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Looking Back at the OHSAA’s Basketball Championships

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Looking Back at the OHSAA's Basketball Championships - No. 1
A centennial moment

By Timothy L. Hudak
Sports Heritage Specialty Publications
4814 Broadview Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio 44109
www.SportsHeritagePublications.net
 

Being the second oldest of the Ohio high school tournaments, the boys basketball tournament is loaded with history. Just about everyone is familiar with some of the tournament’s more recent highlights. For instance, who can ever forget the excitement surrounding the team from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School during its great run of success from 2000 to 2003?   Led by a freshman sensation by the name of LeBron James, the Fighting Irish burst onto Ohio’s high school basketball scene in 1999-2000 by going undefeated, 27-0, winning the Division III state championship and finishing 21st in USA Today’s Super 25 poll.

However, young Mr. James and his team from the Rubber City were just getting started.  The following season the Fighting Irish stumbled just once as they finished 26-1, won a second straight Division III title and climbed to #5 in the final national rankings.  LeBron James continued his sensational play and was named a first team high school All-American, the first sophomore to ever achieve that distinction.  During the 2001-2002 campaign the boys from SV-SM proved that they were, indeed, human by losing three regular season games, but that did not stop them from advancing to the Division II state finals.  However, their run of championships hit a bump in the road called St. Bernard Roger Bacon High School, which defeated the Fighting Irish, 71-63, to win the state championship.  Nonetheless, LeBron James was again named a first team high school All-American, as well as the national “Player of the Year.” 

During the 2002-2003 season, LeBron James and the rest of the Fighting Irish were again at the top of their game.  After a fantastic regular season and playoff run, they held off a determined Kettering Alter team to win a thrilling Division II championship game by just four points, 40-36.  That victory also earned for the Fighting Irish (25-1) the national championship, the first for an Ohio boys team, and only the second ever won by an Ohio high school basketball team (the other being the Pickerington girls of 1999). 

LeBron James was again named a first team All-American that year, the first player to ever achieve that distinction three times, as well as earning a second consecutive national “Player of the Year” award.   He was also named Ohio’s “Mr. Basketball” for the third straight time, the only player to ever earn that award three times.

Over the years there have been many great high school basketball players in Ohio, and it is difficult to compare players from different eras, but one would be hard pressed to find a better player over the decades of Ohio high school hoops than LeBron James of Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.

Another team making big headlines of late is the Bulldogs of Canton McKinley High School.  The Bulldogs are the winningest basketball team in Ohio high school history with 1736 victories through the 2005-2006 season, placing them among the top half-dozen teams in the country in that category.  However, when it came to winning state championships the Pups were the personification of being the bridesmaid and never the bride.  Through the 2003-2004 season the Bulldogs had made a record 26 trips to the state tournament, and had advanced to the championship game nine times, yet had come away with just one state championship in 1984. 

All of that frustration came to a sudden halt during the last two seasons.  In 2005, the Bulldogs finished 26-1 and took home their first Division I state championship, and only their second basketball title overall.  Liking what it felt like to be at the top, the Bulldogs repeated their championship effort last year, finishing at 25-2 en route to a second consecutive Division I title and a #10 ranking nationally.  With their record number of overall victories, the Pups are finally starting to add some championships to their glorious basketball history.

These reflections on the recent history of the OHSAA boys state basketball tournament are but two highlights of a tournament that spans 85 years, and in some respects goes back almost a century. 

The state championship of boys high school basketball in Ohio has been determined by a tournament since 1909.  Those first tournaments were sponsored by Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.  Called the Inter-High School Basketball Series, and later popularly known as the Delaware Tournament, it was an invitational tournament and was played from 1909-1922.   There were no separate classifications for teams in this tournament, all of the teams playing as one group, but they were divided into Northern and Southern Divisions.  The eventual winners of each division would play off in a single championship game for the right to be known as the state champion, and are recognized as such today.

Thanks to a surviving program from the 1921 Delaware Tournament, we get a small picture of what that tournament was like – and it was anything but small.  In 1909, only seven teams were invited to the tournament, but by 1921 that total had grown to 160.  Think of that for a moment.  160 high school basketball teams playing in one tournament in one location, the Edwards Gymnasium at Ohio Wesleyan.   That surviving program does not give the dates of the tournament, but it would have to have been played over a period of several weeks, even if the games were played daily.  The finals in 1921 were held on Saturday, March 12, with Dayton Stivers winning the championship by defeating Toledo Woodward Tech, 26-19.

The names of the earliest champions of this tournament, such as Mansfield High School (1909), West Milton High School (1910), Plain City High School (1911), and even Dayton Stivers, will not be readily recognized today as “powers” of Ohio high school basketball.  However, toward the end of the tournament’s run one school did emerge as the first power or dynasty in Ohio boys basketball.  That school was Dayton Stivers, which won the Delaware Tournament four times in 1916, 1919, 1920 and 1921.  As we shall shortly see, Stivers’ would continue its success on the hardwood into the earliest days of the OHSAA tournament.

The year 1923 marks the beginning of the OHSAA sponsored boys basketball tournament.  While the tournament has usually been played at a site in Columbus, presently at the Schottenstein Center, it has over the years been played at various venues around the state, including locations in Kent, Toledo, Cincinnati, Dayton and Cleveland.

When the OHSAA began its tournament it divided the schools into two classes, A and B, based on male enrollment, with the A schools being those with the larger number of boys.  These classes were renamed A and AA (bigger schools) in 1957, with a AAA (biggest schools) class added in 1971.  In 1988 the classifications were reconfigured and renamed Division I-II-III-IV, Division I being for the biggest schools.

Today the term “tournament” refers to the Final Four, but it has not always been that way.  In 1923 and 1924 the tournament consisted of all the games from the “Sweet 16,” roughly corresponding to today’s regional semi-finals, to the championship game.  From 1925-1935 the tournament was reduced to include only the final eight teams, but from 1936-1941 it went back to the Sweet 16 format.  Due to travel restrictions brought on by World War II, the concept of regional play at various locations around the state was introduced in 1942, with only the four regional winners proceeding to the state tournament.  This system remained in effect after the war and continues to this day.

