Thursday, January 11th, 2018
Souder's legacy at Fort Recovery a lasting bond
By Robb Hemmelgarn
When Al Souder took over the helm of the Fort Recovery boys' basketball program in 1964, his inaugural team finished the campaign without a single victory. Luckily for the Indian faithful, the former coach stuck around a few more years, and by 1967 the Indians finished 22-2 overall.
Two seasons later, Souder's boys advanced to the state semifinals and a couple of years after that, they walked off the court at St. John Arena as the 1971 Class A state champions. By the time Souder's coaching career in Fort Recovery was through, he compiled nearly 200 wins and is still the all-time winningest boys coach in program history.
Not only was he a remarkable mentor, but those who also know him can't express enough that he is an even better human being.
"I met coach Souder in 1966 when I arrived in Fort Recovery and he was very welcoming from day one," commented Larry Wilberding, who coached freshmen and junior varsity at Fort Recovery for several years. "He was always so humble as a coach. He was never demeaning and always gave the kids credit and worked very well with all of his assistant coaches."
Chuck Etlzer played basketball at Crestview High School under hall of fame coach Ray Etzler and later arrived in Fort Recovery as a junior high basketball coach. His compliments of his former colleague are equally as heartfelt and he is quick to point out that the coach whom opponents saw on the court was different from the man he knew.
"Coach Souder was always quiet until he was on the floor during games," Etzler chuckled. "He was a fireball during games, but that is part of what made him an outstanding coach. He was very mild in practice and had a great way of keeping his players engaged by asking them what they thought in certain situations. I always felt that was very important."
While the stories revolving around the former coach are endless, few knew him better than his son, Tom, who followed in his father's footsteps as a coach after having played for him at Fort Recovery in the early 1970s.
"I can remember being in the fourth or fifth grade in the old gym and sitting above the bench with my friends. Our arms would be draped over the railing and we were right there in the action," recalled the younger Souder, who is head coach at Worthington Kilbourne. "Dad always let us play in the gym when no one was in there, but we weren't allowed to turn on the lights in order to save electricity. He always pulled back the big velvet curtains on the stage so the sunlight could come in. Those were some great memories growing up."
While playing for your dad can be a trying experience, the younger Souder has nothing but fond memories of his time wearing the Purple and White. "I was a freshman when we won state in 1971 and I can remember getting a fully-clothed shower in the locker room at St. John Arena after we won," he laughed. "When I was a junior, we were unbeaten and ranked number one in the state at one point, and I was usually one of the guys that entered the game when it was well in control. One of the biggest moments of my high school career was the final game of my senior year. We lost to Parkway in tournament and I fouled out. I came off the floor and not only did my coach hug me, he was also my dad. It was truly a special moment that I will never forget."
Following his playing career at Fort Recovery and the University of Bluffton, Tom had the pleasure of coaching against his father, who was elected in the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2009, for a few years when he was the head man at Allen East High School and Al was at Paulding High School following his time in Mercer County. "We played his Paulding team three times when I was at Allen East and I remember the third time we played them, he told me before the game to take it easy on him. They ended up beating us by 17 points," Souder smiled. "I won two of the three times we played and when I left Allen East he told me I was only doing it so that he didn't have a chance to even up the series!"
Tom Souder returns to Fort Recovery on Saturday evening when his Wolves squad square off with the Indians in a battle which will have dual significance for the Souder family. Fort Recovery athletic director Kurt Rammel arranged the first-time meeting between the schools on an evening in which they will also honor Al Souder, who is in the midst of a battle with Alzheimer's Disease. There will be no admission charge to the game and proceeds raised will benefit the "Longest Day" Alzheimer's Foundation.
"I'm sure that Saturday will be very emotional for me and my family," the younger Souder remarked as his voice cracked. "We are all so appreciative of the honor they will give Dad. I am sure he will make a fuss about all of the attention and not really understand what is going on, but it is still truly an honor. This process has been difficult for us, but honestly for me every day is a blessing. He is 89 years old and Mom is 88 and they still live alone and have had full lives. I realize that despite everything, I am very lucky and we are grateful for everything the Fort Recovery community has given my parents. It will be an amazing night."