“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...”
The opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” described it perfectly.
The year 1982 in Pacific was filled with district championships for the wrestling and boys basketball teams. And, it also brought catastrophic flooding along the Meramec River.
The worst of times returned in 2015 and 2017 with more record river flooding.
Now, the best of times are back in 2018 as both the wrestling and boys basketball Indians claimed district titles.
John VanLeer’s basketball Indians defeated Borgia Saturday in front of one of the biggest crowds to see a game at Union High School, 50-43, to win the Class 4 District 6 championship.
“It’s very exciting,” Pacific senior Cameron VanLeer said. “We’ve been searching for that for a long time. We really just wanted to get this done for my dad. He’s put in 24 years of hard work and it was just for him. We’re glad we could get it done for him.”
Cameron’s older brother, Cullen, knows all about the sacrifices of playing for the Indians. Cullen is a junior player at the University of Missouri (he suffered a season-ending knee injury Saturday) and is the top career scorer with Pacific.
“I don’t know how to put it into words,” Cullen VanLeer said. “Our family has given everything to Pacific, so for it to finally pay off was just an unbelievable feeling.”
The victory was a popular one, not just for those wearing purple, but also for many of the neutral fans.
“We’ve had tremendous community support,” John VanLeer said. “You could see all of the purple that was here tonight. I’ve got friends from other towns who came. The Four Rivers Conference supported us tonight. It was great.”
It was VanLeer’s first district title in 25 seasons as Pacific’s head coach. Over the years, VanLeer has led his teams to many in-season tournament titles, but a district crown has proven to be as elusive as a greased pig at a local fair.
In 2017, Pacific fell to Sullivan in two overtimes in the semifinals.
In 2016, Borgia topped Pacific for the title, 49-40.
In 2015, Borgia prevailed over the top-seeded Indians in the title game, 66-63.
In 2014, the Knights defeated No. 1 Pacific in overtime, 69-66. All three meetings between the two teams went to overtime that season.
“We got one and we’re enjoying it,” John VanLeer said. “That probably makes this one a little sweeter. If we would have had a couple of other ones, it might not have been as good, but we would have enjoyed it.”
Beating Borgia for the title made it even better, Cameron VanLeer said.
“They’ve knocked us out of the district championship game hundreds of times, it seems like,” Cameron said. “We really want to get it done and it was really exciting to get it done against them.”
Building a district championship team wasn’t easy, and it didn’t come overnight. It was a blend of family, brotherhood and learning from past defeats.
“It’s awesome,” Cullen VanLeer said. “My dad has been working and building the program from the ground up. Even if in my time we didn’t win a district title, us and everybody before us, has had helped to win this. The guys before me influenced us and we influenced this team. It’s a program he built and nobody deserved this more than my dad.”
John is not the first of the family to win a district title. His wife, Lori, coached the Pacific volleyball Lady Indians to the 1994 Class 4A state title. Currently the superintendent of the Washington School District, Lori was there with one of her shirts from that championship run.
“It’s a family environment,” Cullen VanLeer said. “My dad’s kept it that way from Day 1. I don’t know too many of the players who have disliked it. When you have a coach who you want to fight for, it’s something special. After the game, I gave every single player a hug. I love every one of them, too. It’s a brotherhood at Pacific High School for sure.”
And this year’s group has played together for years.
“We’ve just had a connection since we were really young,” Pacific senior guard Trey Boyer said. “We know what to do and that we can win.”
Even though Pacific had beaten Borgia earlier in the season and Union’s spacious gym was packed, John VanLeer said his team was confident going into Friday’s championship game.
“Their mood in the locker room before the game was they were going to win,” John VanLeer said. “They were very relaxed and very confident. They talked about going out and having fun and enjoying the moment. They didn’t get too tied up in the crowd or anything. We’ve played in front of big crowds before, maybe not quite this big, but we’ve played some good things. The schedule Mr. (Andy) Herbst gives us got us ready for this.”
For the district title to come in Union brought personal satisfaction for Coach VanLeer as well. He’s a Union High School graduate.
“It’s awesome,” John VanLeer said. “I had a lot of family here and friends from Union. I could see them in the crowd. Our support was unreal. My phone has just been vibrating like crazy. I’m sure I’ve got a lot of texts. The support has been unreal.”
While Pacific savored the victory, there wasn’t much time to enjoy it. A game against last year’s fourth-place finisher Parkway Central was just four days away and there was much work to be done.
“We’re going to go back to work and talk about it,” John VanLeer said. “We’re going to enjoy this tonight, but on Sunday, it’s time to prepare for the next one. They’re not ready to be done.”
No matter how far the Indians go in the playoffs, it’s still going to be remembered as the year the district drought ended.
Indeed, it was the best of times.