THREE OAKS — River Valley wrapped up one of its best boys basketball regular seasons in years on Friday, Feb. 22, by honoring one of its greatest teams of all time.
The 40th anniversary of the 1979 Class C state championship team was celebrated prior to a 56-36 varsity victory over Countryside in Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference White Division action (for more on the game, see page B1).
Eight of the 13 team members from the 1979 state title squad (No. 54 Scott Konkey; No. 10 Dave Zebell; No. 14 Gary Nye; No. 24 Mike Peterek; No. 22 Jeff Williams; No. 32 Brad Ponegalek; No. 34 Tim Brychta; No. 42 Steve Koth; and No. 44 Jeff Adams) were able to attend the Feb. 22 ceremony, along with legendary head coach Jerry Schaffer, who coached River Valley for 38 years and won more than 500 games, and longtime JV coach/assistant Fred Knutel. The Mustangs have named their home facility Jerry Schaffer Gymnasium in the coach’s honor.
“I had a lot of good memories in here for those 38 years,” Schaffer said. “It was highlighted by some special years, and 1979 had to be right at the top because we were state champs.”
River Valley wasn’t expected to win the state championship that season. The Mustangs ended the 1978-79 regular season 17-3, earning only honorable mention in the Class C poll, and their tallest player stood just 6-foot-1.
Center Steve Koth said that overcoming the size disadvantage was a team effort.
“I guarded 6-6 guys, but I had great help on both sides of me always,” Koth said. “That’s what it was. We all did what we had to do to help each other out to get the win.”
River Valley didn’t blow out many of its opponents, but usually was able to hold them to fewer than 50 points.
“Defensively we were a very good team,” Schaffer said. “Offensively just good enough to win by five, six points. Most of the games were very close, especially in the tournament.”
The Mustangs defeated Constantine 46-45 in overtime to win the regional title, then beat No. 4 Clinton 47-39 in the quarterfinals, advancing to play at the University of Michigan’s Crisler Arena.
There, they topped Tawas Area 57-49 in the semifinal and beat Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port 59-54 in the championship game.
Koth said the Mustangs didn’t take the lead in the championship game until the second hall — crediting Mike Peterek with hitting the shot that put them ahead.
“I remember how much fun it was, how smart we played. I was just amazed the way we went about it in the games, took on all the challenges,” noted Jeff Williams.
“Coming home from Ann Arbor was a real special moment,” said Peterek, a top scorer on the team. “Getting off the exit in Bridgman and having a five- or seven-mile caravan of cars going back to the gym, that was real special.”
Schaffer said the River Valley gym was “completely filled” for a victory rally held the day after the championship game.
“We had just a great reception. I’ll never forget that.”
“Time goes by so fast. It’s really amazing it’s been 40 years,” said Tim Brychta, who added that he really wants to thank the fans in the community that cheered for the 1979 Mustangs.
“The support that we had from the community at that time was phenomenal — the gym was packed every game night. They followed us everywhere we went. And I don’t know that we could have done it without their support,” he said.
Once the final buzzer had sounded in the 1979 state championship game, Koth said he felt “complete relief” (and also “sheer ecstasy”) — “because it was over, we finally did it.”
Schaffer was the last member of the 1979 squad to be introduced during the Feb. 22 ceremony held between the JV and varsity games. Each player or coach was greeted on court by a member of the visiting Countryside Academy varsity team.
Schaffer said there were many great teams during his years coaching at River Valley. As to which was the best “that ever played on this court” — “the one thing that we can always say about this group right here is the 1979 boys state champs will always be remembered in a special light.”
“And also … they put River Valley basketball on the map.”
Players from the 1979 team participating in the ceremony said they enjoyed the reunion.
“It’s nice to be back with all the fans and all the players. We haven’t got together in quite a while — I think it’s been about 20 years since all of us have been together,” Peterek said.
After the players and coaches from the team were introduced, a group of River Valley students who are cast members in an upcoming production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” performed a song “Like a Mustang” to the tune of Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” (lyrics follow):
“Stood there at Crisler, …knowin’ that we won. Felt like a million,….felt like number one.
The height of March Madness, I’d never felt that strong, Like a Mustang.
Like a Mustang…I was strong as I could be. Like a Mustang…Nothin’ ever got to me
Like a Mustang…I was playin’ for RV…Like a Mustang.
