September 22, 2014

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Avon Lake Shoregals made history 20 years ago with state championship victory

Stacey Fifer and coach Amy Manco hug after Fifer grabbed a rebound and hit a buzzer-beating, game-winning shot to give the Avon Lake Shoregals the 1994 Division II state basketball championship. Avon Lake, which went undefeated on the season, is the first and only Lorain County girls basketball team to win a state championship. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

Stacey Fifer and coach Amy Manco hug after Fifer grabbed a rebound and hit a buzzer-beating, game-winning shot to give the Avon Lake Shoregals the 1994 Division II state basketball championship. Avon Lake, which went undefeated on the season, is the first and only Lorain County girls basketball team to win a state championship. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

Twenty years ago, Avon Lake’s finest girls basketball team sent the community into a happy frenzy.

With a dramatic last-second shot by senior Stacey Fifer, the Shoregals defeated Cincinnati Roger Bacon 41-39 to win the Division II state championship and put an exclamation point at the end of their 27-0 season.

Fifer’s shot also helped erase the memory of Avon Lake’s one-sided loss to Urbana, the eventual state champion, in the 1993 state semifinals. A year later, the Shoregals roared into the title game with a 64-44 rout of Logan Elm.

They defeated Roger Bacon on Saturday, March 19, 1994, before an electrified crowd of 6,208 — about 1,500 of them Shoregals fans — in St. John Arena on the Ohio State campus.

The new champs spent that night in Columbus, so there was no immediate communitywide celebration back home.

But the next day was a different story.

It seemed as though the entire city turned out along state Rt. 83 to welcome home the team. The throng stretched from the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks on the Avon Lake-Avon border, north across Walker Road to Avon Lake High School — a line of humanity 2 miles long.

People young and old cheered and some held homemade signs as the state champs rolled past in a comfortable tour bus chartered for them by Avon Lake builder Herman “Bucky” Kopf.

“There were several hundred people, maybe as many as 1,000,” Tom Fifer, a retired Avon Lake police officer, said recently.

Officer Fifer was not on duty that Sunday.

He and his wife, Nancy, were also returning from Columbus. They had been in St. John Arena the previous day when their daughter, 5-foot-6 guard Stacey, collared the rebound off a shot by junior Kelly Coughlin.

There were 1.4 seconds left to play.

Fifer took a quick glance at the clock, realized she’d better get a shot off, and drilled the 14-foot buzzer-beater that made the Shoregals state champions.

The big shot

Avon Lake got possession with 2:04 to go with the score tied at 39, and coach Amy Manco called timeout. She told her players to hold for the last shot.

Stacey Fifer, left, Beth Lora, center, and Megan Chawansky raise the state championship trophy.

Stacey Fifer, left, Beth Lora, center, and Megan Chawansky raise the state championship trophy.

“I figured we’d get a good shot, and that way the worst thing that could happen to us would be overtime,” she said.

Most people, including the Roger Bacon coaches, no doubt figured 5-11 junior Megan Chawansky, Avon Lake’s first-team All-Ohio forward and the state’s player of the year, would be the one to take it.

“They were playing a zone and they were concerned about Megan,” said assistant coach Zen Chawansky, Megan’s dad. “If we moved Megan outside, the zone was outside. That left Kelly Coughlin open right at the elbow most of the time, and she had hit a few shots.”

As time ticked down to four seconds, and Roger Bacon stayed in its zone, Coughlin, a 5-5 guard, was indeed open, got the ball and took a shot from outside that bounced off the rim.

“Time was running down and I took the shot,” said Coughlin, who is now Kelly Cracas. “I must have been 2 or 3 feet past the
3-point mark. Thank God Stacey was there to get the rebound.”

She paused.

“Maybe I got an assist,” she joked.

It was Avon Lake’s most fortuitous missed shot of the season — probably ever — because the ball wound up in Fifer’s hands.

“I remember looking to get the ball (to) Megan,” Fifer wrote in an email from the Columbus area. “But it seemed like Roger Bacon was all over (her) defensively. Time seemed to last an eternity on that last play. I remember driving toward the basket in hopes of finding Megan open on the perimeter.