The first OHSAA Class A tournament was won by Lorain High School, which outscored Bellevue 7 to 0 in the fourth quarter to pull out a 15-14 victory.  Talk about your “one hit wonder,” 1923 is still Lorain High’s only trip to the tournament, but they made it pay off in a state championship.  The Class B champion that year was Plattsburg, which downed Bellpoint, 16-15.  Like Lorain, this would prove to be Plattsburg’s one and only trip to the “show.”  Coincidentally, both teams won their championship games in the same manner: coming from behind by scoring their winning points in the final minute of the game.

One interesting side note to that first tournament, something that has probably never been duplicated in the 85 years of the OHSAA tournament, is the fact that one man coached two different teams in the tournament, one in each class.  The coach is Ralph Geesey, and the two schools were Stryker (Class A) and West Unity (Class B), located just seven miles down the road from each other in Williams County, which is located in the northwest corner of the state.  Before reaching the tournament itself, Geesey had coached his two teams to a total of eight victories along the tournament trail.  Once they got to Columbus, West Unity won twice more before losing to Plattsburgh, 29-11, in the Class B semi-finals.  Geesey’s Stryker High squad was not as fortunate in the Class A tournament, losing its first round game to Columbus West by a score of 20-8.

Bellpoint High School, which lost in the 1923 Class B title game to Plattsburgh, would rebound in a very big way.  In an era when teams seldom won more than one state championship, much less consecutive titles, Bellpoint High School would put on a real show of winning in both 1924 and 1925.  The team won all 32 of its games during the 1923-1924 campaign, finishing its remarkable season with a 24-20 victory over Archbold in the Class B championship game.  The next season Bellpoint won its first 22 games before suffering its only loss in a tournament held in Cincinnati, one which featured teams from two other states.  Bellpoint went on to defeat Oberlin High in the 1925 Class B title game, 42-24. 

In two seasons the Bellpointers had won 67 of 68 games, including a then record 54 in a row, and two state titles.  Winning two state titles was quite rare in those days, as seen by the fact that in the first 35 years of the OHSAA tournament Bellpoint would be one of only two schools to win two Class B championships. 

In Class A the competition was almost as stiff during those first three decades of the OHSAA tournament.  Only six schools in that class would manage to win multiple state championships.  While the most famous of these, Middletown High School, will be featured in an accompanying article, at this time we will tell the story of Dayton Stivers High School, the school that has won more state boys basketball titles than any other. 

Stivers High School won its first OHSAA Class A state championship in 1924.  The team did not qualify for the tournament the next two seasons, but in 1927 the Tigers made it as far as the quarter-finals, where they suffered only their second loss of the season in getting bounced from the tournament. 

Beginning with the 1927-28 season Stivers High School went on a record setting run of success.  That year they led all the way in the Class A championship game, a 25-20 victory over Canton McKinley.  The next year the Tigers of coach Floyd Stahl capped a great 29-1 campaign with a 36-22 championship victory over Dover High School.  Coach Stahl’s Tigers were one better during the 1929-1930 campaign, as they completed a perfect 30-0 season with a thrilling 18-16 win over Akron East in the Class A finals.  The Tigers stretched their winning streak to 46 in a row before losing in the sixth game of the 1930-31 season.

In the 85 years of the OHSSA boys basketball tournament, Dayton Stivers’ three consecutive state championships has been equaled only once.  Stivers would qualify for the tournament again in 1932, 1935 and 1975, with their best finish being as the runner-up to Warsaw River View following a dramatic 77-72 overtime defeat in the ‘75 Class AA championship game. 

With the four championships that Stivers won during the days of the Delaware Tournament, the Tigers had won eight state titles in the 15 years from 1916-1930.  While only two schools can claim more OHSAA tournament championships, no school has been credited with more boys state basketball championships than the eight owned by Dayton Stivers High School.

The incredible, almost unbelievable, saga of the Class B Waterloo High School basketball team of the mid-1930’s will be detailed in an accompanying article.  Just about that time, however, and carrying over into the early 1940’s, another team was one of the few to enjoy a significant amount of success in the early days of the boys basketball tournament.   

Back in 1936, Newark High School qualified for the state tournament for the first time.  Like so many schools in so many sports, the Wildcats played like tournament veterans their first time out.  They opened with a thrilling 25-24 victory over Cincinnati Elder, and then knocked off Akron South, 30-25, in the quarter finals.  Bridgeport fell victim to Newark, 32-22, in the semi-finals, and the Wildcats closed out their first successful run through the tournament with a 32-23 championship game victory over Findlay High School.

In the 1937 Class A tournament the Wildcats were pummeled by Massillon Washington, 42-22, to earn a quick first round exit.  However, it would be the other teams taking the door when Newark again qualified for the tournament in 1938.  First Youngstown East and then Cincinnati Roger Bacon fell victim to the Wildcats.  In the semi-finals Newark crushed a good Bridgeport team by the score of 51-24 – up to that time the most points ever scored in a semi-final or final game. 

The championship game that year was just a bit more closely contested.  The Wildcats and the team from New Philadelphia High School battled back and forth throughout the game.  Entering the fourth quarter the two teams were tied at 20-20.  They battled right down to the wire, with Newark pulling out a 28-27 victory for the team’s second championship in three years. 

The Wildcats did not qualify for the tournament the next two seasons, but were back at it again in 1941, only to get bounced in the quarter-finals by Xenia Central, 47-38.  The Wildcats missed the ’42 tournament, but returned in ’43, when they defeated Middletown and Martin’s Ferry to advance to the Class A championship game against Canton McKinley.  After building an eight-point halftime lead the Wildcats had to hold off the hard charging Bulldogs to nail down their third state championship, 47-42, becoming only the second school in the state to win as many as three basketball championships. 

Newark next qualified for the tournament in 1953, where they had the misfortune of running up against one of the great Middletown team’s in the Class A title game, getting crushed by Middletown by a score of 73-35.  The Wildcats’ last trip to the tournament came in 1981, when they lost a heart-breaker in the semi-finals, 83-81, to eventual Class AAA state champion Dayton Roth.

