Archdeacon: Bar or no bar, Flyers’ Mikesell has the walk of a champion

Dayton senior is revered in his hometown of St. Henry: ‘He represents us in the best way possible’

Sometimes you walk the bar. Sometimes you raise it.

For Ryan Mikesell, it’s the latter.

The Dayton Flyers’ fifth-year senor is from St. Henry, the small town in the flat farmlands of Mercer County that has a towering sports presence. It’s been home to three NFL players, two Super Bowl champs, a Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer, several college stars, a whopping 20 high school state championship teams and one glorious tradition.

Immediately after St. Henry High wins a state crown, the team and many of the townsfolk converge on Fish Mo’s Bar & Grill, a shrine to suds and sports that stands along Main Street on the west edge of town across from the farm co-op.

Out front, often surrounded by an overflow crowd that’s spilled from the bar, stands the old football scoreboard that is lit up with the score of the game.

Inside, along with photos and mementos of teams and athletes past, is a juke box that includes the Queen song “We Are the Champions,” which gets cranked up full volume once the title team walks in.

Then one by one, the team members step up on the bar and dance from one end to the other in what’s called “The Walk of Champions.” People are snapping photos, cheering and some are crying as another group of kids have their dreams realized.

Matt Stelzer, who runs the place, then hands them prized T-shirts that read: “At St Henry we talk the talk …then walk the walk.”

“Both of Ryan’s sisters (Lanee and Ally) walked across the bar when their volleyball teams won state,” said their dad, Reed Mikesell. “But Ryan never got up there. None of his teams won state. They always fell a tad short.”

And yet, his son is now on a team – the record-setting, No. 3 Dayton Flyers – that is being embraced by all of St Henry as if it had just strutted its stuff on the Fish Mo stage.

“Every amount of Flyers Fever people are feeling down in Dayton right now, we are feeling up here in St. Henry,” said Eric “Rosie” Rosenbeck, the high school principal and head basketball coach. “Everybody here is invested in the Flyers.”

The main reason, of course, is the 6-foot-7 Mikesell, who is revered not just because he’s UD’s starting forward – a guy who’s played in 117 games and started 86 – but for the kind of person he is off the court.

“He is the absolute epitome of what St. Henry is all about,” said Paul Hemmelgarn, who not only runs the detailing shop that’s next to his family’s Marathon gas station in town, but who also serves as St. Henry High’s director of basketball operations.

“Ryan has been wonderful for our town. He’s represented us in the best way possible.”

But Mikesell isn't the only reason folks here are drawn to the Flyers, who beat George Washington 76-51 on Saturday night to improve to 29-2 overall and finish their Atlantic 10 season at 18-0.

Like so many other people, St. Henry can’t get enough of Obi Toppin, the Flyers’ high-flying ,highlight reel from Brooklyn, and Jalen Crutcher, the Memphis guard with the magical mix of teardrop shots and alley-oop passes, both of which confound opposing defenses.

And they especially like the way the Flyers share the ball and play as a team.

“I’ve heard it put as ‘aesthetically pleasing basketball’ to watch,” said Rosenbeck, who was Mikesell’s high school coach. “The constant ball movement is awesome and each one of those guys seems to really buy into the idea of getting the best shot possible.”

“The team is just so fun to watch,” said Stelzer. “They’re just a blast!”

Because several St, Henry athletes were football standouts at Ohio State — including All American Jim Lachey and quarterbacks Bobby Hoying and Todd Boeckman – Stelzer said the Buckeyes have always had a fervent following at Fish Mos:

“Ohio State has usually been the dominating school, but not anymore. We definitely get more people for Dayton Flyers games these days.”

A few doors down at the St. Henry Nite Club – where the red awning over the gray front door is decorated with a pair of black and white checkered flags from auto racing – owner Bill Dues was wearing an Eldora Speedway cap, but talking hoops:

“It’s amazing. I’ve been in this business 33 years and I’ve never seen so many St. Henry people going down to UD games and wearing UD apparel and talking about the Flyers. It’s incredible.”