40 years…where’d they go… 40 years…I don’t know….
I sit now and realize….where I started from, …Like a Mustang
Like a Mustang…I was strong as I could be; Like a Mustang…I was playin’ for RV
Like a Mustang…You guys were something to see….Like a Mustang”
Showtimes in the River Valley High School Auditorium for the “Dreamcoat” play are 7 p.m. Friday, March 15, Saturday, March 16, Friday, March 22, and Saturday, March 23; and at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 17, and Sunday, March 24)
A video of the 1979 championship game was screened following the varsity contest, wand players and coaches from the special squad met with fans.
The ceremony honoring the 1979 River Valley State Championship Basketball Team was narrated by Garry Lange — a retired River Valley educator and elementary principal — as follows:
Forty years ago … 1979 was a special year for basketball in Berrien County. The River Valley Mustangs brought home the Boys Class C State Basketball championship. With no starter over 6-foot-1, the Mustangs, led by Hall of Fame Coach Jerry Schaffer, relied on superior teamwork and smart play, drawing praise as the best team in the tourney, regardless of Class.
Tonight, the team is in the gym again.
They played the game so well. It was at a time before the three point shot. A mention of the euro step back then, would have caused one to think, it was a new dance move at the disco. It was at a time when players relied on one another to set up the right teammate, in the right spot, for a good shot. It was at a time when you played defense by moving your feet, and if you reached in on an opponent, the whistle blew. The only hand checking that went on was by your mother, before you sat down for dinner … “go wash your hands!” It was at a time when every possession of the ball, mattered.
Shorts back then went to mid thigh … not mid calf. There was no fist bumping with the two officials. The only chest bumping that went on was if you accidentally ran into another player on the floor. And the gym floor itself was sacred … it was guarded with a rope by the ushers club, and if you stepped on the floor in street shoes, even during the school day, you were out of line.
And at the start of the third quarter, there was a light cloud of smoke floating in the doors at that corner of the gym, as announcer Bernie Abenshein reminded all of us at halftime and between games about where you could smoke: “Smoking is permitted in the north east lobby only” (spoken by Abendshein during the program).
Seating at the games was kind of like seating at church … Fans didn’t have assigned seats, but they sat in the same place … every game. And if regulars weren’t in their usual spot, there was concern. ‘Where are the Smith’s tonight? I wonder if something happened?’
And when our school community traveled to away games, it was always an unplanned but seemingly organized caravan that made its way to the opponents gym and back. Seeing the stream of headlights and taillights heading home, most times after a victory, was a special feeling for all.
The team was special, and the fans were special. And following tonight’s game, all fans are welcome to a social time with the State champs, and the current team, in the cafeteria. The wall between the cafeteria and the auditorium will be open, and a video of the championship game will be playing on a big screen. Meet, visit and reminisce. Autographs and pictures are free.
And I am privileged to be sitting between these two guys. They were involved in the River Valley Basketball program for parts of four decades. Many of us knew them as teachers, but they were also coaches, driving instructors, and mentors. A third member of this team, our good friend, now in heaven, Ed Rogers kept the official clock. Phil Bender (to my left, and better known to this generation as Grandpa to the Lynch kids) kept the official book, and longtime eighth grade coach and Girls Varsity coach Bernie Abendshein was the voice of the game, and his voice was special to all of us. Thank you guys for being here tonight, and for being here all those years.
At this time, I am honored to introduce this special team to you. I will start with the few that couldn’t attend.
The manager of this team was Kevin Krieger. He had health challenges for much of his life, and during the tournament run, he missed some games. In his absence, JV manager Greg Culverhouse filled in wonderfully, as he too, made sure the team’s needs were always met. Kevin missed the semi final game that launched the team into the finals. On the day of the championship game, the team was at lunch, but still, no Kevin. During the meal, in walked Kevin. The euphoria that swept through the room was something none of the team will ever forget. The team was now all together, and there was a feeling of confidence and “We Got this Now” about the upcoming game. Kevin was a special person, and his special spirit benefitted everyone that knew him. Greg was that way too, and always helpful. They are both in heaven, but Kevin and Greg are here in their special spirit tonight.
Four of the players, regrettably, can’t be here. I’ll tell you about them.