 

 

Looking Back at the OHSAA's Basketball Championships - No. 2
A centennial moment

By Timothy L. Hudak
Sports Heritage Specialty Publications
4814 Broadview Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio 44109
www.SportsHeritagePublications.net
 

Since the earliest days of the OHSAA boys basketball tournament, a handful of schools have really stood out as having had great success.  Sometimes this comes in a short burst over a few years, other times it is spread out over many decades. A few of these schools were mentioned in the preceding article.  Two others, Waterloo High School and Middletown High School, will be discussed in an accompanying article.  In this article will be reviewed the tournament histories of some of the other schools whose success has added rich and colorful chapters to the OHSAA boys basketball tournament.

Hamilton High School first played in the Class A state tournament in 1928, losing in the quarter-final round.  The Big Blue was back in 1931, but got bounced by Canton McKinley in the first round of play.  Finally, in 1937, Hamilton put it all together. In the Class A title game against Massillon Washington, which was then coached by the legendary Paul Brown, the Big Blue overcame a 20-14 halftime deficit to come away with a 37-32 victory and the school’s first state basketball championship.

The next season Hamilton lost a close 38-36 contest to New Philadelphia in a semi-final game, then did not return to the tournament until 1949.  That year the Big Blue defeated both Middletown and Lancaster to win the Cincinnati Regional.  In the semi-finals they led all the way to defeat Niles, 49-39.  In the championship game against Toledo Central, the Big Blue rode a 29-point second period outburst to a 38-17 halftime advantage, then coasted home with a 70-52 victory and their second state championship.  At the time Hamilton’s 70 points was a record for a state championship game.

The Big Blue would play in three more big school championship games.  In 1951 they fell to Columbus East, 57-39, but their next two championship game encounters would end on much more pleasant notes. 

In 1954 the Big Blue defeated Columbus South, 66-56, to earn the school’s third state title.  Hamilton’s fans would have to wait 51 years to see their team again in the state tournament, but it would be worth the wait.  Playing in Division I in 2005, the Big Blue survived a tremendous title game battle with Toledo St. John Jesuit to win its fourth state championship by a score of 51-48.  Hamilton High School is one of seven schools that have won four OHSAA state boys basketball titles.  Only two schools have won more.

Cleveland’s East Technical High School made its tournament debut in 1956 when the tournament was held in the Scarab’s “backyard” at the old Cleveland Arena.  In their Class AA semi-final game that year the Scarabs scored 78 points, a point total that would have won all but one of the semi-final and final games ever played up to that time.  Unfortunately for East Tech, their opponent in that semi-final game was Middletown High School, led by the great Jerry Lucas, who at the time was just a sophomore.  The Middies drained the basket for 99 points that night, with young Mr. Lucas setting an all-time tournament record by scoring 53 points.

Tech did not qualify for the tournament the next year, but beginning in 1958 the Scarabs would make the tournament six consecutive seasons. 

It would be awfully difficult, if not impossible, to top the 1958 Class AA state tournament for sheer thrills and excitement.  East Tech took an early lead and then held on to defeat Zanesville, 53-47, in one semi-final game.   In the other, Columbus North shocked the basketball world by upsetting two-time defending state champion Middletown, 63-62, handing the Middies their first, and only, loss in three seasons. 

Seldom have two teams been so evenly matched in a tournament final as were East Tech and Columbus North in 1958.  And if the folks at St. John Arena thought that they had seen a great game when North upset Middletown, then they were in for an even greater treat the next day.  Tech and North fought back and forth during the entire game.  With North leading 48-46 and just six seconds left on the game clock,  East Tech’s Jim Stone hit on a 35-footer to tie the score and send the game into overtime. 

Neither team was able to score in the first overtime period.  By the rules of the day, the second OT would be sudden death – first team to score wins.  North gained first possession of the ball in the second OT, but lost it on a bad pass.  East Tech then worked the ball down the court.  Ed Ferguson passed the ball to Gerald Warren.  Warren drove toward the basket, pulled up and , with just 34 seconds gone in the second overtime, canned a jump shot in the paint it give East Tech – and Cleveland – its first state basketball title, 50-48.  That year was the last time that the sudden-death format was used.

Coach John Broskie’s Scarabs had gone through the 1958 season undefeated, winning all 26 games.  They would repeat that incredible achievement in 1959, finishing with a perfect 25-0 record.  In the finals against Salem High School, the score was tied at 14-14 after one quarter.  Tech then outscored the Quakers 23-9 in the second period and the game, for all practical purposes, was over as Tech continued to pull away to a 71-51 victory.

East Tech made it to the Final Four each of the next four seasons, advancing to the championship game twice.  In the 1960 Class AA finals Tech jumped out to a 6-0 lead over Dayton Roosevelt, but the Scarabs could not hold it and missed a third consecutive title by a score of 51-41.  In 1962, Tech was again back in the championship game, this time squaring off against Hamilton Taft in a game of unbeatens.  It was a close game all the way, but Tech was never able to gain the lead and dropped a 59-52 decision. 

Since its great run of the late 50s-early 60s, East Tech has had three more shots at a state title.  The Scarabs advanced to the finals in 1967, but lost to Columbus Linden McKinley, 88-56.  In 1971, Tech lost in the semi-finals to Dayton Dunbar; but, in 1972 they finally won another state championship, the school’s third, by defeating Cincinnati Princeton, 78-67.

Columbus East High School is second only to Middletown in the number of OHSAA boys basketball championships won.  While the Tigers have only been in the tournament 10 times, they have made the most of their opportunities by advancing to the championship game on six occasions, winning five. 

East’s first trip to the tournament came way back in 1924.  The Tigers lost the Class A title game that year, 30-16, to Dayton Stivers, one observer describing the East performance as “slow, sluggish and tired.”  The Tigers qualified for the tournament in both 1926 and 1933, then had to wait until 1951 for their next shot at a state championship.  That time the Tigers defeated Hamilton High School, 57-39, to not only bring the first state basketball championship trophy to East High School, but also the first for the city of Columbus. 

East lost to Cincinnati Hughes in the 1955 Class A semi-finals, but when the Tigers next returned to the tournament in 1963 there was a much different result.  Now playing in Class AA, the Tigers swamped East Tech in the semi-final game, 58-44, then took the measure of Warren Harding, 41-32, to win their second state championship.