“As it turned out, Kelly Coughlin had a great attempt and shot as (time) dwindled. I (worked) my way toward the basket and found myself with the most important offensive rebound of my entire career. Sometimes the ball just bounces your way.

“I remember looking at the clock in the corner of St. John Arena, realizing I had a bit of time left, so I let it fly after one dribble. I watched it go through as the buzzer sounded. It was an incredible moment and one I will never forget. A game-ending buzzer-beater is what every kid dreams of while practicing in the driveway.”

The exuberant Fifer turned and ran the length of the court in celebration.

“It was incredible,” Manco said recently. “It’s one of the first things I remember after that ball went in: Fifer taking off and running, because how else is she going to react? It was pretty exciting stuff.”

Melissa Zakel (now Hille), a 5-10 junior forward and the team’s first substitute, said she didn’t immediately realize what had happened.

“I was on the bench, and I remember Stacey putting up the shot,” she said by phone. “In the moment, I didn’t realize how amazing it was. I didn’t know what 27-0 meant.”

The ’94 state title was the first and only one in basketball for the school and is still the only girls state basketball crown for a Lorain County school.

The big welcome

C1CL4xSIGNChawansky was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 20 points and 6.4 boards a game. Chawansky, who went on to a distinguished four-year career at Northwestern, said the entire weekend was memorable.

“It was great, as was the reception we received when we came back to Avon Lake,” she wrote in an email from England, where she is a lecturer at the University of Brighton. “The community really supported us throughout the season, and the way they lined state Rt. 83 to welcome us back … was incredible.”

Beth Lora (now Pifer), the 6-0 senior center, called the experience “the perfect ending to a perfect season.”

“The welcome-home crowd was absolutely unbelievable,” she said in an email from suburban Pittsburgh. “We had a police escort and thought, ‘Are you kidding me? This is all for us?’ I remember every window on the bus was open. It was windy and loud, but we heard cowbells and so much cheering as we drove to the high school.

“The crowd seemed to last for miles,” she added. “I was surprised at how many people were standing out there and welcoming us home. It was a sight to see. It really meant so much to us.”

The whole season, with its perfect record, state championship and heroes’ welcome home, has an effect to this day on Michelle Finefrock, a 5-11 senior forward.

“As for the state championship game, it is a great story I can tell my (three) girls,” Finefrock, now Missig, said in an email from the Columbus area. “I was overwhelmed how the students, community and our families supported (us). The experience was surreal and I will always cherish these memories.”

The foundation

A state championship began to seem like a real possibility the previous season, Manco said. It was her first as head coach and she led the team to its first, and only other, Final Four appearance.

“The nice thing was, we had that season to build on,” Manco said. “We had been down there before. We started out that season 1-2 and finished 23-3.

“A lot of the same kids came back, because we lost only three seniors. So we had a great nucleus of kids to start with, and they were excited as could be. They made their goal to get down there and win it.”

The team also had a productive summer leading into the championship season. The big event was the Shoregals’ nine-day southern trip that included a five-day basketball camp at the University of North Carolina. Along the way, they also visited the University of Virginia, North Carolina State, Duke and Wake Forest.

“In the summer of 1993, as a team we went to a basketball camp in North Carolina, coached youth clinics and played in open gyms,” said Finefrock, who pulled in eight rebounds in the state final. “Our team had always been close and I will always fondly remember our pregame dinners, inside jokes, full-court press and fastbreak offense.”

The championship season had a strong and lasting impact on Amanda Chawansky, Megan’s freshman sister, who was one of a few JV players who dressed for varsity games on a rotating basis.

“The team had lots of inside jokes and fun bonding experiences, and the (players) genuinely liked each other,” Chawansky wrote in an email from Washington, D.C. “The whole season left an impression that remains with me to this day. Commitment, focus, hard work and the right attitude can bring about good things.”

Contact Bob Daniels at 329-7135 or basketball@bobdaniels.info.