Goshen News, Goshen, IN

October 27, 2013

KEIM'S KORNER: Neff's ride has been long and fun


GOSHEN — The IHSAA football state tournament started Friday night, girls volleyball sectional champions, boys and girls soccer semistate champions and boys and girls cross country semistate champions were determined on Saturday, which means the fall sports season is winding down.

 It also means the winter season can’t be far behind.

Practice starts on Monday for girls basketball and girls swimming.

During my early days as a full-time sports writer at The Goshen News girls basketball was one of my main beats. Those days are filled with great memories that built relationships with players and coaches that remain to this day.

While looking forward to year another girls basketball season this one is going to be one of the bittersweet variety.

The reason. It’s the last go around for long-time NorthWood girls coach Steve Neff.

Steve’s career at NorthWood is of legendary proportions. Another Hoosier coaching legend, John Wooden, was called the “Wizard of Westwood” for his dominance of college basketball in the 1960s and early 1970s at UCLA. Neff could certainly be referred to as the “Wizard of NorthWood.”

He took over the Black Swish program in just its second year and has been at the helm of the program ever since. He announced his decision last season to retire after this his 37th campaign.

Over that period of time the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame member has guided his team’s to 23 sectional championships, 10 regional titles, two semistate crowns and the ultimate in 1999 when the Black Swish led by standouts Natalie Will and Amy Zercher captured the Class 3A state championship.

Neff begins his final season with a sparkling career record of 634-175 (.784 winning percentage). He is tied with Donna Cheatham of Scottsburg who has a career mark of 634-203 (.757) over 39 years.

While some coaches are concerned with the number of wins Neff’s focus has always been about molding his players into the finest young ladies they could become. His players have always handled themselves in the classy of manners not matter the situation they faced on the basketball court.

Some of the best memories of those days following NorthWood girls basketball were the road trips made with Steve and members of his coaching staff during the state tournament going to either Fort Wayne for semistate media day or Indianapolis for media day for the state finals.

Those trips involved meeting the NorthWood coaches at the school early in the morning to make the trip in one of the school vans. As often happens when you get coaches and sports writers together the stories start to flow. Those stories and the laughter that often times resulted was all part of the bonding process. It also made the travel time go by faster.

One of the things I will never forget were the chocolate chip cookies. On the way out of the school Steve would stop by the school cafeteria and grab a bag of cookies for the trip. The cookies were among the best I’ve ever tasted and certainly made the trips more enjoyable. For years I would tell Steve when I saw that we didn’t even need to pull out of the NorthWood parking lot to go anyway as long as he had a bag of those chocolate chip cookies.

And since Steve was an expert on cookies it should come as no surprise he always found the best restaurants to stop at on the return trip. The trips generally turned into a geography lesson as well with side jaunts to high school to pick up games tapes of the upcoming opponent.

The state championship in 1999 has to be among the highlights since it was the first one by an Elkhart County school in either boys or girls basketball.

The previously mentioned Will and Zercher have to rank as the best 1-2 scoring combination any area girls team has ever produced. Both tallied more than 1,000 points in their careers and were named to the Indiana All-Star Team in 1999.

Will went on to play collegiality at Northwestern University and Zercher at Ball State.

Two other seniors on the team were Angie Callander and Annie Zell. Juniors were Billi Howard, Andee Morris and Shelly Stichter. Sophomores were Lindsay Carlin, Kasey Chamberlin, Carrie Haney, Erin Newcomer and Jessica Speed. Carol Duncan was a freshman.

Assistant coaches were John Yeager, Brad Newcomer and Eva Klopfenstein. Managers were Jessica Hochstetler, Mandy Gerber and Katy Sonner.

As far as the current season is concerned NorthWood is coming off a 22-4 record in 2012-13. Highlighting the returnees are senior Morgan Olson and junior Jordyn Frantz, both considered to be NCAA Division I prospects.

Let’s hope the two of them lead NorthWood on a long and rewarding journey in the state tournament so Steve Neff can enjoy his final season as long as much as possible and those of us in the media who have had the privilege of covering his teams over the years can delay the inevitable goodbye to the “Wizard of NorthWood” as long as possible.