In the years 1968 and 1969 the Columbus East Tigers had seasons reminiscent of the East Tech run exactly 10 years earlier.  In 1968, the Tigers went 24-0, followed by a 25-0 campaign in ’69, to post back-to-back undefeated state championship seasons. 

East has only advanced to the tournament twice since then.  In 1979 they won the Class AAA state title, their fifth overall, with a 74-65 victory over Cleveland St. Joseph High School.  The Tigers’ bid for a sixth state championship in 2001 ended with a loss in the Division II semi-finals. 

Portsmouth High School was a perennial Class A participant in the earliest days of the OHSAA tournament, but the Trojans enjoyed their most tournament success during five tournament appearances from 1961-1990. 

Portsmouth qualified for the Class A tournament in 1925-26-27-29, but did not advance to the finals until its tournament appearance in 1931.  In the finals that year against Canton McKinley, the game was tied 16-16 after regulation play.  In the OT session the Trojans outscored the Bulldogs, 4-3, to take home the school’s first state championship. 

Portsmouth next qualified for the tournament, and the championship game, in 1934, but the Trojans’ quest for a second state title was derailed by Dayton Roosevelt, which handed Portsmouth a 46-30 defeat.  Portsmouth also advanced to the tournament in 1939 and 1941, but came up empty each time it its quest for a state championship.

 Beginning in 1961 the Trojans would qualify for the tournament roughly once per decade through the 1990’s, but when they did they made the most of their opportunity.   In 1961 the Trojans used a come from behind fourth quarter rally to defeat Elyria High School in the Class AA semi-finals, then rallied again in the final two minutes of the championship game to defeat Urbana, 50-44, to take home the school’s second state championship trophy.  In the 1978 Class AA finals the Trojans went up against the defending state champions from Cleveland Cathedral Latin.  It was a back and forth game throughout the contest.  With just 32 seconds remaining Portsmouth took a 63-60 lead and held on to win the game and the state title, 63-62.

In 1980 the Trojans found themselves on the short end of a one-point Class AA championship game, dropping that contest 45-44 to Hamilton Ross.  The Trojans were next back in the tournament in 1988, and this time they were able to stay on the long end of a one-point title game as they defeated Chesterland West Geauga in the Division II title game to earn the school’s fourth championship.  Two years later Portsmouth made its final tournament appearance, losing in the Division II championship game to Dayton Colonel White by a score of 71-57.

St. Henry High School (of St. Henry, Ohio) has qualified for the state tournament just five times since 1979, but on each occasion the Redskins have advanced to the championship game.  Playing in Class A, the Redskins completed a perfect season (26-0) in 1979 for coach Fran Guilbault by defeating defending champion Mansfield St. Peter’s, 64-57, in the title game to win the school’s first basketball championship.  The Redskins’ faithful had to wait 11 years for their team to make its next trip to the tournament, but this time they would quickly double their pleasure.  In both 1990 (Division III) and 1991 (Division IV) the Redskins suffered just one loss each season, but made sure not to have that loss come during the tournament, which they won each year to post back-to-back state championships.

St. Henry High School was back in the Division IV championship game in 2000, but this time suffered its only defeat in a title game, dropping a 64-58 decision to Fort Jennings High School.  Returning to the title game in 2004 (this time in Div. III), the Redskins regained their championship form by defeating Versailles by a score of 61-49, placing themselves among the state’s elite basketball teams with a fourth state championship.

From 1984 to 1991 there was probably not a hotter basketball team in the state than the one from the now closed Bishop Wehrle High School of Columbus, coached by Chuck Kemper.  In that short seven year span, Bishop Wehrle advanced to the Final Four in the state’s smallest classification (Class A-Division IV) six times, reaching the championship game five times, winning four.   

In the 1984 Class A final Bishop Wehrle dropped a tough 66-62 decision to Monroeville.  The Columbus team lost in the semi-finals in 1985, but from 1986 to 1990 they were almost unbeatable in tournament play: 1986 – Class A state champion, 1988 – Division IV state champion, 1989 – Division IV state champion, 1990 – Division IV state champion.  The school’s three consecutive titles from 1988-1990 makes it one of only two schools to ever three-peat in the boys basketball tournament, the other being Dayton Stivers way back in 1928-1930.  In 1991, Bishop Wehrle again advanced to the Final Four, only to suffer a defeat in the semi-finals. 

Apparently, closing the school was the only way to completely stop this Division IV powerhouse.

Right on the heals of Bishop Wehrle’s success came another school whose success was equally impressive.  Cleveland’s Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School had had some previous success in the boys tournament as its predecessor, the all boy St. Joseph High School, but the Vikings had never been able to win the championship hardware.  In 1979 they lost to Columbus East in the Class AAA finals, 74-65, despite a championship game record 51 points by the Vikings’ great Clark Kellogg.  In 1987, the Vikings lost in the semi-finals, and in 1989 they again advanced to the championship game, this time in Division I.  Playing against Toledo Macomber and their All-American, Jimmy Jackson, the Vikings took Macomber to overtime before finally falling by a 75-72 score.

Enter the 1990-1991 school year and the new era of the co-ed Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School, with Mike Moran directing the boys basketball program.  Like Columbus Bishop Wehrle before them, over the next five seasons the Vikings would be just about unbeatable in the tournament. 

In 1991, West Chester Lakota would take the Vikings to overtime in the Division I finals, but VASJ would hold on for a 76-72 victory.  The next season the Vikings’ record of 18-9 was good, but not spectacular, as won-lost records go, but the team had played in several top tournaments around the country, taking its lumps along the way.  However, playing all of this top notch competition more than prepared the Vikings for the state tournament (now in Division II) and helped them play their way to a second consecutive championship. 

VASJ missed the tournament in 1993, but came back the next year under new coach Ted Kwasniak to take their third state championship in four years when they defeated Wauseon in the Division II finals by a score of 73 to 59.    Winning their fourth title in five seasons, VASJ defeated Cambridge in the 1995 D-II finals, 58-46.