His bar – which especially draws race crowds during NASCAR events and throughout the Eldora season – now has watch parties for Flyers’ games. So does 3 G’s restaurant and lounge at the other end of town.

It’s the same at McSober’s Saloon in nearby Coldwater, which Reed said had been running Ryan’s photo on its Twitter page along with the pronouncement that his son loves their chicken wings.

While Ryan’s not part of any promotion and gets no benefit per NCAA rules, he admitted the other day that their wings are “pretty good.”

And St. Henry’s Catholic Church also has featured him of late.

Lisa Mikesell, Ryan’s mom, said he was mentioned in the church bulletin recently and that last weekend Father Bill O’Donnell — who previously spent a dozen years at Precious Blood church on Salem Avenue in Trotwood — made him and the Flyers part of his sermon.

“Yes, I talked about how the team has remained humble and not let success go to its head,” said Father O’Donnell.

He said that’s especially been the case with Mikesell: “We as a community should take great pride in him.”

At Hemmelgarn’s Marathon – which takes no credit cards and requires customers to come to a small window after they pump their gas and pay Dan Hemmelgarn, Paul’s dad — Flyers fever is on display much of the day.

“Every other customer comes to the window and talks Flyers’ basketball,” said Dan who recounted some of the prime topics:

“How do you think they’re going to do? What do you think they’re missing? Do they need some 300-pound, 7-foot guy banging around inside against physical teams they’ll face? Or are they fast enough to get around that?”

When there was a snafu a couple of Sundays ago and copies of Dayton Daily News that came to the St. Henry area did not include the full-page Ryan Mikesell poster inside, the newspaper quickly rectified the matter and sent a bundle of several hundred papers to town at no charge.

The high school handed out many of them in exchange for a donation to the Pennies for Patients cancer fund for children. The rest of the papers were sent to the Marathon station.

“We got rid of all of them in a day and a half,” Dan said. “People loved them.”

Reed said he’s noticed young St Henry kids who play basketball with a mouth guard, as Ryan has done since high school, now taking them out and propping them behind their ear during a break in the action, just as his son does.

While the town has had many fabled athletes – going back to the late Reds outfielder Wally Post. who happens to be Mikesell’s great uncle and including Lachey and Penn State’s Jeff Hartings, both of whom later won Super Bowl rings – no St. Henry athlete strikes a chord with young kids today like Mikesell does.

“I have two boys – Tyler is a third grader and Eli is in first grade and they don’t bring up Bob Hoying or any of the other older guys from here. They never heard of them,” Rosenbeck said. “But they bring up Ryan Mikesell all the time. Well, and Obi too, because he’s obviously awesome and fantastic to them.”

Father Bill agreed: “Our young people are inspired by Ryan. They talk a lot about him. He really communicates a message to them that will help them in the future.”

And Mikesell doesn’t take any of this for granted:

“I know I’m representing the town, so I feel I have to work hard every day to show what the town is about and what small town living is all about.”

Future Flyer

Mikesell’s parents sat at their kitchen table the other morning and talked about their son dreaming of being a Dayton Flyer already as a youngster.

His hero was Kurt Huelsman, the 6-foot-10 St. Henry product who started 137 straight games for the Flyers from 2006-10.

“Kurt’s just a year older than Lanee and before he went to UD, he’d be over here for a party or something and he’d be dunking out there at our basket,” Reed said with a smile. “Ryan and Ally would be there with their friends and they’d be cheering: ‘Kurt!…Kurt!…Kurt!.’”

Thanks to his uncle who had season tickets, Ryan sometimes got to UD games once Huelsman became a Flyer.

“Kurt would bring him and our other son, Andy, back to see the locker room and they loved it.” Reed said.

Years later, when he had forged his own stellar career at St. Henry High, Mikesell was offered a scholarship by then-Flyers coach Archie Miller.

“We were there and they had the Arena scoreboard all lit up for us and Archie offers and says, “Well, Ryan, what do you think?’” Reed remembered with a shake of the head. “And Ryan goes, ‘I’ve got to think about it.’

