In an event that has seen the likes of Alonzo Mourning, Lamar Odom, Anthony Peeler, John Wall and so many others who went on to NBA fame and fortune after playing locally in the T of C, well, yes, even Stu Stenger will own up to that title.
“Absolutely,” the Springfield real estate developer quickly and readily admits … while also admitting that he, too, didn’t believe it at the time. “I still remember thinking, ‘this is a joke … right?’ “
It was no joke … and absolutely deserved for the unsung hero of the unsung championship team.
Stenger and his scrappy Falcons became the first local team in the event’s history to capture the T of C title in 1994 when they knocked off Christ the King out of New York City 55-53 in the finals. That came after coach Mike Keltner’s squad had blasted the state’s top-ranked team – a Ryan Robertson-led St. Charles West – 72-50 in the semifinals, and earlier dispatched Natchez, Miss., to the loser’s bracket with a 78-49 opening round win.
They did so the entire weekend by putting on a clinic of team basketball.
Stenger was the 5-7’ish – maybe - point guard who played great defense and on offense, simply refused to turn the ball over for three days, and consistently got it in the hands of more talented offensive scorers like teammates Brian Grow, Brad Feuerbacher and Kenny Price (who went on to play at Colorado). It was a formula that worked wonders, especially for three nights against teams that seemed more intent on putting on individual shows.
Which, in large part, is why Stenger can still recall the surprise and confusion of the post-game ceremony scene, when the T of C All-Tourney and MVP selections were named. And when Stu, quite honestly, became the local version of “Rudy” just months after the Notre Dame football-based movie first came out.
“I remember Mike Morelock was on the team, and I was sitting on the bench after the game because I still couldn’t get over the fact we won the game,” Stenger says. “They announced my name as MVP and I didn’t even hear it. Morelock said, ‘they just called your name … get out there.’ And I was still in shock.
“It was just so fun to look back upon all that now.”
Stenger went to Southern Methodist for his first year of college before transferring to finish up at Mizzou. He didn’t play college hoops – he jokingly still admits the sting of Norm Stewart and the Tigers not at least extending an offer to a T of C MVP when he arrived on campus – and hasn’t picked up a basketball in at least 10 years because, as he says “I had to leave the Y(MCA) leagues because everybody kept getting hurt … instead of playing defense now, you just foul.”
An avid runner, Stenger is now 36 years old and he and wife Arlene – also a Glendale High grad, who witnessed the “Legend Of Stu” develop in person at Hammons Center - are parents of four children ranging in age from 10 down to 4.
Ironically, none of the Stenger clan are basketball players, but are accomplished gymnasts … which sometimes makes it even a little more challenging for Stu to prove to his own kids that the whole T of C MVP thing happened.
“They’re starting to ask questions,” Stenger says. “I haven’t shown them the tapes yet, and believe me, they’re tapes, not (DVDs). I think they believe me, because they’re starting to hear other people talk about it, and this is about the time of year they get to hear their dad’s name again.”
Stenger hasn’t been back to the T of C since the mid-2000s, when former North Carolina star and current NBA player Tyler Hansbrough was playing in the event. Though, he admits, it’s about time to make a return trip now to the event held at the JQH Arena, especially with the tourney’s historic 30th event coming up next winter.
Glendale’s status as the only local team to win the T of C was scuffed in 2005 when Kickapoo (and another unlikely MVP, Shane Laurie) captured the title by defeating Rufus King out of Milwaukee in the finals. Just have to ask … did that elicit a reaction among Stenger and the Falcons, say, similar to that of the 1972 Miami Dolphins should another NFL team to complete a season unbeaten?
“No … any time a Springfield team can get to the finals, I’m cheering for them,” Stenger said. “Wait … Glendale is still the only local team that won it, right? (he added, jokingly). I’m happy Kickapoo won it, though we (at Glendale) don’t acknowledge it.”
That 1994 Glendale team, by the way, went on to achieve their own No. 1 ranking in the state, but the Falcons were shockingly knocked off in the district finals by the host team in Joplin. Still, nothing can take away their memory of a surprise T of C run, led by the most surprising of MVPs.
“It came up again today,” said former GHS teammate Brad Feuerbacher, 37, now the Director of Operations for Brown Derby and still close friends with Stenger. “Coach Keltner had a quote today in the paper, so we started laughing about it again.
“I mean, Alonzo Mourning, Anthony Peeler, Stu Stenger … and John Wall. That’s kind of how it’s supposed to go, isn’t it?”
Feuerbacher, who has returned to the T of C on a regular basis since the Falcons’ title run, says none of the team members were surprised when Stenger was called to center-court to accept the MVP trophy.
“I don’t think we were shocked at all,” he says. “Stu was rock solid all the way through the three games and all the way until the final buzzer against Christ The King.”
So, Nixa and Hillcrest will begin that quest to be “the local team that could” when the event tips off tonight. And, while the scope of the T of C has evolved – with national TV on the weekend (CBS Sports), more great teams and more stars seemingly coming in each January – those young men should still now deep down that indeed, it could happen.
Just ask Stenger.
“It’s nothing but good memories … though I still can’t believe we did it,” Stenger says. “The tournament has just gotten so big now. They’ve had quality players always in the past, but it just seems like now each team is so great. We just happened to put together three nights of great team basketball.”
Follow former Springfield News-Leader columnist Scott Puryear (@scottpuryear) on Twitter.