By CHRIS LARICK
Mike Pape has a message for high school athletes looking forward to college careers:
Enjoy your high school years. They’ll be hard to match.
“It was a magical time,” he said of his high school years at Conneaut (1991-1995). We had a great team and the NEC was a good league, still pretty competitive. (The schools) had stayed together so long and those coaches were still there. We’d have away games and (our fans) were still there.
“Every game had a wow factor. Every time I was with (my teammates) was a wonderful experience. It was a time to be remembered, such a happy place to be in.”
The Spartans were competitive in Pape’s freshman and sophomore years, but really hit their stride when he was a junior and senior. They lost just one game (to Harvey) in the 1993-94 regular season and went unbeaten in the 1994-95 regular season for a 39-1 record over two years, pre-tournament.
Those Conneaut teams were led by a triumvirate of 1,000-point scorers — Pape (1,166 points), Dan Coxon (1,065) and Tony Lyons (1,026). But there were several other key players, including Tom O’Connell, Chris Anthony, Jason Tharp, Nick Armeni, Joe Swigunski, Brent Kananen, Travis Hayes and (as a senior) Jeff Grubke, who contributed significantly.
“(Grubke) was just a nice another nice addition to our team,” Pape said. “Every little bit helps."
It all started with several of those players at Chestnut Elementary School in Conneaut under Dave Anthony, Chris’s dad. When the tall, athletic (but new to basketball) Lyons joined the group in the seventh grade, the ceiling was raised.
“When (Lyons) joined us, we were happy to have him,” Pape said.
When the group moved to Conneaut High School it came under the coaching of Greg Mason. Pape got some starting time as a freshman and the others gradually worked in.
By the time Mason was fired after the group’s sophomore season, they were ready to take charge of the league. Kent Houston was brought in as coach to accomplish that.
“We were a good team and the NEC (Northeastern Conference) was a good league, still pretty competitive, but we were that much better,” Pape said. “We had been together so long. The chemistry was there, the coaching was there, and we were working hard.”
Pape had a specific role on the team. He rebounded, forced his way inside and shot from close to or under the basket. Told he got a lot of “garbage” baskets, he doesn’t take umbrage.
“I think that’s accurate,” he said when the writer expounded on that designation. “I knew what my role was and I was very comfortable with it. I took pride in it. We had other players to (shoot from the outside). Those roles were filled.”
In Pape’s junior and senior seasons the Spartans won all but one of their regular seasons, most of them by large margins. But Conneaut ran into problems at the Madison sectional-districts, losing to Cleveland St. Joseph in 1994 and to Cleveland Benedictine in 1995.
“That was pretty amazing,” Pape said of his junior year. “I think we were a great team, but (St. Joe’s) was a team of tremendous athletes. I though I had played a lot of basketball, but that team had probably played more. The first play of the game, off the center jump, they got an alley oop basket. I thought, ‘Gee.’ They were a well-oiled machine.
“Benedictine (took a big advantage) in the first half in that game. They just made more baskets than we did. Foul trouble was a rarity for us. They were just as aggressive as we were.”
In describing his role on the team, Pape said, “I played center and forward, more center than forward. I could be a utility player; I could play any position. Houston would probably let me play guard, but Mason probably wouldn’t have.
“Mason was an old-school, in-your-face coach. He was well-respected. but it took a little getting used to. He was loved by the team, loved for what he did.”
That held true, Pape said, despite Mason’s use of “suicide drills,” sprints from the baseline to half court, then the whole length of the court, repetitively.
“You’d do that if you didn’t play well the night before,” Pape said.
“Houston was more methodical and regimented. He was very, very professional and a good motivator. He got us to put in the time in the off-season.”
Like his teammates, Coxon and Lyons, Pape was a first-team All-Ashtabula County and All-NEC selection as a junior and senior.
Sort of a “tweener” (too short for a college center, too slow for a college forward), Pape was not a Division I college prospect. But he did get offers from Division III schools and some Division II colleges. He finally settled on Division II (NAIA) Mount Vernon Nazarene Universityin Mount Vernon, Ohio (near Kenyon), which gave him a scholarship that covered everything except books.
He played there for three years, then transferred to Kent State, where he finished his B.A. in Business Administration degree without playing basketball.
“Mount Vernon was a good experience, but there was a different comfort level there,” he said. “I was more or less a forward. I didn’t get to play as much but still enjoyed my time there.”
When he graduated, he moved away from Conneaut and took positions in industrial sales and pharmaceutical sales.
He eventually moved into real estate sales, continuing to this day. He currently works for Berkshire-Hathaway Homes in Painesville, in residential sales.
Pape is now single but has two sons, Jackson, 12, and Michael, 3.
“I get along with both of them,” he said. “Jackson is more into X-Box than sports, but Michael is getting interested in sports. He’s built more like a football player.”
Of his days playing for Conneaut, Pape said, “I really enjoyed the people on my team. What a great time it was!”