Chip Chitwood, Sports Editor – The Fighting Possums men’s basketball team defied all odds by winning their annual Thanksgiving Classic. Entering the tourney with little hopes of reversing their 0-8 start season, they faced top-seeded Tompauk High, reigning state champions, in the opening round as 25-point underdogs. As the teams met for the opening tip, the conference commissioner stormed into the gym and announced that Tompauk was being forced to forfeit the game. Three Titans were suspended and banned from future participation because they had failed their drug tests, and their coach, Willie Williams, was arrested on charges of administering banned substances.
The surprised squad advanced to the second round to face the Willow Grove Hedgehogs. Slightly outmanned, sloppy play and typically cold-shooting left the Fighting Possums trailing by 12 points at the end of the first quarter. Coach Chitwood implored his troops to protect the ball better and to slow the pace of the game. The tide slowly turned, and the home team trailed by 4 when the half ended. In the first minute of the third quarter, Tim Hanson, the Hedgehog’s hot-shooting point guard was forced to leave the game with a knee injury. Possums point guard, Blistering Bill Mannford, got hot and closed the quarter with 12 points. The hometown lads trailed by two at quarter’s end. Coach Chitwood drew up the closing quarter’s strategy—Blistering Bill would advance the inbounds pass and the other players would spread the floor. It would be an all-or-nothing one-on-one game. Mannford cooled off, but the Fighting Possums squeaked out a 4-point victory.
The Classic took a one-day hiatus to observe Thanksgiving. In a display of team support, the ladies of Our Lady of Perpetual Complaint hosted a team Thanksgiving Dinner on Thursday evening, but Coach Chitwood, Bill Mannford, and Jason Chitwood were the only players who attended. The rest of the boys had gone out of town to visit family or elected to not attend because they were either Lutheran, Baptist, or atheist. The lightly attended feast of turkey, dressing, and all the fixings was enjoyed, nevertheless. Mabel Murphy’s always pleasing deviled eggs were a crowd favorite.
Puddlegulch turned out en masse, filling the gymnasium to overflowing for the championship round. Speakers were set up in the hallways and concession stand to bring the game to those who could not get a seat. No one cared that the Fighting Possums would need a miracle to upset undefeated and second-seeded Travis Switch High. This was the first time that the locals had advanced from the first round of the Classic in its 99-year history. The crowd’s enthusiasm remained undaunted even though their boys trailed the Centaurs by 28 points at the half, thanks to the uncanny play of Centaur point guard Jason Mulvane.
Coach Chitwood was unable to make any halftime adjustments because he and his nephew, Jason, and Blazing Bill Mannford spent most of their time in the men’s room, something that continued for the remainder of the game. As it turned out, the most significant halftime development occurred at the concession stand when Lance Chitwood, Coach Chitwood’s nephew and local Lothario, caught Karen Collins’ attention, persuading her to sit with him during the second half.
As the teams readied for the second half tip, Jason Mulvane noticed the two of them. Seeming more interested in Lance and Karen than he was in the game, Mulvane’s play was erratic from the outset. His first-half play, 7-9 from the floor with 4-5 beyond the arc, vanished. Unable to score, he turned the ball over repeatedly and was a defensive liability. As the remaining Centaurs’ grew increasingly frustrated with their star, the Fighting Possums played steady ball with increasing confidence. Mulvane stood outside the team huddle during the quarter break, glaring into the stands. He charged the stands when he saw Chitwood kiss Collins, and he was immediately ejected. The Centaurs struggled to hold a narrow lead, and the steady play of the Fighting Possums gave them a one-point victory when shooting guard Charles Tourney’s three-pointer ripped the nets as the final buzzer sounded.
In his post-game press conference, Coach Chitwood fielded questions about the game and he was asked if he could explain the ejection of Mulvane. He said that he had learned that Ms. Collins was Mulvane’s longtime girlfriend. He deflected questions about his complicity with his nephew’s behavior. After the press conference ended, he quickly returned to the mic for a final statement. He announced that everyone who had eaten Mabel Murphy’s deviled eggs the day before had taken ill. Chitwood seemed surprised when a reporter asked him if he knew that Centaurs coach Al Murphy is her nephew.
The Fighting Possums will go on the road next Tuesday to face the 3-5 Webster Heights Owls. They will enter the game as 15-point underdogs.