Both Bishp Wehrle and Villa Angela-St. Joseph high schools had quite a run of success over a relatively short period of time.  However, with a break here or a key win there, Bishop Wehrle might have won as many as seven consecutive championships, and VASJ five in a row.  That would have been truly incredible, but both schools are probably quite satisfied to have won four titles in a five year span, while VASJ, at least, looks forward to capturing championship #5 sometime soon.

Looking Back at the OHSAA's Basketball Championships - No. 3
A centennial moment

By Timothy L. Hudak
Sports Heritage Specialty Publications
4814 Broadview Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio 44109
www.SportsHeritagePublications.net
 

Over the years the high school hoops fans of Ohio have been dazzled by the play of some truly great basketball players and teams.  Players like Jerry Lucas, Clark Kellogg and LeBron James.  Teams like the national champion Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary team of 2002-2003, those great Middletown teams from 1956-1958, the undefeated Cleveland East Tech squads of 1958 and 1959 just to name as few.  Many of us have seen at least some of these players and teams in action, so it might come as a surprise to many of you to learn that the greatest Ohio high school basketball team of all-time spun its magic on Ohio’s hardwood courts more than 70 years ago, that the team came from a school that had just 26 boys, the tallest player was only 6’2” – if that, and they played so many games in their second championship season that they did not have time to hold practice sessions once the season began outside of their 45 minute gym class. 

That team was the one representing little Waterloo High School during the 1933-34 and 1934-35 seasons.  Their school nickname was the Little Generals, but it did not take long before their on court expertise, and antics, had earned the Waterloo basketball team a more deserving moniker – the Waterloo Wonders.

Waterloo, Ohio, is located in Lawrence County at the southern most part of the state.  This is rural farm country.  Before the 1933-34 season there was little real reason to believe, or to even hope, that the local basketball team would be anything but decent, at best, that year.  The first hint of future success may have come when Magellan Hairston returned to Waterloo High School as the basketball coach and principal in 1932.   Hairston, just 26 years old at the time, had been at Waterloo High School previously in 1929, but he had moved on to other Lawrence County schools, a total of three others, to advance his teaching career.  However, as a basketball coach his record was very good, showing only a dozen losses in six seasons. 

In his first season back at Waterloo, Hairston’s Little Generals won the county championship, their first title ever, with their home “court” being an old church building.  When the community built a real gym for the high school later in 1932, the Waterloo team obliged by winning another county title during the 1932-33 campaign.   Two consecutive championships was a bit out of the ordinary for the schools of Lawrence County.  This team, therefore, was getting a winning reputation, at least at the local level.  They were now about to take their winning state-wide.

Coach Hairston had three returning starters, all juniors, around whom to build his team for the 1933-34 season: guard Orlyn Roberts (6’0”), forward Wyman Roberts (5’10”), who was Orlyn’s cousin, and center Curtis McMahon (6’2”).  Rounding out the starting line-up would be another junior, Stewart Wiseman (5’7”), a forward and the son of the team’s previous coach, and sophomore Beryl Drummond (5’7”), a transfer from nearby Cadmus who said that he had been “lured” to Waterloo by the high school’s new gym. 

These five boys made up the Waterloo team over the next two seasons.  Kevin McCauley was the team’s sixth man.  There were at times as many as three or four other boys on the team, but for all practical purposes these five boys were the Waterloo Wonders for the next two seasons.

The Wonders’ statistics are impressive, in fact, somewhat mind boggling when you consider what they did and when they did it.  In their two championship seasons they played an amazing 100 games, winning an even more astounding 97, including a then state record 56 in a row.  Playing 100 varsity games, some of them against college freshman teams, is incredible enough.  However, the thing that separates the Wonders from most of the other great teams in Ohio history is how they did all of this.  Think Harlem Globetrotters in a high school setting, without the tall guys, and you get something of an idea of what they were like.  They were great basketball players, with a great coach and a great system, who also knew how to have fun, a lot of fun, on the court.

Amazingly, unlike the Globetrotters or even other high school teams, the Wonders had no set plays.  Through hours of off season practice, on their own after completing their daily chores, the Wonders had, among other things, perfected a passing game unlike any seen before - or since.  They instinctively knew where each other would be on the court, and the speed with which they moved the ball around baffled both opposing teams and the spectators trying to follow the action.  The Wonders followed no set pattern of play, had no favorite spots from which they took their shots.  They roamed the court at will, free-lancing to the nth degree, and adapting their court tactics on the fly as the situation dictated. 

Orlyn Roberts was the team’s sharpshooter, their most accurate point getter.  More than 70 years later he still holds the Class B scoring record of 69 points for a three-game state tournament, as well as the record for most field goals in a Class B tournament, 29.  Like the other team members, Orlyn was also a dazzling passer who often initiated the team’s mesmerizing passing exhibitions.    

Stewart Wiseman, Orlyn Roberts’ backcourt partner, was less flamboyant than Orlyn, and because of this opposing teams often down played his importance – to their great dismay.  Wiseman was not the scoring threat that his teammates were, but he could pop in a basket, and his points often came when they were least expected, but most needed.   He was the team’s back court guard, rarely venturing much past the foul circle.  On those rare occasions when the Wonders fell victim to a fast break, it was not unusual for Wiseman to hold off two or three opponents until help arrived, often ending the threat himself by stealing the ball. 

Curtis McMahon played the pivot, and his uncanny ability to feed the ball to his teammates was just as important, if not more so, than his own ability to score.  And his scoring ability was almost second to none, as he was able to hook with both hands - and occasionally thrilled the crowd by blindly tossing the ball over his head for two points.  When he was not scoring, McMahon’s deceptive movements and pinpoint passing exchanges with his teammates confused the defense and opened the others to easy shots.  He had a great knack for hiding the ball like a football quarterback, holding onto it until the last possible second before passing off to a teammate for an easy two-pointer.

Wyman Roberts was the team’s best passer and a master at finding the other team’s weaknesses on defense.  One of the two corner players (with Beryl Drummond), Wyman would hang out in the corner, apparently not involved in the play.  Then, all of a sudden he had the ball and a split second later was either setting up shots for the others with his incredible passing, or he would toss in a two-handed set shot from the corner or break across the key for a left-handed hook. 

