Hillsboro Christian Academy's Jaden Henderson (11) drives against Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy in the Pepsi Classic Holiday Tournament hosted by Ripley-Union-Lewis-Huntington High School on Dec. 28. (HCP photos by Colin Ryan.)
Hillsboro Christian Academy's Jaden Henderson (11) drives against Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy in the Pepsi Classic Holiday Tournament hosted by Ripley-Union-Lewis-Huntington High School on Dec. 28. (HCP photos by Colin Ryan.)

My first visit to the relatively new Ripley-Union-Lewis-Huntington High School was Saturday, Dec. 28. The occasion was to watch the Hillsboro Christian Academy Crusaders play Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy in the Pepsi Classic Holiday Tournament hosted by the high school.

As a former coach of both the Highland County Christian School Warriors (the "Road Warriors" because we were always traveling) and the newly named Hillsboro Christian Academy Crusaders, I think this was a rather remarkable opportunity for the school.

Playing in the impressive RULH gymnasium had to be a great feeling for the players, coaching staff and fans. I'd swear the gym had more scoreboards than all of the gyms combined that the team played in during the entire 2007-08 season.

To the best of my memory (and maybe HCA Principal Connie Sears will correct me), the 2007-08 season was the last for the Warriors, who became the Crusaders the next season.

I do recall that in the 2007-08 season, we played what very likely was the final basketball game played by two schools in the old Belfast School gymnasium in Jackson Township. Hillsboro played a Christian school team from Pike County.

I shared some of this in Ripley this weekend with HCA assistant Fred Boggess, who is part of head coach Tyler Rhodes' staff.

To set the stage, you must know that the local Christian school team did not have a home gymnasium. We practiced – and played – wherever we could. We held practices in the small gym at the Hillsboro Church of Christ. We practiced at the Hillsboro Bible Baptist Church. We practiced and played home games at the Webster Elementary School gym. (That school was demolished in 2016.)

But in the winter of late 2007 or early 2008, we played in Belfast. I remember leaving work early – back in my traditional suit-and-tie days – just to be sure the gym was in decent shape. It wasn't.

The most recent event in the gym must have been an auction or maybe a carnival of some sort. The first thing I remember was the floor. It was glue-like. Empty pop cans scattered around the court explained why. Folding tables and chairs from a previous event filled the gym floor, too. First things first. I started with the chairs.

I should say "we" started with the chairs. Sherry Keith, whose daughter attended the Christian school, also arrived early. After moving the tables and chairs to the stage and hallway, we went to work on the floor. We swept and mopped for at least an hour, but game time was sneaking up on us.

We also had to figure out the scoreboard controls. Turns out, there were none. OK. No problem. We'll (and by that, I mean, Coach Scott Rankin will) deal with that prior to tipoff.

Did I mention this was wintertime? It was a rather cold day. As the sun set around 5 p.m., it was going to become colder. Had anyone cranked up the old Belfast furnace that winter? Not on this day.

Slowly, fans from both schools trickled in. The teams arrived. Players "warmed" up. My son, Colin, who is now a teacher at HCA, always wore high socks and was teased by his teammates for doing so all season, except on that night. They all wanted his Michael Cooper (old-school L.A. Lakers reference) socks.

Fans trickled back outside to their cars and returned with blankets and heavy coats. (Because that's how we roll in southern Ohio winters. We're always prepared for such emergencies like snowstorms and cold gymnasiums. I think someone brought in Meals Ready To Eat since there was no concession stand.)

I am almost certain that Jeff Gilliland was the referee that night. I recall we had a pregame conference with the Pike County coach, and I explained that there would be no working scoreboard (and no heat). The two teams' respective scorekeepers would have to do. We borrowed my wife's wristwatch – it had a second hand – to keep time. Speaking of referees, this weekend's HCA games featured three – count 'em, three – OHSAA officials. In the 2008 season, we were fortunate to have one referee.

On the bright side, almost two-thirds of the gym lights worked.

Our scorekeeper, my daughter, Meghan, used a marker and notebook paper to write each quarter score as large as she could and then held it up for fans on both sides of the court to see.

Not that it matters after all these years, but we won the game by three points. Only we didn't.

The visiting scorekeeper had us as the winning team. Unfortunately, our scorekeeper did not realize that three or our baskets from beyond the arc should have been counted as 3-pointers. She gave us two points on each shot, and as the home team, our scorebook was the official book. Thus, the game ended in a tie. It was too cold for any overtime period, and both teams left thinking they'd won.

In addition to playing what I have to believe was the last high school game ever played in Belfast, we also played in Sinking Spring (our "home" court), Buford, the former Webster gym and (no kidding) on a carpeted gym floor at Butler Springs.

So as I sat in Ripley-Union-Lewis-Huntington High School on Saturday afternoon, I had to appreciate just how far Hillsboro Christian Academy has come as a school and as a basketball program.

Coach Rhodes and his staff are doing a great job with the young players. Leighton Harper scored 14 points against a talented Cincinnati team, and all of the players hustled throughout the game. Harper was honored after the game as the top HCA player in the two-day tournament.

“This was a totally different experience,” Coach Rhodes told The Highland County Press after the game. “This is a much higher level of competition and a much faster-paced game than what we’re used to."

Rhodes also noted it was a great experience for Hillsboro Christian Academy, and he hopes the school is invited back. “If we have the chance, I’d love to come back and play in another tournament,” he said.

Let's hope that invitation does, indeed, come about. The folks at RULH were tremendous hosts. The school and the gymnasium provide the young players with a taste of what it's like to play in that environment and atmosphere.

And no one can say the Hillsboro Christian Academy fans won't travel. From what I observed, HCA had a nice crowd to cheer on the Crusaders.

• The Crusaders will play their next game in Portsmouth against Sugar Creek Christian on Jan. 3. They have home games in Hillsboro (849 South High Street) on Jan. 7 and Jan. 17. Good luck the rest of the season.

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.