By MICHAEL BURWELL
Joe Braidic has seen promising seasons come to an early end. He’s been through the tough times.
It’s understandable that the Pandora-Gilboa boys basketball coach felt a combination of relief, excitement and satisfaction on Friday night when he finally held the Division IV regional title trophy after the Rockets’ 70-58 win over Convoy Crestview.
“It’s been very satisfying for me just from the standpoint, I’ve been coaching for 35 years in one form or another,” said Braidic, who is in the second season of his third turn as P-G’s coach. “It’s every coach’s dream, especially when you’re young, can you get down there to Columbus and then you actually go into the business and realize how tough it is.”
Braidic has led the Rockets to a new destination this season: Columbus. P-G will take on Marion Local (23-4) in a Division IV state semifinal at 2 p.m. Thursday at Value City Arena.
It’s been a season filled with firsts for Braidic and the Rockets (26-1), who have shattered the previous school record for wins in a season (19-4) set in 2008-09.
The Rockets rolled through the Blanchard Valley Conference and Putnam County League with unbeaten records and, for the first time ever, won both titles in the same season.
When P-G steps on the court Thursday afternoon, it will mark the first time the Rockets have played in a state semifinal.
“It’s just a really satisfying feeling to know that all the hard work you put in at a small school where the kids only come from this school, we open this gym and we work on skills every morning all through the summer and all through the offseason,” Braidic said. “These kids have put time in to give themselves a chance.”
In Braidic’s first stint as P-G’s coach, the Rockets went 12-51 from 1990-93. He enjoyed more success his second time around, going 163-103 from 1998-2010 and earning the school’s first district title in 1999.
He helped P-G win five more sectional titles during the next 11 seasons and had 15 or more wins in a season five times.
But several tournament runs ended in heartbreak.
In a 2008 Division IV sectional final, the PCL-champion Rockets lost to Kalida 53-52 on a Jordan Basinger half-court buzzer beater moments after P-G’s Josh Lee knocked down a jumper to break a 50-50 tie. The following year, the Wildcats got the best of P-G again as they upended the Rockets 44-37 in a district final between the co-champs of the PCL.
And in a 2010 district final, Miller City finished on a 22-7 run to beat the Rockets 43-42. Kyle Niese’s layup with 27 seconds left gave the Wildcats their first and only lead of the game.
Nine of P-G’s tournament losses in Braidic’s second turn as Rockets coach were by single digits.
“I’ve lost on last-second shots at the buzzer, I’ve lost on a three-quarter-court shot at the buzzer,” Braidic said. “I know I’ve probably had maybe four teams that had a chance, but we’ve had kids get hurt right before tournament.
“Your best player goes down at a small school, you got to remember what you’re dealing here at these small schools, we’ve got 40 kids that we graduate. So every athlete on our floor, we don’t replace them with another player of equal talent a lot of times. When a kid goes down, it throws everything off and with this year, we’ve been luckily injury free, so we’ve made a little bit a run.”
Braidic resigned as P-G’s coach following the 2010 season. He spent time as an assistant with Guy Neal at Bluffton University.
P-G won just 30 games over the next six seasons before Braidic returned to the Rockets’ sidelines in 2016.
This season has been a different story for him.
The Rockets are a senior- and junior-laden team with players who have been in the program since they were freshmen. They have won their five tournament games by an average of 18 points. Only one game — a 49-45 district semifinal win over Miller City — was by less than 10 points.
“Watching them play several games, there’s a lot of talent there, but I’ve just never seen a team mentally as strong come out of Pandora as this group of kids right now,” said Rick Morrison, a 1983 P-G graduate and the Pandora village administrator. “Hat’s off to the kids, the coaches. Joe Braidic’s been back for two years now, he hadn’t been with the program for several years and you’ve just seen our basketball program hit rock bottom and stay there.
“To have a coach with that much talent come back in and just the respect that the kids have for him and just seeing what a coach can do; the same group of kids with another coach, I don’t know if they’d be where they’re at today.”
Send an E-mail to Mike Burwell
By MICHAEL BURWELL