Beryl Drummond, a sophomore, was the youngest and least polished of the five as a player.  While not a big time scorer like the others, his passing was just as crisp, and as he moved into his second year on the team his performance improved accordingly. 

While the Wonders won 97 of 100games during their two momentous seasons, and often by wide margins, they just as often trailed at the half, especially when playing a tough opponent.  This was all part of their strategy, which was to see what the other team was capable of doing, sort of like scouting the opposition as they were playing them.  By halftime the Wonders’ careful observations and mental notes on the play of the other team had given them all of the information that they needed with which to comeback and defeat that opponent in the second half. 

This defensive strategy was apparently more than effective.  During the Wonders’ undefeated 1933-34 season their margin of victory averaged 26 points, was as high as 60 points and only twice did they win by less that 11 points.  The next season, playing twice as many games and a considerably tougher schedule, they still managed to maintain a winning margin that averaged more than 16 points.

The Wonders’ ability to avoid fouls was another of the team’s great traits.  It was almost uncanny.  Often the boys would go through an entire game having committed only one foul apiece.  There were even a few games in which the team was never whistled for even one infraction.  They were not totally immune to getting whistled for a foul, however, and one of their three defeats during the ’34-’35 season was in part due to four of the boys fouling out of a particularly “rough” the game.

About halfway through the 1933-34 season the Wonders’ winning streak was starting to attract some notice.  But the thing that was really grabbing everyone’s attention was the way in which the Wonders were winning their games.  It was not just the fine shooting, the great defense and the slick passing, but also the other antics that the boys employed. 

The stories of these antics have evolved into the thing of legend, but the simple and amazing truth is that they actually did most of them – as incredible as it may seem.  Often after winning the opening jump ball the Wonders would immediately give the ball to one of the players on the opposing team and invite him to take a free shot.  Another “tactic” after that opening jump would be for one of the Wonders to race toward the wrong basket and drop in a two-pointer for the other team.  As Dick Burdette writes in his book “The Fabulous Waterloo Wonders”: “The confusion that followed was worth the price of admission. The crowd roared, the officials bickered and the Wonders performed like Broadway veterans.” 

At other times, when they lost the opening tip off the Wonders would politely step aside and allow the other team a free shot at the basket.  If the shot was missed, they just as often gave the rebound back to the other team for another free shot.  The psychology behind this was incredible, for the opposing team was often unable to regain its composure and confidence after being treated in this manner.

Other antics included the Wyman cousins sitting down at midcourt and starting up a game of marbles in the middle of the basketball game.  At other times two or three of the boys sat down on the bench for a breather in the middle of a game, grabbing some popcorn or a hotdog while the rest of the team remained on the court. If the score was particularly one-sided, they would occasionally bounce the ball hard off of the floor and into the basket, or even dropkick the ball from center court for a two-pointer. 

But there was a real purpose behind all of the Wonders’ clowning and grandstanding.  Again, quoting from Mr. Burdette: “Wherever the Wonders played, fans flocked in droves to see their unusual style.  But despite the endless run of grandstand clowning, no one wrote them off as showoffs who lacked the basic skills of the game.  For when the Wonders clowned, it was for a purpose, a purpose as vital as passing, shooting and other phases of the game.  When they clowned, they entertained, they rested and they agitated.  And when they finally finished, only the opposing team had suffered.  Throughout the entire routine, the Wonders controlled the ball, protected their lead, and drilled a bit further into the frazzled nerves of their opponents.  And each time they performed, they enhanced their reputation of being the most talented, the most colorful, and the most unusual team ever to play on an Ohio basketball court.” 

Even with all that has been related, perhaps the most amazing thing of all was that the Wonders were able to win their games in spite of the tremendous schedule that they played.  During the 1933-34 season the Wonders played 32 games and won them all, including the Class B state championship.  Five times they held the other team to less than ten points.  In an era when 45 points was considered a relatively large score, the Wonders scored more than 50 points ten times, including a season high 69 points twice.  Their victories included wins over three college freshman teams. 

By the end of the season their reputation had spread far and wide – and everyone wanted to play them the next season.  Coach Hairston was most accommodating, perhaps more than he should have been.  So accommodating, in fact, that for 1934-35 the Wonders’ schedule had more than doubled to 66 games.  They played the usual Class B teams, but also a lot of the big school Class A squads, as well as some of the better teams from across the river in Kentucky, including the defending state champion – which also lost to the Wonders.  Today, not counting playoffs, that equals three years worth of high school basketball.

In a way the hefty schedule may have taken its toll.  After winning their first 24 games to run their streak to a then state record 56 in a row, the Wonders dropped an overtime decision to Greenfield McClain High School, 26-24.

Needless to say, with a schedule like this the Wonders’ games were not restricted to Friday and Saturday nights.  During one stretch they played five games in six days, all against Class A teams like Cincinnati St. Xavier, and won them all by an average of 16 points.  To put this into some kind of perspective, that would be like one of today’s small school Division IV basketball teams playing five Division I teams over a six day stretch, and beating them and beating them soundly.  On another occasion they played seven games against Class B opponents in nine days, and won all of those games as well. 

Scheduling so many games was bound to cause a problem or two, and one did pop up.  One night coach Hairston discovered that he had scheduled two games for the same night, in two different towns no less.  Not a problem.  In the first game, against Chesapeake High School, the Wonders went right to work and ran up a huge lead in the first half.  At the intermission the five starters jumped into coach Hairston’s car and motored to the second game over at Jackson High School, leaving the seldom used bench players to finish the game against Chesapeake, which they did with Waterloo winning easily, 47-5. 

 When the team finally arrived at Jackson High School at 10:00 P.M. they were greeted by a still packed house, as nobody wanted to miss an opportunity to see the Wonders play.  The Wonders proceeded to win that game as well, 45-24.

Just under 9,000 people (including about 500 who got in by breaking down a couple of doors) attended the Wonders’ final game, the 1935 Class B championship game.  That number was almost 2,000 more than had attended the whole Class B tournament just two years before.  The Waterloo Wonders won that championship game, 25-22, over Oxford High School. They are still one of only two schools, and the last one to do so, to win back to back Class B or small school Class A state championships.

