Tonight, Ripon College opens the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament at St. John’s of Minnesota.
This game is taking place 20 years after St. John’s and Ripon faced off in the D3 tournament at Ripon College — the last time RC hosted (and probably will host given changes in the tournament format) an NCAA playoff game. Ripon and St. John’s freshmen and sophomores were not alive yet during the story I’m about to relate.
This was the first year that my friend Frank and I announced Ripon games. I had been a fill-in announcer the previous season, when I learned about what Midwest Conference road trips were like. Then the radio station made a broadcaster change and brought in Frank (who had announced for the station previously and was the long-time timekeeper at RC games) and myself. We hit it off immediately because we had similar interests in cars and sports, in addition to a similarly warped sense of humor. Frank tried to be helpful to opposing referees, yelling “WHERE’S THE FOUL?” during key offensive possessions.
(Cases in point: We did two games at Carroll University’s Van Male Center, where the heat had gone out. I heard a vacuum cleaner running that sounded to me like a Zamboni machine, so I cracked up Frank by saying coming out of commercial, “Back at Van Male Ice Arena.” Later that season before a game I helped Mrs. Presteblog, then pregnant with our first child, up the bleachers to our broadcast position on the top row. Frank, who was already setting up our equipment, said, “Is this man molesting you, ma’am?” My response: “Too late, Frank.”)
The previous two seasons Ripon had won the Midwest Conference regular-season and tournament titles, the latter of which, then as now, gave the winner the conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA tournament. That didn’t happen in the 1999–2000 season, because Lake Forest College went undefeated in the MWC season, giving them the right to host the tournament.
The Sunday before the conference tournament, we decided to make a baby-furniture run to Ikea in suburban Chicago, in search specifically of a crib and a changing table, preceded by brunch at Cracker Barrel (whose Appleton location was known as the “Pig Trough” by my business magazine coworkers) in Menomonee Falls. Plans immediately went awry because other diners had the same thought we had, and the excessive wait prompted us to go to a nearby Country Kitchen. (That should have been foreshadowing for what was about to happen.)
I was driving the first of our two Subaru Outbacks, an all-wheel-drive station wagon with such equipment as heated seats and a five-speed manual transmission. On our way to Ikea we stopped at a bowling alley not far from the Gurnee Mills outlet mall. While I was a business magazine editor, I was also applying for a job at Mercury Marine, owned by Brunswick Corp., which had a bowling alley that was a test facility for the latest bowling equipment.
I spent about a minute at the bowling alley, then drove off to Ikea, stopping at an intersection to make a right turn to get to the Tri-State Tollway. I shifted into first … or tried to. Nothing happened other than horrible grinding noises whenever I tried to shift to any gear other than neutral.
I had owned manual-transmission cars before the Outback. I had never blown a clutch on the previous cars. (It turns out that if the manufacturer upgrades the engine but not the clutch, the clutch might last only 68,000 miles.)
So here we were in north suburban Chicago, a husband and pregnant wife and disabled vehicle, knowing no one in the north suburbs to call for help, and, back in the days when cellphone service was more dependent on carriers than today, without a working cellphone. Fortunately a man in a minivan saw our plight and let me use his phone to call the Amoco Motor Club, of which Mrs. Presteblog was a member through her employer, Ripon College.
The club sent a flatbed truck and driver to take us to the nearest Subaru dealership, Libertyville Subaru. (He also charged us $4 because the tow was $4 more than the $50 allowance of club membership.) I filled out a form at the dealership, threw my keys in the envelope, and stuck it in the box.
Libertyville is about 140 miles south of Ripon. So we were 140 miles south of home without a way to get home. Across the street from the dealership was an Amoco station with a police car. We walked across the street and explained our plight to the officers, and they gave us a ride in the back of their squad (featuring a plastic shield separating us from the officers and a plastic-covered seat, and interestingly no seat belts) to the police station.
Mrs. Presteblog also had a membership through work for Enterprise Car Rental, which had facilities at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. Enterprise rented cars with no mileage charge, which was good since I had an 80-mile round trip for work. Since we were trying to go north back to Ripon, it seemed logical to go to Mitchell Field for the rental car, but that required getting to Mitchell Field.
It turned out that Libertyville is right in between O’Hare and Mitchell Field. Perhaps because of that, the phone directory was full of airport limousine services. We selected the least expensive appearing one, and were driven in a Lincoln Continental limousine to Mitchell Field. (Which was at least my first limousine experience, because for our wedding we were chauffeured by Mrs. Presteblog’s sister and husband, who owned a camper.) Cost including tip: $85.
We got to Mitchell Field and rented a Pontiac Grand Am for me for the week. The cost was more than $200, but it would have been worse with a mileage charge. We found dinner (Edwardo’s pizza) and went home, without our car, more than $300, and the intended baby furniture.
Five days later, the conference tournament began at Lake Forest. We started the weekend by eating lunch at the previously mentioned Cracker Barrel with Frank, and then announced the semifinal, which Ripon won over Knox College to move to the tournament final against archrival Lawrence or host Lake Forest. Dinner was at a restaurant called Flatlanders in Lincolnshire, Ill., managed by a Ripon native. We went to the hotel and called Lake Forest’s sports phone line to find out the score of the other semifinal and found out that Lake Forest had been upset at home by Lawrence, setting up two archrivals, the third and fourth seeds of the tournament, for the title and NCAA berth.
