognize that."
Ruland is proud of another fact about members of his last two Conneaut teams.
"Heidi, Stacey (Cover) and Barb Gamble all went on to play college basketball," he said.
A note Ruland gave Litwiler that she still has in her scrapbook shows the esteem in which he held her.
"Lots of people know how to be successful, but very few people know how to handle success," it read. "Congratulations, because you are a winner."
Litwiler and Cover were also key factors after the season in leading an Ashtabula County all-star team coached by Roskovics and Edgewood's Bob Callahan to an 86-85 victory over a squad of Medina County all-stars in a game at Lakeland in the Ohio Female Athletic Foundation Senior All-Star Classic. Litwiler scored 18 points in that game and grabbed nine rebounds.
The next step
With an excellent academic resume to go with her athletic accomplishments, the world seemed to be Litwiler's oyster.
"I had a full ride from (the United States Military Academy at) West Point," she said. "I was all set to play basketball there, but I looked at four years of college and five years in the military and decided I didn't like the commitment."
She also had opportunities to play both basketball and softball at Youngstown State University and Defiance College. But Lakeland, which was riding high at the time, offered that through the guidance of the late Terry Hietanen, a charismatic figure in both sports, and its proximity to her home, won the day.
"Lakeland was close to home and they had just won nationals two years in a row," Litwiler said. "Terry got me, (Cover) and Holt there. Mel and I roomed together for two years."
But the whole situation blew up almost immediately.
"They fired (Hietanen) and we got a new coach," Litwiler said.
But they all stayed the course with the Lakers. It worked out especially well for Litwiler, who was twice named Laker Athlete of the Year for her exploits in basketball and softball.
"We made it to nationals again in softball," she said. "I had a blast."
Her excellence at Lakeland gave her a shot at Cleveland State University to play both sports, but she only stayed there one semester before she got married.
Litwiler came back to Conneaut and worked in the tax business with her parents until her father died in 1993.
"I went back to school at Gannon and got my degree in radiological sciences," she said. "I've been doing that ever since. I'm employed by St. Vincent Hospital and I teach Gannon students. They come to me."
But she didn't walk away from her own athletic pursuits.
"I played for the A-1 Geneva (women's softball) team that went to nationals until three years ago," she said. "Then I retired from everything."
That's not entirely true. Now she is involved in helping her 15-year-old son Zak, a sophomore at Erie's Collegiate Academy, a school for gifted and talented students, make the most he can of a budding hockey career, following the example of her parents.
"I take Zak everywhere," Litwiler said. "He plays for the (Erie) Junior Otters. It seems like every weekend, we're going to Pittsburgh, Buffalo or Cleveland. You have to do that for your kids."
She still finds herself falling back on the values basketball and softball taught her. Sometimes, that's even while she's fighting her own nature.
HEIDI LITWILER and her son, Zak, are all smiles, as they will be when she enters the ACBF Hall of Fame on March 28.
"Basketball gave me discipline," Litwiler said. "It made me a perfectionist, but I'm always striving to be patient and work on that other kind of patience.
"I've always been one to go full out. Discipline has made me slow down. I give Zak, my patients and my students all my time now."