VANLUE - It is a phrase often repeated this time of the year.
"There is no room in the gymnasium."
Those were the words heard by all but perhaps 500 folks who had an interest in watching Carey take on Vanlue in a battle of boys basketball unbeatens here Wednesday night.
Included in the group of unfortunates was a certain part-time sports writer, one who has been to a number of sellouts in his 44-year career but never a lockout.
Never say never.
The possibility should have been apparent when, at 6:45 p.m., he arrived in Vanlue and drove past a packed high school lot as well as a few side streets lined with vehicles. He eventually found a parking spot that, thanks to a tree limb that hung no more than six feet above ground, denied the SUVs and heavy-duty pickup trucks of the world but welcomed a 10-year-old Sunfire.
It had been 20 years since he last covered a game here, but the surroundings had a familiar look.
As old schools go, this place is really old school. The basketball floor is on a stage, and the seating is theater-style. A rather small theater.
Such a setting was state-of-the-art in the 1930s. Hopewell-Loudon, Old Fort, McComb and Lakeside, before it merged with Danbury and maybe for a while afterward, all had such facilities. Each has long since been replaced.
Except at Vanlue, where on this night, the hometown Wildcats were 7-0 and Carey came in at 4-0. It had the look of a big early-season showdown, an event worth writing but
"You're wasting your time," shouted one angry, turned-away young man, obviously unaware of the sports writer's renown. It turns out he wasn't alone in that regard.
Sold-out signs were taped on both locked doors. A few raps on the glass drew the attention of a Hancock County Sheriff's deputy, who came and opened the door a crack.
"I'm with the Tiffin newspaper," said the reporter on a mission. "See if they're letting in media," the unimpressed deputy said to a ticket-taker who assumed his best official pose before walking away.
He returned a moment later with Vanlue Athletic Director Greg Thomas.
"I'm sorry, but we can't let one more person in," Thomas said.
"But I'm," the writer started.
"Not one more," Thomas said. "It's the fire code."
It is possible the Vanlue AD truly meant it. It also is possible he wasn't about to deal with the 10 other persons pressed against the glass hoping for their own opportunity to get inside.
Regardless, the deputy made it clear this discussion had ended.
"That happened only one other time as far as I know," said E.J. Frost when contacted at his home. Frost was head coach at Vanlue from 1987-91 and had stints at Northmor and Hopewell-Loudon. He is now in his 10th season as head coach at Van Buren.
"The game was against Van Buren, and it was the last (Blanchard Valley) Conference game of the 1990-91 season," he said. "We were 8-0 and Van Buren was in second place. We needed it to win the championship outright and we got them.
"The crowd started lining up at 3:45 that afternoon. I'm not kidding," said Frost, who won two straight titles and guided the 1989-90 Wildcats to the regional tournament during his short stint at the school.
"We pre-sold that Van Buren game; we knew it was going to be a big one," he said. "But the other thing we did was set up a (closed-circuit) TV of the game and showed it in the cafeteria."
When pressed for an estimate of the seating capacity, Frost hesitated a bit. "I can't remember, but 300 or 400 comes to mind. There was the theater seating and a few bleachers behind the benches. I'm not sure, 300-to-400 doesn't seem like much.
"I'm kind of surprised they sold out tonight though," he said. "Then again, they're such rivals, Vanlue and Carey. That would have been a good one to see."
The only problem was there was no room in the gymnasium.
Pat Magers is a sports writer for The Advertiser-Tribune.