Number 30 Bob McCrary: Robert McCrary is married and has nine children. He lives in Denver, and has been retired since suffering a stroke in 2016. He is looking forward to returning to his home town this July for his 40th class reunion. He is anxious to reconnect with classmates and friends. He has stayed in contact with Coach Schaffer, a relationship they both treasure.
Number 52 Cliff Cross: Cliff Cross lives in Byron Center, Michigan, with his wife Jane (Woodrick) Cross, also an RV grad. They have three sons, Clay, Zac and Garrett, and one daughter Brooke. Furthering his education at Ferris State University, Cliff eventually started his own Engineering Design business. Cliff is president of Cross Paths Corporation in Grand Rapids. Though unable to be here tonight, Cliff shared: “Go Mustangs.”
Number 12 Mark Magnuson: Mark Magnuson lives in Arlington Heights, Illinois with his wife Eileen. They have three adult children, Kyle, Sarah and Claire. Mark graduated from North Park College with a degree in computer science. He is the Chief Technology Officer at Health Data Management Solutions. Mark would like to give his best wishes to everyone.
Number 20 Gregg Schaffer: Gregg Schaffer graduated from Central Michigan University in 1985 and has been a teacher and a coach here, Brandywine, Otsego, and St. Joe School Districts. He is currently teaching and coaching boys varsity basketball at St. Joe, and tonight is coaching a makeup game at Portage Northern. He also serves as St. Joe’s middle school athletic director. He has been married to Julie (Hall) Schaffer, also an RV grad, for 27 years, and they have two children, Lindsey and Andrew. Gregg was a coach on the floor at a very young age. He learned a lot about the game in the driveway from his Dad and his older brother Gary, and taught a lot to his younger brother’s David and Doug. Second son of Coach Jerry and Peggy, the point guard on this team was Number 20, Gregg Schaffer.
Number 32, Brad Ponegalek: Brad Ponegalek graduated from River Valley in 1980, earning All State Honors his senior year. He continued his education and basketball playing at Kalamazoo Valley. Brad has worked in the construction business for many years, and is currently a contract construction manager for Nuclear Power Plants all around the country. He has two adult children, Madison and Bryce. They are both married, and Brad has been blessed with three grandsons: Braiden, Finley, and Creek Boersma. At the other forward, Number 32, Brad Ponegalek.
Eight of the 13 players are here tonight. Let’s meet them now:
• The lone sophomore on the team was Scott Konkey. Scott lives in South Bend, and is one busy guy. He is a skilled trades carpenter in the automotive industry, and has his own construction business on the side. He has two adult children, Adam and Sarah. Scott gave Sarah His State Championship medal for good luck during her team’s tournament run her senior year. Sarah and her Oregon Davis teammates went on to claim the Indiana Girls State Basketball Class 1A Championship. Sarah’s husband Brandon was part of the Oregon Davis Boys team that also won State that same year. Sarah and Brandon have a one-year-old daughter, Nora Ann. Scott is officially a grandpa. Entering the game for the Mustangs, Number 54, Scott Konkey.
• Gary Nye graduated from Central Michigan University in 1984 with a degree in Business Administration. He moved to Chicago, and started a sales career. He also became involved in competitive sailing, and on a sailing weekend in 1990, he met his wife Betsy. Since 2005, Gary has been working in South Bend for Starbucks Coffee Company. He and Betsy have made their home in Sawyer, where they enjoy the lake, biking and hiking, and living in a small town. Gary shared to this day, he still experiences moments, that having participated in River Valley basketball, proves instructive. Entering the game for the Mustangs, Number 14, Gary Nye.
• After High School, Jeff Williams went to Central Michigan University, where he and Dave Zebell were roommates. In 1983, Jeff married his wife Beverly, and together they have three daughters, Lindsey, Sarah and Amanda; two son in laws, Callan and Florian, and two grandsons, Braxton and Miles, with a third grandchild due in July. Jeff is in his 30th year of serving as a United Methodist Pastor. He currently serves the United Methodist Church in Wayland, Michigan. Entering the game for the Mustangs, Number 22, Jeff Williams.
