By Zane Gard, Sounding Board Staff Writer
Over the past fifty years, many things have changed in basketball— the teams, the players, the coaches, and even the rules. Yet in northern Indiana, one thing has yet to change. When Bethel College plays Grace College on the hardwood, there is a battle to be fought and history on the line.
Today, togas, midnight practices, and buzzer-beaters all mark the Grace-Bethel rivalry, but this was not always the case. First came the building of programs that would win a combined 19 MCC championships. Next was the hiring of coaches that have won a combined 1,239 games prior to the start of this season. Then came the rivalry which would have 45 contests decided by five points or less in 114 meetings.
During the 1959-1960 season, an upstart Bethel program started to play a Grace basketball team that was already established.
The first recorded games between Bethel and Grace that year saw Grace win three out of the first four games. Robbie Lightfoot, assistant basketball coach at Bethel College and eldest son of head coach Mike Lightfoot, believes that Bethel wanting to become like Grace’s strong basketball program helped jumpstart the rivalry.
In the early days, there were no Christian school members in the NAIA. With Taylor University and Anderson University not wanting to play “Bible schools,” it was natural for Bethel and Grace to play each other many times a year. Lancer’s head coach Jim Kessler said that the “underdog mentality” of schools trying to prove themselves to the regional colleges helped the rivalry grow. Once the NCCAA was formed in 1968, Bethel and Grace could play each other four times a season—once in a Thanksgiving tournament (the Turkey Classic), twice during the conference season, and once in the playoffs.
Grace-Bethel games were not much of a rivalry to start, with Grace winning all but six of the first 37 meetings between the two. Kessler remembers those days with games played in “cracker box gyms” with legends like Doug Noll (though he inadvertently called a timeout once when Grace was out, enabling Bethel to win). The series would lend itself to long winning streaks on both sides. Grace won 14-consecutive games from 1967-1973, followed by an eight-game streak for Bethel from 19781981.
The 1980s marked what may be considered the height of the Grace-Bethel rivalry and consequently the height of fan participation. Kessler recalls fondly one away game that Grace faithful showed up extra early to. So early, actually, that they lined the front row of the entire gymnasium, Bethel student section and all. These are just some of the antics of fans that would be in lines to get into the game over an hour before tipoff and find standing room only once the game began.
John Boal, Grace’s Chief Advancement Officer, also played basketball for Grace in the ‘80s. Boal led the team that won the first three of seven consecutive MCC championships from 1981-1988. However, he did not realize the significance of the rivalry until Grace lost all four games to Bethel his freshman year, but quickly figured it out. “You just couldn’t be friends with a Pilot,” Boal explained. “Now I hate (in a Christian way) seeing blue shirts in the OCC.”
Women’s basketball head coach Scott Blum was a part of the team in the 1990s and even hit a game-winning shot in 1991. The ‘90s were home to some of the most successful teams in the Grace-Bethel rivalry. Look no further than 1992, when Grace won the NAIA National Championship and Bethel won the NCCAA title after Grace defeated Bethel in NAIA district play. Lest Bethel be overlooked, however, the Pilots won a national championship four years during this decade and hold the record for consecutive victories with 16 in a row from 1994-2000.
An eye injury cut short what could have been a boost to the rivalry in the 2000s. After playing together throughout high school, twins Matt and Andy Abernathy split, with Matt going to Grace and Andy going to Bethel. While Matt would go on to have a stellar career at Grace (sixth in all-time scoring), Andy’s injury would end his early. Regardless, former Lancer Matt Moore called it the “one you want to win” (even if fans mistakenly attempted to mock the Pilots by faking airplane crashes with their arms).
Assistant Coach Dan Zawlocki knows the Grace-Bethel rivalry. He played in it… only he was a Pilot. In fact, Zawlocki is in Bethel’s Hall of Fame. Zawlocki’s favorite memories of playing Grace were giving nicknames to Grace players, constantly having sold-out crowds and beating Grace every game but once in his career. For years, Zawlocki explained, Grace and Bethel were the top two teams in the region. Yet half a century later, the overall record is only 59-56 in Bethel’s favor.
So where is the rivalry now? Newer and nicer facilities, more in-conference rivalry games, and a national outlook trumping a local emphasis, provide the risk of the rivalry fading as the student body becomes less engaged.
The Grace-Bethel rivalry may no longer have raucous “Beta Boys” wearing togas in mass to intimidate opponents or emergency after-game practices before eventually winning a national championship like in 1992, but it has even more of what it is made of: history. And this history is worth repeating.
Quotes About the Rivalry
“What makes this rivalry so great is that during the heat of competition it is evident that both schools respect each other so much. Bethel and Grace put Jesus Christ first in everything they do both in athletics and in the mission field. There is a mutual respect because both institutions play basketball for the right reasons.”
-Robbie Lightfoot, Bethel men’s assistant basketball coach
“There was just something about that game that put everyone on pins and needles. Like any good rivalry game, it was the fear of losing that tied you up in knots. The pain of losing to the ‘evil empire’ was greater than the joy of winning.”
-Stephen J. Matteson, Bethel Sports Information Director and former Bethel player
“Part of a healthy rivalry is a game that fans want to watch again, and players don’t want to have to play again.”
-Jim Kessler, Grace men’s head basketball coach
“When you win, you not only beat the other team, but the fans as well.”
-Scott Blum, Grace women’s head basketball coach
“The rivalry isn’t what it is without Kessler and Lightfoot. Players come and go, but they are the two constants.”
-Matt Moore, Mount Vernon men’s head coach and former Grace player
“When I arrived at Bethel all our fans and people talked about Grace College and the competition that they had with one another.”
-Homer Drew, former Bethel men’s head basketball coach
This story was published in the December 3 Edition of Grace’s student newspaper, The Sounding Board.