Niles to play final game at War Memorial tonight

Looking at the top of the south side of War Memorial Gymnasium, there are block letters N-I-L-E-S on the windows with sun beating in.

The squeaking of the shoes can be heard below, just as they have had many times running across during the decades of seasons.

The wooden bleachers are pulled out, accordion style, to accommodate the crowds. The wood is worn, but indented with history – witness to the plethora of talented souls to permeate their skill sets all over War Memorial Gymnasium.

Tonight, when Niles hosts Howland, the basketballs will bounce for the last time inside those hallowed halls.

Niles freshman coach Eric Marino, a 1991 Niles McKinley High School graduate, has fond memories and hears the echos that ring true to this day.

“It’s sad,” Marino said. “There’s been a lot of great memories in this gym. Keith Wesson played here, went to Ohio State. There’s been so many good players that have come through here. For me, I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid. Jerry Banaszak had the Saturday morning thing in the 1980s and I was down here. This is the only place I’ve known that is home for Niles.”

The new Niles McKinley High School is slated to open next fall with not one, but two gymnasiums. One will be the main gym that holds around 800 spectators, compared to 1,600 currently at War Memorial Gymnasium, which opened in 1957. The other auxiliary gym will be used for physical education classes and other activities to alleviate traffic of other sports in the main gym.

“I know a lot of people are upset because War Memorial is such a unique gymnasium,” Niles girls basketball coach Erica Wilson said. “It’s large and there’s that second level. It’s definitely going to be missed. I know the people talk about the size difference we’re going to have. I’m not so concerned about that. I am the coach and I’m happy to have more floor room because we’re going to have the second gym in there.”

Niles boys basketball coach Ron Price said he embraces the new gym as well.

“It’s great for our facility and great for our community to have a nice school and the two gyms now, which is nice,” he said. “To have two gymnasiums that are available is nice. …

“There’s a lot of great facilities out there and I’m sure ours will be nice, also.”

Don’t get Price wrong, he’s had a blast here. He’s coached for 27 years, starting as an assistant coach under former Niles coach Bill Pfeifer. Price stayed on under Tony Augustine and Don Andres. Price then took over during the 1999-2000 season and stayed until 2006. He was then an assistant at Lakeview and spent the 2009-10 season as Mathews coach, leading the Mustangs to the Division IV Warren District Final. Price eventually came back this season.

“It’s been a great place and there’s been a lot of great players come through here,” Price said. “Hopefully we can build on some of the tradtion and pride we’re trying to build here. We’re real happy with the progress we’ve made this year. We’ve had a lot of great games here this year, close games. It’s been a fun year with these kids.”

It was special for the Niles girls to beat Champion during the home opener for both teams this season, but for Wilson, her senior night was the best when she graduated from Niles in 1998.

“Beating Fitch on senior night,” Wilson said. “Three or four technicals at the end of the game. I believe the coach was thrown out. It was a very intense game. We ended up winning because we made almost all of our free throws. It was a big deal because we weren’t that strong of a team, but we pulled it together and beat Fitch for our senior night. That was a huge memory for me to walk off that floor as a senior with a win was a big deal for me.”

It’s special for alumni like Rick Wilson, Erica’s father.

“I had this conversation with my dad all the time,” Erica said. “To be a Red Dragon was a sense of pride. He said he still gets the chills when he talks about things in his day. Golden Gloves boxing. He won his first fight in War Memorial. All those kinds of things. I get the chills when I think what it is to be a Red Dragon. I don’t know if these kids get the chills anymore? I don’t know if they have that pride.

“I feel a new school and a new gym. Starting a new season, it’s going to be a little more hope, a little more pride.”