ROCHELLE — St. Paul Lutheran School was the place to be Thursday night, as Crusaders of all ages hit the hardwood for a first-ever alumni scrimmage game to recognize the 50th anniversary of the school’s junior varsity boys basketball tournament.
Both teams battled hard throughout the evening, with the alums gaining an early advantage and the students rallying back toward the end. Although the game ended in a tie by a score of 65-65, the experience was rewarding for both the current players and the graduates.
“It was just a good time getting out there and playing against the kids who are on the team now,” said Brett Metzger, who graduated from St. Paul in 2006. “To have some of the guys come back who haven’t been around for a while… It was just a good time getting to play with everyone.”
The evening began with an opening prayer, and both teams took the court afterward for four 10-minute quarters of fast-paced basketball action. The alums and the students then got together for two games of knockout when the scrimmage game ended, with the winner of each game receiving a new water bottle as a prize.
But the night wasn’t over yet, as everyone in the building united for a group meal to wrap up the commemorative event before departing for the night.
“It was fun seeing a lot of the older guys that played before me,” said Andy Hayenga, who graduated from St. Paul in 2011 and won one of the two knockout games Thursday night. “I love coming here. It’s a good environment and it’s a fun place to be around. I just enjoy being with everyone around here.”
While many of the kids on the St. Paul basketball team are around the same age, the alums who returned to help celebrate the event attended the school over the span of nearly four decades. John Vandre, who graduated in 1977 and serves as a coach for the girls basketball team, was happy to reunite with his former Crusaders.
“St. Paul means a lot to me,” Vandre said. “My mom was a school secretary here and I still coach here… I learned how to just live your life as a Christian and how to lead a Christ-like life.”
Another person who enjoyed the festivities Thursday night was Henry Bunger, who began working at St. Paul in 1998 and currently coaches the boys basketball team. Bunger even acknowledged that some of the men on the alumni team were his former players, and he said it was awesome to see them return to honor the special occasion.
“It was pretty cool,” Bunger said. “I coached half of these guys… It was cool to have them come back and play, and to see the excitement on the kids’ faces and the faces of the people in the crowd… St. Paul is a tight-knit community and a lot of these guys grew up together and played sports together. It’s definitely a family atmosphere.”
Despite their differences in age, each of the alums still carries a piece of St. Paul with them wherever they go. In addition to the close bond they share, the former Crusaders say they were taught valuable lessons as students, and they hope the current students continue to carry out the school’s rich tradition.
“St. Paul just has a good background and I love coming here,” Hayenga said. “I definitely learned hard work and how to be respectful and polite… Just trying to stay ahead of things and trying to get things done.”
“The relationships and the friendships through the church and the school… You’re still in touch with all of those people,” Metzger added.