“And inside I’m like “WHAT?!!! What are you doing?’”

Later he asked his son what was going on and Ryan told him he was worried how he was going to say ‘No,’ to the other coaches who had recruited him.

He finally did so in personal phone calls, a move that impressed some of the snubbed suitors so much that they called Reed and Lisa to tell them what “a class act” their son was.

Dan Hemmelgarn, who’s had had St. Henry High season tickets for more than 50 years, said he saw that already when Ryan was playing junior high basketball: “After his games he and his two sisters would help clean all the bleachers out. Those kids know how to work.”

He said during the summers, Ryan still sometimes works with his family in their food concession booths at the fairs and festivals and out at Eldora.

Even though his life has moved on from St. Henry – Saturday was Senior Night, his last game at UD Arena, and he’s already graduated with a mechanical engineering degree and is finishing up work on his masters – Mikesell hasn’t forgotten home.

Every Sunday evening the family goes to his grandmother’s home to talk and watch TV and he still joins them on occasion.

And each year he returns to the middle school to talk to students about the importance of their academics (he’s an Academic All A-10 honoree), and overcoming obstacles (he missed the entire 2017-18 season after a pair of hip surgeries) and especially about how someone from their town of 2,500 can make it on the big stage.

“Growing up I was one of those same kids,” he said. “When I was in elementary and middle school, I looked up to guys like Kurt Huelsman. And I watched Ohio State a lot and (Findlay’s) Aaron Craft, who was a guy from our area.

“To see guys locally who go on to play college football and basketball and baseball – for them to show you that you can go on to the next level – that’s huge. It was for me and I want it to be for them, too.”

Flyer Fever

Paul Hemmelgarn said people have embraced Mikesell for what he’s done on the court and off.

His very first college game as a freshman he scored 21 points against Southeast Missouri State thanks to 5-for-7 shooting from three-point range.

Voted team captain as junior, Mikesell had a 23-point, 11-rebound effort against Rhode Island that season, 22 points against VCU and scored 21 on both St, Bonaventure and Saint Joseph.

This season – averaging 8,6 points and 4.8 rebounds a game – he led the Flyers with 19 points against No. 1 Kansas, scoring nine points in overtime..

Off the court there’s been everything from his loving friendship with Colin Connor, the Flyers’ special needs super fan whom he talks to almost daily, to his recent visit to Dayton Children’s Hospital, where he lifted the spirits of a young, still heavily bandaged boy who was seriously injured in an auto accident months ago.

“Ryan’s just a super decent kid,” said Stelzer.

Because of that, Rosenbeck said over 100 people from St. Henry were planning to go to UD Arena for Senior Night.

He figured much of the rest of the town would be watching the broadcast of the GW game as the Flyers tried to extend the school’s best-ever record to 29-2, and expand the nation’s longest winning streak to 20 games.

“I know many, many, many people here watch every game,” Rosenbeck said. “I’d love to see how many ESPN+ accounts are in St. Henry. It’s all because of Ryan.”

Reed said the school will have the upcoming NCAA Tournament playing on a big screen in the cafeteria each day.

“It’s pretty crazy seeing what’s going on back home,” Mikesell said the other day before practice at the Cronin Center gym on campus. “My parents tell me people are coming up all the time and asking how the Flyers are doing.

“Flyers Fever has spread all over up there. The whole community is caught up in it and that makes me feel pretty good.”

All that lessons any sting there ever was from missing out on that Walk of Champions.

Besides, that Fish Mo’s promenade can end up painful.

Toby Boeckman, Todd’s brother, took the title trek with his championship football team more than a decade and a half ago and got so into it, he didn’t notice the opening in the bar that allows the barkeep passage back and forth to the patrons.

He ended up falling through the gap and suffered a gash that left him bloodied, bruised and requiring stitches.

Sometimes you walk the bar. Sometimes you raise it.

And sometimes you fall straight through it.

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