ANTWERP — It doesn’t take long to pass through Antwerp.
Route 49 travels through the heart of the town, tucked into a bend of the Maumee River and just a few blocks will pass by your windows before you pass a sign reading “Antwerp: The Diamond of Northwest Ohio” and the trip continues.
That diamond is shining as bright as any in the area, however, as the Antwerp High School spring sports season has captured the fanhood of the tight-knit community of 1,736.
History has been made in Archer athletics as the Antwerp softball team will compete in the Division IV state semifinals for the first time ever on Friday in Akron while a day earlier in Hamler, the baseball team will take the field in the school’s first ever regional tournament. Not to be outdone, junior Heather Oberlin will represent Antwerp in Columbus this week in the Division III state track and field championships after qualifying in the shot put.
All in all, it makes for plenty to be proud of for those that keep Antwerp close to home.
“The community has been so supportive,” said softball Krista Ordway, now in her third year as coach. “We’ve been having the boys and us play at the same time a lot this season and the whole community is out there. We’ve had huge crowds and we feel the love from everybody.
“Baseball’s been doing amazing and Heather’s doing awesome in track. Antwerp’s been going crazy in the spring.”
Admittedly, it’s tough to confuse the village of Antwerp with a sprawling metropolis. But what sets the community apart is what makes small-town sports across Ohio special: the familiarity.
Whether it’s at the Oasis Bar and Grill on the corner of Main and River Streets for their popular Wednesday wing night, or just a quick jaunt down River Street to The Root Beer Stand for coney dogs, root beer and ice cream, Antwerp is the kind of community where people come together and for the Archers, that means backing their local sports teams.
“Even after the girls won on Friday all the way in Findlay, we had a flow of people in that night from a game an hour away,” explained Bob Bragg, the third generation of the Bragg family to help run Oasis Bar and Grill, often just referred to as “The O,” since 1987. “Our boys were up in Bryan and they won their game and after that game, I’d say half the team’s families were in here. It’s been great for us but whenever one of our sports teams does well, we tend to feed off that.”
Antwerp athletic director Drew Altimus knows all about it, having served as head football coach from 1997 until stepping down as coach earlier this year. Altimus took the program to the playoffs six times from 1998-2007, including the school’s first ever home playoff game.
But this takes the cake, according to the Antwerp icon, who is admittedly a bit busier this time of year than in years past.
“It’s busy but it’s exciting and it’s well worth it,” said Altimus. “It’s exciting that both teams are doing so well and then Heather on top of it. The school and the community, they like to see good things happen to good kids.
“It’s one of those things where you’re just so proud. You’re proud to stick out your chest and say you’re from Antwerp. That’s what little towns in Ohio do, this is what represents where you’re from.”
The run has been special to watch for a pair of former grads as 2004 alum Zac Feasby has guided the baseball program for the last seven seasons while 1998 grad Doug Billman is back in the fold, having taken over the Archer boys hoops program in 2016.
“It’s a great feeling to have an entire community behind you,” said Feasby, who has guided Antwerp to new heights after struggling early on in his tenure. “You have three (spring) sports teams that are successful. I kinda compare it, in terms of a community feel, back to the late 90s, early 2000s back when we were making the playoffs in football. I was right in the thick of it back then.”
A four-year baseball player for the Archers, Billman was especially excited to see the run up close.
“I think it’s just incredible the excitement around the town,” explained Billman. “The pride that I’ve always believed in growing up and when I was in school was always there, to see it come back in full force is great.
“When you see runs like this it brings back such incredible memories,” added the Defiance College grad. “I was young in ‘92 when we won the (Division IV) state championship in volleyball but I was in college and helping out the coaching staff when we had the first home playoff game. To see the pride that night, when they were stacking them rows deep around the track, the small-town vibes are incredible.”
The vibes go back not just to the glory days of athletics in the 1990s for Antwerp but also with the small-town fondness from folks like Stan Jordan. The longtime resident, now in his 80s, writes weekly for the West Bend News in town, providing observations, memories and thoughts on the area’s past and its current state of affairs.
“Antwerp’s always been a good baseball town, even going back to the 1920s and ‘30s with the grandstands at the ballpark,” noted Jordan. “Any time you’ve got a town with a ballclub that’s been good like this, everybody’s talking about the girls and the boys.”
Even with the 2009 re-routing of US-24 that diverted business and travelers away from what is now County Road 424 that goes through the heart of Antwerp, the town still thrives on its tight-knit nature.
“I think it’s a great place for kids to grow up,” said Feasby.
The only other area school to send a team to state in softball, to regionals in baseball and a qualifier to state track in the same season is Archbold in 2004.
“This is uncharted waters and the excitement around both programs is neat to see,” said Altimus. “Me personally, I’m not just an AD in this, I have a son on the baseball team (senior Keaton Altimus). It’s been fun just watching these kids growing up and becoming young men and women. At the (district championship) baseball game, we’re watching and listening and following the softball game at the same time with everyone having their phones out checking Twitter and GameChanger. They’re celebrating in Findlay when they won and then we’re double celebrating in Bryan for both teams and then people are meeting back at the Oasis.
“It’s a great sense of pride in what we’re doing. Regardless of what’s going on, we’re pulling for the same thing.”
“Coming back into the community a few years ago, those small town community relationships: there’s just something special about them,” added Billman. “These experiences are something they’re going to remember for their whole lives.”
Thursday will mark a community send-off at 11 a.m. in front of the high school. Through cooperation with Patrick Henry and AD Ben George, the Patriots have opened their doors to the softball team to get a practice in on the PH fields as both the baseball and softball teams will travel together to Patrick Henry on Thursday for the D-IV regional semifinals. After the game, the softball team will head to Akron to prepare for a D-IV state semifinal with Peebles at 3 p.m.
If the baseball team knocks off Colonel Crawford on Thursday, the regional final will be moved from 5 p.m. on Friday to noon on Saturday to allow the Archer faithful to follow the softball team’s exploits at state.
“We have some really good players and they know the expectations of this team and this program,” said Ordway. “It’s been exciting to see them do their jobs out there. It’s just them doing what they love out there.”