By Gregg A. Sims
The cheers started long before the game got underway.
Former Washington Hatchet Tyler Zeller was once again the main attraction at the Hatchet House Saturday, this time for the Champions Classic.
Zeller, who led Washington to two Class 3A basketball titles and played on the University of North Carolina NCAA national champions in 2009, simply had to make his first appearance in front of a crowd estimated at 5,000 to start the applause nearly 45 minutes before the game started.
The cheers continued into a night that witnessed his ACC All-Stars tie the Indiana All-Stars at 142.
The score really didn’t matter. It was a last glance at the middle brother of the Zeller family that brought people out.
“Yea, it was something I really enjoyed,” Zeller said. “I looked forward to it, to be able to play in front of them throughout high school was really fantastic.”
The game was part of a tour played mostly in Carolina, featuring graduated players from both sections of the country.
Several Indiana University players also made appearances, and received a warm welcome from the many fans wearing IU apparel.
Tom Pritchard was a fan favorite after completing four years at Indiana and playing through the change from coach Kelvin Sampson and Tom Crean.
He received an ovation during introductions and also following a pair of early dunks.
“I loved every second of being at IU,” Pritchard said. “It’s great the team they have coming back with the recruiting class. There’s a lot of national media attention. It makes me feel very proud to be a Hoosier.”
Teammate Verdel Jones III was the honorary coach after suffering a knee injury during the past NCAA tournament.
“It’s great having the chance to see all the fans come out,” Jones said. “The knee is getting better with rehab every day. Right now, we’re taking care of my knee first, and then we’ll see where we go from there.”
And the Indiana stars also featured an old friend of Zeller, Garrett Butcher of Butler and Edgewood High School. The twosome had played a couple of intense high school games.
“It brings back old memories, especially at this place,” Butcher said. “We had some good battles in high school, and it was fun to come back and compete against him again.”
Washington basketball coach Gene Miiller enjoyed the evening watching a former player, and was pleased with the events.
“It’s been a lot of fun, a fun evening,” Miiller said. “I think it was fun for the players and fans, a great evening to see Tyler back in the Hatchet House and playing again.”
Miller said the all-star format gave fans a chance to see a side of his former player that may not have been visible during his high school career.
“It was a great crowd,” Miiller said. “You see all the little kids here enjoying the evening. I think it was fantastic.”
Miiller also had a chance to smile when grandson Colton Stowers was named as the winner of the dunk contest at halftime.
After throwing a few down, Zeller lifted Stowers to the top of the rim where the 5-year old did some throwing down of his own to the delight of the crowd.”
Nine-year-old Isaac Wagler also got into the act, having the chance to shoot a pair of free throws in the second half for the Indiana stars.
The night was also memorable for Steve Zeller who watched one of his sons play again at the home gym. He also watched older son Luke and younger Cody performed for the Hatchet faithful.
“It was a lot fun and neat in a relaxed atmosphere,” Zeller said. “There’s nothing greater than coming back to the Hatchet House in front of the fans who have been so loyal and supportive of not only the family, but also of basketball here in Washington.”
Zeller drew one of the biggest cheers of the evening on a first-half dunk on an assist from Alex Johnson.
Zeller ran the lane, got the pass, and dunked through traffic for the score.
He was the featured attraction for the fans.
It appeared neither Zeller, or his fans, were disappointed.
“It was great,” Zeller said. “A lot of those people, I played in front of in high school, but it was something that was great to play in front of them again. It was great to fill up a stadium, especially this big, and have that many people come out to watch us.”