BY ANDY ROWER | MIRROR SPORTS — Two months before graduation, Maumee senior guard Connor Graetz signed to continue his basketball career with Bluffton University. “It has always been a dream of mine to play college basketball,” Graetz said. The son of Bill and Kim Graetz and big brother to Cole (12), Carson (10) and Cali (8), Connor originally entered high school as a three-sport athlete, participating in a year of football and two years of baseball – along with four seasons of basketball. Graetz’ road to collegiate basketball was not without a few major bumps, however. He saw time on both the frosh and junior varsity rosters as a freshman, when he was already drawing comparisons to another former Maumee standout – 2012 graduate and eventual Delaware Technical Community College player Sean Flanagan. “He saw the floor just as well as Sean Flanagan did, and I don’t think anyone would disagree what a special player Sean Flanagan was,” said former Maumee varsity boys basketball coach Derek Sheridan. The summer going into his sophomore year, Graetz tore the meniscus in his right knee while at the Wauseon shoot-out. After recovering from the ensuing repair surgery, Graetz was cleared to participate in Maumee’s open gyms. During one of those first open gyms, though, he ended up tearing the ACL in his left knee. “It was real devastating, finding out that I had to sit even longer,” Graetz said. “Sitting out for almost a whole year from the sport you love is very difficult, but I had friends, family, teammates and coaches to support me through it.” Though he missed his entire sophomore campaign, he was able to return alongside seniors Austin Calopietro and Jared Schriner and classmates C.J. Chilupe and Logan Hazard the following year. “I was thrilled to get back and play,” Graetz said. “Just going through the surgeries and all the rehab, the only thing I could think about was getting to play again.” For his part, Graetz led the Panthers with 41 assists and also chipped in 40 rebounds, 38 points and 13 steals, while converting an even 50 percent of his shots from the field. While Maumee only managed a 5-18 record (2-12 in Northern Lakes League play) that year, there already was some excitement brewing about the 2017 season. With Graetz, Hazard and Chilupe seemingly returning alongside promising players such as Caleb Brown, Mike Haney, Jameson Hicks, Ben Pacer, DaMichael White and Dink Wyatt, things were looking up for the Panthers. For a variety of reasons, though, only Graetz, Hazard and White remained on the roster when the season began. “I was really excited thinking about all the possibilities that could have happened if we had all those guys,” Graetz said. “I believe we could have accomplished big things. Playing without C.J. was weird at first because he and I have played together for years. He was always my go-to guy. I knew he was always going to have my back. We pushed each other to get better every day. “But, you can’t make excuses. We went out there with what we were given and battled every night.” Despite the setbacks, Maumee improved to 7-17 (4-10). Highlights of this past season included a 69-55 win over district semifinalist Napoleon, a sectional win over Bowling Green, a three-point buzzer-beater loss to Napoleon and a nine-point loss to NLL co-champion Anthony Wayne. Graetz was on the floor for all but about four minutes of his senior season. “That just shows you how basketball savvy he is to play that many minutes and not be in foul trouble.” Sheridan said. His numbers increased across the board, as he scored 160 points, recorded 99 assists, pulled down 57 rebounds and posted 29 steals. He also went from a quartet of 3-pointers in 2016 to sinking 19 treys in 2017. Having established himself as one of the area’s best point guards, Graetz was rewarded with second-team District-7 honors. “Connor Graetz was one of the best pure point guards that I’ve been fortunate enough to coach,” Sheridan said. “He will always have a special place in my heart for being a kid that battled through so much personal adversity and then had the type of senior year he had. “I felt bad for him this year because he didn’t have a great stat line in the scoring column, but he made sure that Braithwaite got the ball on the right block, he made sure Pacer was getting the ball and he made sure that Hazard was getting the ball on the left block. He was a very good distributor.” Graetz said he always enjoyed being a point guard and that the pressure never bothered him. “It helped that Coach Sheridan has a lot of trust in me to be the point guard,” he continued. “I didn’t have to worry about much because I knew he trusted me with the decisions I was going to make on the court. “I grew up always being the point guard. I like it because you get to get the team into the offense and are looked upon as one of the leaders. And, I think it does take a certain guy that is willing to start up the offense and get other people opportunities to score with the basketball. “It’s almost just an instinct to be able to play the position. I never really cared about how many points I had ever, as long as we were winning and my teammates were getting involved. I like passing the ball. I think it’s an art form in basketball to be able to have the gift to see the whole court.” While passing was a focal point of Graetz’ game, equally important were his ball-handling skills – which changed the way defenses had previously played against Maumee. “Other teams didn’t press us the way they used to press us because Connor could get through the press fairly easily,” Sheridan said. “He was such a good distributor that he could get the ball going toward our basket and get the ball to somebody on the other end that could ring the bell for us and break the pressure. That was a luxury at Maumee all in itself. “Other teams would try to force Connor to his left and it didn’t bother him. He was just as good with his left hand as he was his right hand. If you left him alone and he got his feet set, he could knock it down. He hit some big 3-pointers for us this year.” Graetz credited his first coach, Dave Patton, along with his father, for teaching him the importance of ball handling. “It was one of the first things I learned,” he said. “I constantly just dribbled a basketball anywhere I was. When I was in middle school and I walked anywhere, I dribbled my ball wherever I was going. When I got to high school, it was just a lot of fundamental dribbling, two-ball dribbling and drills with tennis balls.” When other players tried to intimidate or rattle Graetz, it was often them that ended up in foul trouble instead of their attended target. “He was a hard kid to rattle,” Sheridan said. “I think he was a very self-confident young man. He’s a tough kid – hard-nosed. He’s just a kid that has a very good idea of what it takes to fight through adversity because of his own personal experiences.” Sheridan also pointed to Graetz’ work ethic and high basketball IQ as a reasons for his success. “He was a very, very good practice player, which if you talk to any coach, people don’t understand how important that is,” Sheridan said. “He could go up to the marker board and draw our stuff. He knew it just as well as the coaching staff did. He was very astute when it came to basketball. “I’ve had him since he was in elementary school,” Sheridan said. “I was his gym teacher and he’s always been very competitive. He hates to lose. He’s quiet but has a dry sense of humor. He’s a lot of fun.” Along with Bluffton, Graetz also got interest from Albion College, Defiance College and Goshen College. “It was a really tough choice, but what made Bluffton stand out was that (assistant) Coach (Ta-Rel) Franklin took the time to come to one of our games. “Also, Coach (Guy) Neal, the head coach, has been coaching at Bluffton for 28 years, so that made me feel comfortable because he knows what he’s doing. And, lastly, it was only an hour away from home, so I’m not far from home.” Graetz said the biggest influences in his basketball career have been “every single one of my coaches and my dad.” “They have all shaped me to be the player I am today,” he concluded. One of those coaches said he had little doubt about Graetz’ future. “I think Bluffton College got a steal in Connor,” Sheridan said.