  That victory, the Wonders’ unbelievable  63rd of the season, brought down the curtain on one of the most amazing sports stories in Ohio high school history.  There will probably never be another team like them.  They were truly unique – they were the Waterloo Wonders.

(The book “The Fabulous Waterloo Wonders” by Dick Burdette, was one of the sources used in the researching of this article. If you can find a copy - I had to photo copy mine page by page at the Cleveland Public Library - buy it, it is a truly incredible story.)

Looking Back at the OHSAA's Basketball Championships - No. 4
A centennial moment

By Timothy L. Hudak
Sports Heritage Specialty Publications
4814 Broadview Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio 44109
www.SportsHeritagePublications.net
 

As has already been shown, there have been some truly great high school basketball teams in Ohio over the years.  It is very difficult, if not impossible, to designate the best team when the history of the sport covers so many years and so many different eras of play, as does Ohio high school basketball.  However, our vote has been cast for the single best team in state history, the Waterloo Wonders of 1933-34 and 1934-35.  There are those who will argue with our choice of Waterloo as the best, although they would still have to admit that the Wonders were certainly the most colorful team. 

However, in terms of number of championships, and the total number of years of their dominance, no team can top the Middletown Middies of 1944-1959.  Over those 16 seasons of their “golden era” the Middies won 342 games, while losing just 47, for a .879 winning percentage.  In the process they set a state record of 76 consecutive victories, qualified for the state tournament nine times, winning a record seven state championships.  Three times Middletown has won back to back state titles.  During one memorable stretch, 1944 to 1947, the Middies played in four consecutive championship games, winning three of them.  During this run of unprecedented success the school has added two names to the ranks of the legends of not only Ohio high school basketball, but Ohio athletics in general: coach Paul Walker and all-time great player Jerry Lucas.

Middletown’s first appearance upon the state tournament stage came back in 1937, when the tournament still included the “Sweet 16.”  The Middies’ stay that year was short lived, but exciting.  Their opponent in the first round of Class A play was Canton McKinley, who the Middies took to overtime before dropping a 40-38 decision.  Their next tournament appearance came four years later in 1941, where they again dropped a close first round Class A decision to Canton McKinley, 30-28.

It would be three more years before the Middies again saw tournament action, but this time they were here to stay.  Under the direction of coach Royner Green, the Middies advanced to the Class A championship game by defeating Martins Ferry, 38-34, in the semi-finals.  The state title game against Toledo Woodward was “something that will have fans talking for years to come” according to one newspaper. The Middies held Woodward without a field goal during the entire first quarter, and early in the second held a 14-2 lead, but then Woodward came storming back and by halftime trailed by only 16-14.  Woodward caught, and passed, Middletown in the second half, only to have Middletown’s Howard Schueller score three points over the final 34 seconds to send the game into overtime.  The Toledoans scored the first three points of the OT, but Middletown, which ended the season 23-1, came back to score the last six to win its first state championship by a score of 50-47.

Middletown went through the 1944-45 campaign undefeated, entering the Class A tournament at the University of Toledo Fieldhouse riding a 42-game winning streak.  Both the semi-final and final games would be played the same day.  In their semi-final game the Middies were able to settle a couple of old scores when they defeated Canton McKinley, 29-28, on a last second basket.  The championship game, played that same evening before a standing room only crowd of 7,500, pitted Middletown against Bellevue.  This game was just as exciting as Middletown’s previous one, but Bellevue was able to hold on and defeat the Middies, 36-34, with a basket of their own in the game’s final seconds. The defeat halted the Middies win streak at 43 in a row, their first chance at an undefeated season ending at 24-1. 

The 1946 Class A tournament returned to the Toledo Fieldhouse, as did the Middletown Middies.  Middletown easily disposed of Toledo Woodward, 53-29, in their semi-final encounter, but it would not be as easy against Akron North in the title game.  North jumped off to a 13-6 lead after the opening quarter, but Middletown came back to tie the game at the intermission 22-22.  North led by two points, 31-29, after three quarters, but Middletown took a 37-33 lead early in the fourth quarter and never again trailed.  The Middies 42-37 victory gave them their second championship in three years.  Led by All-State center Phil Lansaw, Middletown totally dominated the all-tournament team with four placings.  Joining Lansaw on this select team were Don Bolton (F), Omer Blevins (F) and Milton Wells (G). 

That 1945-46 campaign was not a bad one for Middletown coach George Houck, either, who led the team to a perfect 26-0 season in his only year at the helm. 

For those Middletown fans who were concerned to find the team being run by its third head coach in as many seasons when the 1946-47 season dawned, those fears were completely unwarranted.  Taking over as the Middies coach that season was Paul Walker, who would remain the Middletown head coach for the next 30 years.

Middletown High School was on top of the Ohio basketball world after the 1946 Class A tournament, having win 70 of its last 72 games; but, as an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer noted at the time of his death in 1999, “Paul C. Walker turned a little steel mill town into a high school basketball Mecca.”  As the Middies head coach, Walker won 562 games, out of a career total of 695, while losing 136, for a wining percentage of .805.  At the time of his retirement he was Ohio’s winningest coach (607 victories), having guided Middletown to five state championships.  Six of his teams had undefeated regular seasons. 

Among his many honors Paul Walker was four times named Ohio “Coach of the Year,” was the 1974 National High School Basketball Coach of the Year, and was inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame in 1986.  Obviously a great basketball coach, many of his former players also remembered Walker as a truly caring person and someone who could motivate others to realize their full potential. 

Paul Walker’s first Middletown team finished the regular season with a modest 13-6 record.  The Middies then struggled through six tournament games, but managed to win them all to earn a spot in their fourth consecutive Class A final.  In that championship game the Middies took no chances.  Paced by All-Ohio center Shelby Linville’s 18 points, they dominated East Liverpool from start to finish, winning the game 47-29 for their third title in four years.

The Middies would average more than 17 wins per season over the next four years, but would not return to the tournament until 1952.  That year the tournament consisted of three games.  The Middies entered the tournament with a record of 22-1.  They easily disposed of Cleveland St. Ignatius, 58-42, in the quarter-finals and Cincinnati Withrow, 67-48, in the semis to earn a championship game match-up with undefeated, 28-0, Steubenville.  However, the Big Red proved to be no more difficult than Middletown’s other tournament foes as the Middies grabbed a 20-point lead in the first half, then coasted to a 63-53 triumph to claim their fourth state title.

