It doesn’t seem like more than three decades have passed since Kele Fitzhugh was diving for loose balls, taking charges and hitting 20-footers to lead the Nevada Union boys basketball team to the school’s first CIF Sac-Joaquin Section championship.
But indeed it has.
The year was 1981, and at the time, Nevada Union was in the midst of its hoop “glory days” when the Miners, under the tutelage of coach Kermit Youn, captured five league championships and a pair of CIF crowns over an eight-year span.
Fitzhugh, a three-year varsity guard, was the catalyst of the 1981 squad. In fact, his driving in-the-lane scoop shot three-point play late in the game amongst Elk Grove’s tall trees provided the Miners with the impetus needed in NU’s 49-42 CIF title win.
Described on the pages of the Grass Valley Union as the “shot heard around the world,” Fitzhugh’s old-fashioned three-pointer overcame a tall Herd team that up to that point had frustrated the Miners most of the night.
“I remember Elk Grove was playing a big zone and I had my first three shots blocked,” said Fitzhugh who for the past 16 seasons has been the head men’s basketball coach at Shasta College in Redding. “It was a real eye-opener.”
Teaming with post players Jeff Carling and Jim Rath and guards Chris Cota and sophomore Chris Heppe, Fitzhugh and the Miners had won a hard fought 58-50 game in the semi-finals over Manteca.
In that game, Carling and Rath led the way with 16 and 15 points respectively while Fitzhugh followed with 13 and the late Brian Wells added seven more.
The championship game saw Elk Grove, with its big front line to match the Miners’ size, grab a 14-10 lead after a quarter. But with Fitzhugh scoring six points and Rath and Carling starting to free up inside, NU took a, 24-22, lead into the locker room at halftime.
The Miners maintained their lead in the third quarter as Fitzhugh buried a pair of 20 footers – there was no three-point line in 1981 – and Rath scored twice more from underneath. When Wells hit a 10-footer to close the quarter, NU was up 36-32 and eight minutes away from its first CIF title.
But it didn’t come easy. With no shot clock, the Miners tried to pull the Herd out of its zone but NU then went nearly three and a half minutes without a bucket before another 20-footer by Fitzhugh gave the Miners a 38-36 lead at the 4:30 mark.
Elk Grove then tied the count at 38-38 setting the stage for Fitzhugh’s acrobatic drive through traffic and ensuing three-point play that for all practical purposes sank the Herd.
Fitzhugh, who scored 22 points in the title game, was named the MVP of the Division II tourney and was joined on the all-tournament squad by Carling. The Miners would go on to lose in the NorCal Regionals at Cal State Hayward to Acalanes, 71-59, but returned the next season to defeat El Camino, 61-57, for its second consecutive CIF crown.
Fitzhugh, who was Nevada Union’s first 1,000 points boys scorer, went on scholarship to Weber State but later returned home where he had a standout career at Chico State. He would later become an assistant coach at Chico for nine years before taking the Shasta job in 1997.
This year, because his Knights team didn’t qualify for the junior college state tournament, Fitzhugh will get a chance to watch his son Andrew, a senior on Enterprise of Redding’s team. The Hornets took a record of 22-3 into this week’s North Section playoffs where they are the No. 1 seed in Division III.
Saying that Andrew is a chip off the old block may be correct. Besides averaging nearly 13 points a game this season for the Hornets, he qualified for the CIF state track meet in the hurdles last season as a junior and has drawn college recruiting attention.
Kele’s wife, Karin, was also an outstanding athlete at Chico State. Their daughter Karle, 20, is running track on scholarship at Sacramento State.
“I think I’m the fourth best athlete in our family,” said Kele.
Right now, Kele Fitzhugh is an unusual position. He would love for son Andrew to stay home and play at Shasta for him but at the same time knows there may be bigger fish to fry for his son if a scholarship offer arises.
“It’s his decision,” said Kele Fitzhugh. “It’s a good position to be in but it’s all up to him.”
Mike Ray was the Sports Editor of the Grass Valley Union from 1975 to 1985 and now writes for the Auburn Journal. He still resides in the Colfax area.