HIGHLAND | It was deja vu all over again at Highland High School on Friday night. The gym was packed and Chris Huppenthal was back home coaching a girls basketball game.
Make no mistake. Those two facts are not disjointed.
The Highland gym hasn't been this full since Huppenthal was wearing the gold and blue. There have many games where a grenade could've been thrown into the bleachers without hurting anyone.
The coach at Hamilton Southeastern returned to his alma mater for the McLegend's XII All-Star game. His former stars at Highland, Jenny DeMuth and Julie DeMuth (Merrillville, too) were also there, along with Hupp's daughter, Kalee Huppenthal, a player at HSE.
It was a family affair. But why did all this greatness end?
Let's jump in the “way-back” machine for a moment. It all started over a dollar.
Former school board member Rick Volbrecht pursued a $1 law suit against The Times because he wasn't mentioned in an article about how Highland had built a great girls basketball program in the early 2000s. If Volbrecht felt he deserved a buck, surely Annie Equihua deserved a $1.50 or maybe even $1.75.
Equihua built the foundation. Huppenthal took the Trojans to the sky, winning 156 games with 32 losses in eight seasons, advancing to three semistate championships and being named The Times Coach of the Year.
Then, he and several other quality people were run out of town. The good people at Highland are still trying to recover from the blood-letting that occurred over a decade ago.
“It's sad,” 2001 Highland grad Jenny Demuth said after scoring a team-high 20 points in the McLegends' 85-61 win over the High School All-Stars. “If Hupp would've stayed here, it never would've dropped off like it did.”
Remember, football coach Brad Smith left with a 39-25 record in 2001. The Trojans have won 34 games since. Administrator Rick Flutka left, a great behind the scenes guy. Assistant superintendent Judith DeMuth did not have her contract renewed, thus taking daughter Julie DeMuth out of the program.
It was called a cost-cutting move by the school board. It was called a “hit list” by those who left.
Here, though, is the thing about prep sports. When teams are good and communities are excited about them, money flows into the district as tickets and nachos are sold to the extreme.
The “cost-cutting” surely took a lot of dough out of the coffers. If Huppenthal and the former Trojans were still in Highland, things would be much different.
But here's why Coach Hupp is a class act. He didn't care about his “dollar.” He easily could've fired on those who gave him a useless U-Haul all those years ago. But he didn't. (I would've!).
“Walking in here, seeing everybody, wow,” he said. “I hope they raised a lot of money (for Ronald McDonald House Charities). They said this was the biggest crowd they've ever had for a girls game. This place is filled with memories for me and my family and those memories stay.”
Huppenthal was happy to see Karen Sietsma, working the book like she did for him. He was happy to see Nancy Vassar, wife of Larry Vassar, who recently passed away. Larry was honored at halftime and Nancy was given a ball signed by all the players on both rosters.
The DeMuth sisters handed the ball to Nancy with a hug.
“I can still see Larry and Nancy sitting under No. 17 up there,” Huppenthal said, pointing. “This is special.”
What happened a decade plus ago was a dead wrong. You could feel a real sense of love between the Trojans' fans and Huppenthal. When his daughter nailed a 3-pointer, he hugged her. I wondered how good she would look in a blue and gold uniform.
I still wonder where Highland would be if Huppenthal hadn't been forced out.
And I'll bet anyone a dollar that it would a much different place than now.