The 1953 tournament would be a record setter for Middletown, but first coach Walker’s team had to overcome a stubborn bunch of St. Ignatius Wildcats in the semi-finals.  That game was tied 33-33 at the half, but the Middies outscored the Wildcats 22-12 in the third period, on their way to a 75-63 victory.  After that, the title game against Newark was almost anti-climatic as the Middies crushed Newark’s Wildcats by a score of 73 to 35 to earn a record fifth state basketball championship. 

Middletown failed to make the tournament in either 1954 or 1955, but it was as if they were simply gearing up for another record setting run over the next three seasons.

Coach Walker’s Middies cruised through the 1955-56 season, posting 23 straight victories.  Only once were they really tested, holding on for an 81-79 victory over Hamilton High School.  Leading the Middletown victory parade was a sophomore sensation by the name of Jerry Lucas.  The 6’ 8” center, a first team All-Ohio selection, was pouring in points at the rate of 28.1 per game.  He would come close to doubling that production in the tournament.

The tournament was played at the Cleveland Arena in 1956, and the hometown fans were hoping to see their East Tech Scarabs knock off the Middies.  In what would be a wild and woolly record setting game, those Cleveland fans almost got their wish.  The Scarabs jumped off to a 24-19 lead after one period.  The Middies started their comeback in the second quarter, but East Tech still held the lead, 39-38, at the break. 

The second half was all Middletown.  Led by their star center, Jerry Lucas, who poured in 53 points for the game (still a semi-final record), Middletown outscored East Tech 61-39 over the last two quarters to post a 99-78 victory.  The Middies’ 99 points is still a tournament record, and the 177 point total is the second highest for any tournament game.

In the finals Middletown faced off against Canton McKinley’s Bulldogs.  The Pups “limited” Jerry Lucas to 44 points, but the Middies still cruised to a 91-69 championship game victory.  In addition to the state championship, the Middies were also named national champions, a title they shared with Crispus Attucks High School of Indianapolis.

After the game both coach Walker and McKinley head coach Bup Rearick agreed, along with most other knowledgeable basketball people around the state, that the 1955-56 Middies were perhaps the best team that they had ever seen.  Unfortunately for the rest of the state, although Middletown only had two starters returning, one of them was Jerry Lucas – the Middies were just getting started.

The 1956-57 Middletown victory parade rolled into Columbus for the state tournament sporting a record of 25-0 and a 50-game winning streak.  Unlike the last tournament, however, this one would be no walk in the park for coach Walker’s team. 

Playing Toledo Macomber in the Class AA semi-finals, Middletown jumped out  to a 20-10 lead after the first quarter.  Macomber came storming back in the second quarter, outscored Middletown 26-12, and took a 36-32 lead at the half.  After three quarters Macomber held a 47-46 advantage, setting up an incredible finish. 

Middletown had closed to within one point of Macomber when one of the Toledo players was fouled with just nine seconds left in the game.  He made only one of the two foul shots.  The Middies raced down the floor.  The ball was passed off to Lucas, who sank a shot from just beyond the foul circle as time expired, tying the score at 61-61. Lucas had scored 12 of Middletown’s 15 fourth quarter points to keep his team in the game. 

In the overtime Jerry Lucas tossed in seven of his team’s nine points as the Middies pulled out a 70-65 win.  He finished the game with 46 points.

The championship game against Kent Roosevelt was almost as intense.  The Teddies played the Middies tough, and at the half the game was all tied up at 35.  Kent hung with Middletown until late in the third quarter when the score was still deadlocked at 45-45, but Jerry Lucas then tossed in three consecutive two-pointers and the Middies were on their way.  Final score: Middletown 64, Kent 54.

Middletown had won a seventh state title, extending its win streak to 52.  The Middies were also named the national champions for a second consecutive year, and this time they shared it with no one.

It looked to be more of the same for Middletown in the 1957-58 season, Jerry Lucas’s senior year, and it was.  The Middies again entered the tournament undefeated, having won all 24 of their games to that point to extend their win streak to an incredible 76 in a row.  But this would be no ordinary Class AA tournament, as all four teams were undefeated, the first time this had ever happened. 

Middletown’s semi-final game opponent would be the Polar Bears of Columbus North High School, also sporting a record of 24-0.  It would be a tight game all the way.  The Middies led 16-14 after one quarter, but at the half the game was tied at 30-all.  Middletown fell behind by four early in the third quarter, but tied the game at 38-38 and took a 48-43 into the fourth quarter.

A 12-6 run to start the final frame gave the Polar Bears a 55-54 lead with 4:02 left in the game.  As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, “Then the Middies lost their poise and weakened.  North upped its margin to four points and the cause of the Polar Bears looked good.” 

The Polar Bears had increased their lead to 59-54 with 1:36 to play, when the Middies started their comeback.  A pair of field goals by Lucas and one by Larry Emrick cut it a one-point lead, 61-60, with 10 seconds left.  Middletown’s Tom Sizer then nailed a pair of free throws to give Middletown a 62-61 advantage. 

North took a timeout to plan its next move.  That move proved to be Eddie Clark’s driving lay-up with six seconds to go that gave the Bears a 63-62 lead.  The Middies’ Larry Emrick fired a desperation shot at the buzzer.  The ball hit the rim and fell off.  “It was the end of an era, the crumbling of the greatest cage dynasty the state has ever boasted.” (Plain Dealer)

Jerry Lucas scored 25 points in this game, rather he was “held” to 25 by the North defense, about nine points below his career average, in this the only high school game that he ever lost.

The Middies still had one more year left in their “golden era.”  The very next season coach Walker had his team back in the tournament.  They went up against Salem High School in the semi-finals.  It was a close game all the way, but the Middies never could gain the lead and suffered a 68-65 defeat.

The greatest era of Ohio high school basketball was over.  16 outstanding seasons.  Seven state championships.  Two national championships.  Numerous great players, and two legends – Paul Walker and Jerry Lucas.

 

### OHSAA ###

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