The list of Ohio high basketball coaches who have amassed 400 victories doesn’t include a lot of names. Proudly, Norwalk boys head coach Steve Gray, in front of a standing ovation of nearly 10,000 fans, including his wife, Sue, walked to center court Saturday afternoon to accept the award of an engraved wrist watch.
It was a proud day for the coach, who has spent most of career successfully teaching the art of basketball at Lexington and Norwalk.
“This season was special,” Gray said about his regional tournament entry. “I saw talent on the opening day of practice, but not 23-4 talent. Not regional appearance talent.”
For Gray, it was the fourth time he has coached a team in the regional. He stopped short of calling the end product the best team he has ever coached.
“I had a team in 2014 that were pretty darn good, good enough to be in the state tournament program,” he said. “But, this team was a true ‘wow’ team because I envisioned maybe 15 wins when I considered how challenging our schedule was. We had to play really hard against Cardinal Stritch, North Ridgeville, Lexington, Ontario and the rest of our conference. They were truly fun to coach because they took to coaching so well.”
Gray admits he would like to have gotten a second shot at Columbus South, the team that put them on the sidelines — and narrowly lost 77-73, in Saturday’s state championship game vs. Trotwood-Madison.
“They were one of the fastest teams I ever prepared for,” he said. “That said, we still managed to play with them once we recognized we had to pick up our pace to match theirs. We seemed to be in awe of them in the beginning.”
In 18 seasons at Norwalk, Gray has compiled a 264-159 record. That includes five league titles, nine sectional titles, two district championships, and the regional and state championships in 2014.
Gray claimed he will be back next season as long as his wife allowed him to coach. She is near the end of her career in education, and going into retirement in tandem seems to her quite palatable.
No one was happier than both of them when Tom Foster’s name was announced Saturday morning.
Gray’s longtime assistant, Foster was also called to center court Saturday as the OHSAA honored the 30-year anniversary of the state championship team from Lexington. Foster, seen as a valuable asset to any coaching staff, was an assistant to Greg Collins when the Minutemen, in 1989, shocked the No. 1 AAA team in the state, West Geauga, 89-57, in the title game.
Ironically, one the Lexington wins on its way to the title that year was over Norwalk (60-40) in a district championship. Their only loss regular season loss was to a Bob Haas-coached Willard team (75-69). Tom Scholl, who was present Saturday along with Collins and Foster, scored 34 points in the championship game, becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer.
“When Collins left Lex three years later, I was hired by that administration to replace him,” Gray said. “I interviewed Tom, who was an assistant to Greg, and that interview was very interesting. I told him I would take the perimeter people and he could have the post players. He looked at me and said that he didn’t do post players. I remember my exact answer, “Like I said Tom, I will do the post people and you handle the perimeter guys.’”
When Olentany Liberty coach Greg Nossmann called Gray early last week for advice on his semifinal game against St. Vincent-St. Mary, Gray was quick to tell him to get in touch with Foster, because his record in state games was 6-0.
“Tom Foster has been special to me,” Gray said. “We have been together for over 20 years, and I consider him as very good friend. The kids love him. His attention to detail, knowledge of perimeter play, and overall work ethics, are unbelievable. He has been around the game for 50 years, and every season he comes up with different drills.”
Foster was a head coach for just three years at Fredericktown. He also was an assistant at Kenyon College as well as Lexington and Norwalk.
“I did not have him as an assistant when I was at Colonel Crawford,” Gray said. “But two years after I got the Norwalk job, he found me again. The 90-minute drive he has to make daily from Fredericktown is certainly an obstacle, but he makes it every day without complaining. He is the best.”
Just how good is Foster?
“Tom was the first coach in the state to be name Assistant Coach of the Year by the Ohio Association. That was 30 years ago,” Gray said.
Also among those honored Saturday was former Sandusky St. Mary coach Lyle Falknor. He received a ring symbolic of 500 career wins, his earlier career wins coming at Greenon and Bellevue.
Stan Stewart from Perkins High School received a Hall of Fame Award plaque symbolic of 41 years of scorekeeping at the school.
Two coaches were presented state tournament tickets for the next three years for eclipsing the 600 career win mark. They were Bob Krizancic (Mentor) and Dan Liedtke (Ft. Frye).
Ontario Coach Joe Balogh, who has amassed 548 wins, all at Onatrio, was one of five inductees into the Ohio High School Hall of Fame.