• Tim Brychta studied business at Central Michigan University, and for a few years worked sales in Chicago. He then returned to the area, and bought a home near Warren Dunes. Throughout the 90s, he worked in one of the family businesses, making and installing custom kitchen cabinetry. For the past 19 years, he’s worked real estate as part of his family’s Harbert business. He has two kind and wonderful sons, Cameron and Justin. Tim shared that 1979 holds a very special place in his heart. He is proud to be part of that team’s collective success. Into the game for the Mustangs, Number 34, Tim Brychta.
• Jeff Adams graduated from Western Michigan University and then spent the next few years in the car and bar business. During that time, he met a wonderful gal, Trish, and he shared that he eventually tricked her into marrying him. Soon after they married, they ventured into their first business together, and have spent their lives, as Jay shared, avoiding real jobs. They presently own and operate Popeyes Restaurant of Benton Harbor. They have two awesome sons, Nick and Mikey. Into the game for the Mustangs, Number 44, Jeff Adams.
• After winning the State Basketball Championship, Dave Zebell had a great spring playing baseball, earning first team all state honors in that sport. He then went to Central Michigan University where he was a member of the 1981 Mid American Conference Championship Team. After college, he married his wife Sharon, who helped get him through law school. They settled down in Battle Creek, where Dave has been practicing law for over 30 years. Dave and Sharon have two wonderful children, Tony and Alyssa, and two awesome grandchildren, Owen and Leo. At one guard, for the Mustangs, Number 10, Dave Zebell.
• Mike Peterek graduated from Ferris State University with a degree in Marketing. He began his career as a buyer in the automotive manufacturing industry in Detroit. He started a family and moved back to the area, and lived in Niles. He has three adult children, Maddie, Mitch and Tyler. Mike currently lives in Edwardsburg, and works for HoneyWell Aerospace in South Bend. At forward, for the Mustangs, Number 24, Mike Peterek.
• After graduation from River Valley, Steve Koth earned his associates degree from Lake Michigan College and then his bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Michigan State University. Steve is the chief sales officer at DeGroot, Inc, a leading plant and bulb producer, in Coloma, Michigan. He has two step sons, Josh and Eric, one stepdaughter Stacy, and six grandchildren. Steve enjoys spending time with family and friends, outdoor activities, travel, MSU sports, and National Hot Rod Association drag racing. At center, the Man, in the Middle, Number 42, Steve Koth.
• One key assistant for decades of Mustang basketball, that could not be here is in heaven. Uncle Ron Schaffer was an uncle to all Mustangs. He loved his community and he loved the game of basketball. He believed in all kids, and made a difference. And if an official blew a call on an obvious charge, he sat close enough to the floor, keeping stats right there at half court, to give that official an earful on the principal of verticality. Uncle Ron is enjoying this ceremony from up above.
We are very happy that these special people ARE with us tonight:
• Many of these players developed their game under the guidance of Mr. Fred Knutel. Fred was our JV coach for decades, and was an assistant during the tournament run. He also took our girls varsity basketball team to the State Finals in 1976. He was an exemplary teacher, coach, driving instructor, and board member. He and his wife June raised five wonderful Mustangs: Pete, Janet, Julie, Phil and Jenny. Ladies and Gentlemen, Coach Fred Knutel.
• Our final guest of the evening has a big, special room named after him, and we are all in it. Growing up as one of New Troy’s favorite sons, Jerry was a star athlete as a Trojan, and continued his athletic prowess for the Chargers of Hillsdale College. There he was a standout defensive back in football, catcher in baseball, and point guard in basketball. Next month he will be enshrined in the Hillsdale Athletic Hall of Fame. He’s also in the Michigan High School Coaches hall of Fame, and the Basketball Coaches of Michigan Hall of Fame. Here we know him simply as “Coach.” We’re thankful that after college, he found his way back to New Troy. He made a difference here. And he’ll be introduced once again by Mr. Abenshein, just like Mr. A did so many Friday nights, for all of us.
“The Mustangs are coached by Mr. Jerry Schaffer.”
To conclude our ceremony, we have a special treat. The River Valley Basketball Program has had more than its share of talent over the last 51 years. The Fine Arts department has as well. This building has a very talented group of musicians, singers, and actors. Tonight we have some of the cast of the upcoming school play, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which will be presented in our auditorium the third and fourth weekends of March. Tonight, these talented voices will share a rendition of Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock”— in a short parody for the state champs, called, “Like a Mustang.”