On Saturday, we drove to the Subaru dealership to retrieve the Outback. In the days of $74-per-hour service, replacing basically the entire clutch assembly cost $937.50. We did not have time to go to Ikea, so we returned to Lake Forest, announced Ripon’s win over the Larrys to clinch their third consecutive NCAA berth, celebrated the tournament win at Mars Cheese Castle with the players, their parents and the coaches, and after returning the rental car returned home, having spent $1,300 or so without buying one piece of baby furniture.
This is where our story takes a sad turn. We had no children at the time, but we had two dogs, Puzzle and Nick the Welsh springer spaniels, along with Fatcat. Puzzle was a few months older than Nick, and had dealt with hip dysplasia her entire life. This didn’t stop her from being a goofball, doing such things as jumping not up, but out at people (toward a particular spot of the male anatomy), playing fetch about three-fourths of the way, and tacking like a yacht on walks while Nick, using his dog show experience, resolutely walked forward.
A Ripon women’s basketball player had watched the house and dogs while we were gone. We noticed on our return that Puzzle seemed quite sick as she had never been before then. The first thing I did Monday morning was to take her to our veterinarian, where she was diagnosed with an infection and given IVs and antibiotics. She seemed to perk up on her return home.
The Ripon–St. John’s game was Thursday night. Ripon was coached by Bob Gillespie, the son of Gordie Gillespie, college baseball’s all-time winningest coach. Bob was also the athletic director, which made him Gordie’s boss, though Bob was also Gordie’s assistant coach. Bob’s youngest son, Scott, would be a four-year varsity player for Ripon High School and Ripon College, which made me, as a TV announcer by then, sort of the Gillespie family’s personal announcer. (That’s a different story.)
The game started poorly for Ripon, which trailed 8–0 at one point, trailed at the half, and trailed by seven after a three-pointer relatively late in the game. Then came Josh Glocke, a shooting guard who proceeded to score 15 consecutive points and gave the Red Hawks a 54–53 lead with 3:43 left.
Ripon led 57–55 in the last minute, with, according to Mrs. Presteblog, the next generation of Prestegard jumping around in her womb. Then the Red Hawks committed a nine-second violation. Yes, the replay showed the inbounds pass, the referee counted to nine, and blew his whistle for what he claimed was a 10-second violation, while Frank yelled, “Oh, no! Where is the foul?” (While, by the way, the St. John’s announcers next to us were bitterly complaining about how the Johnnies were getting homered by the same officials.)
St. John’s, perhaps hampered by their leading scorer having fouled out, tried to get the ball inside but succeeded only in air-mailing the ball over the intended receiver. (“Kareem on a ladder couldn’t have gotten that!” said Frank.) One free throw and a missed three-point shot later, and the Red Hawks had the win and a date in Chicago for the second round at the University of Chicago.
Our celebration was brief. Back home, Puzzle was in worse shape. I figured she would have to go back to the vet Friday morning, and dreaded the decision we might have to make about her.
Puzzle saved us that decision. She died overnight. I took her to the vet to have her cremated. And then I had work and game prep for the next game. There was really no time for grief over Puzzle, and I’ve noticed since then that death that is not unexpected doesn’t get the same reaction as unexpected death. You get reminded in later moments, when, in this case, you’re only feeding or walking one dog, or that no dog in the house is frantic during a thunderstorm.
(We also discovered as a result of Puzzle’s death that Nick was deaf. We had always thought Puzzle had selective hearing, and she did. It turned out, though, that Nick couldn’t hear our calling for him to come inside, making me resort to waving at him, after which he would then trot in.)
Earlier in our pre-child days we would take the dogs to work with us. As bad as her hips were, Puzzle was always very curious whenever anyone brought in a baby in a baby seat and would get up on her bad back legs to sniff all those wonderful baby smells. We called her “Aunt Puzz,” but she died before she had a chance to live with a baby brother. (Nick didn’t have the same interest. He lived, however, until two weeks after our daughter was born.)
On Saturday, we (with an added guest, the radio high school analyst who doubled as former fire chief and father of the aforementioned restaurant manager) headed to Chicago, stopping again at Flatlanders, then to Loyola University for the game against the University of Chicago, hoping that Ripon might do what it had never done — advance past the NCAA second round. Unfortunately Chicago won, but it was a great experience anyway. (In part because when you announce college basketball, sports information staffs do much of your work for you.)
I remember a pleasant drive coming home, with Mrs. Presteblog snoozing, and Frank and Bob and I discussing Ripon and Ripon College things, with Bob occasionally suggesting that Jannan not listen.
A lot has gone on in our lives and elsewhere over the past two decades. We’re on a different set of pets now (two of each), with one, our Siamese cat Mocha, having died five years ago. (Also the night before a basketball game I was announcing.) The succeeding dogs also like to ride like Puzzle and Nick did.
Many other things have changed. (No kidding, the reader thinks.) Ripon College games are no longer on the radio, though they are streamed live, with announcers from The Ripon Channel, for which I formerly broadcasted Ripon High School and Ripon College games. (I stopped doing Ripon games following the next season because I got a job with another college, though a few years later I got back into Ripon games despite also doing hockey games for the college at which I was employed.)