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Court Report

Boys Basketball: Titans take Lorain County back to once-familiar territory of state tournament

  • Davis-tori-jpg

    Open Door's Tori Davis drives to the basket during the Patriots' run to the Division IV Final Four in 2003.



What used to be a pretty common occurrence has become pretty rare for Lorain County boys basketball teams.

The Lorain Titans surprised everyone but themselves in qualifying for the Division I Final Four this weekend in Columbus. The Titans (22-5) will take on favored and No. 2-ranked Cincinnati Moeller (25-3) on Friday.

That shouldn’t scare Lorain. The Titans already beat the state’s eighth- and fifth-ranked teams — Lakewood St. Edward and Toledo St. John’s Jesuit — in the regional last week.

In fact, Lorain has history on its side. Way back in 1923 when the Ohio High School Athletic Association first sponsored a state tournament, the first champion was none other than Lorain High.

Lorain, coached by A.W. Collins, was part of a 16-team field for the state tournament played at the Ohio State University Gym for the semifinals and the Fairgrounds Coliseum for the final. It was probably the reason sportswriters still refer to the “Sweet 16.”

Lorain, known as the Lavenders back then, won the semifinal over Alliance 19-11, and the finals over Bellevue 15-14, in a game in which Lorain scored the only seven points in the fourth quarter. The stars of the team were Howard Ross and Albert Grendow. Lorain was 22-2, avenging one of its losses against Bellevue.

There were two classes originally — A for the bigger schools and B for smaller schools — and the finals have been played at many venues over the years.

The Titans are the 20th Lorain County boys teams to reach the Final Four, but none since Open Door made it in Division IV in 2003 under Alan Januzzi. The Patriots, led by Tori Davis, pulled a couple of upsets to make it to Columbus, then lost 72-47 in the semifinals to eventual champ Maria Stein Marion Local.

Oberlin’s early rise

Oberlin has won two state titles, in 1926 and 1986. The ’26 team, coached by Lars Wagner, defeated Ney 35-23 in the semifinals and Miamisburg 32-13 in the final. The tournament field included eight schools.

Oberlin was in the Final Four three straight years beginning in 1925, losing in the championship twice. Gerald Gaines, who became an outstanding tennis player in Lorain County, led the way for Oberlin.

1960 and ’70s Elyria

Elyria High holds the county record for state tourney appearances with five — 1936, ’61, ’64, ’73 and ’77. However, Elyria has never won a state tournament game.

Roy Clymer was the coach in 1936, and Dale Reichenbach, the school’s winningest coach with 216 victories in 13 years, led the 1961 and ’64 teams.

Clymer’s team entered the tournament with a mediocre record of 9-11 but surprised the sectional field at Berea with wins over Berea, Cathedral Latin and Euclid Shore. At the district tournament at Kent State, Elyria upset Akron Central 29-27 to qualify for the 16-team field to be played at the Fairgrounds Coliseum in Columbus. Unfortunately, the luck ran out in a sudden-death overtime loss to Findlay, 13-12. Elyria was led that year by Joe Scott, part of the Elyria Sports Hall of Fame’s first class inducted in 1972.

Reichenbach’s two state qualifiers were considered Cinderellas. In 1961, Elyria didn’t even win its conference but caught fire at the end of the season. A 47-33 loss at Sandusky gave the Pioneers an 11-5 record, but Elyria reeled off nine straight wins, including seven in the tournament, to qualify for the Final Four.

At the regional, a turnaround jump shot by its first All-Ohio player — Lee Johnson — gave Elyria a 44-42 sudden-death win over Lima in the Toledo regional semifinal. The Pioneers won easily over Toledo Libbey, 68-51, to qualify for a trip to St. John Arena in Columbus, only to lose a heartbreaking, 54-52 game to eventual champion Portsmouth.

In 1964, Elyria had a dream tournament run after finishing the regular season at just 11-7 with two straight losses at the end. In the tournament, Reichenbach found the magic again, leading the Pioneers to their record-setting ninth straight district championship by beating previously undefeated Rhodes 43-42 at Baldwin-Wallace. Chester Ross’ free throw broke the tie with two seconds left and he was instructed to purposely miss the second free throw to give the Rams even less time to try to win the game.

The next weekend, Elyria survived a four-overtime marathon at Bowling Green to beat Toledo DeVilbiss 47-45 on a Mike Fischer rebound basket as time expired. Fischer stood only 5-foot-8 but somehow got the rebound and the basket. The next night, Elyria beat Lexington 56-47 to qualify for the state tourney. The bubble burst against tall, rangy Cleveland East 58-31 at St. John Arena.

Mike Riley took the Pioneers to the state tournament in 1973 and ’77.

Perhaps the best chance Elyria had to win the state title came in 1973 against Cincinnati Elder. A controversial blocking foul was called on Gary Stevenson, giving Elder two free throws. Elyria had rallied in the final minutes and had the charge been called, could have possibly pulled out the win. The Panthers won 64-59. Elyria was led by Jay Underman and John Mongerson.

In 1977, the unbeaten Pioneers proved no match for defending state champion Barberton, 80-55 at St. John Arena. Richard Montague was the All-Ohio center for the Pioneers. Elyria, which won 14 district championships from 1957-77, didn’t win another until 2008.

Panthers join the fun

Elyria Catholic’s only appearance at state was in 1973, giving the city of Elyria two teams in the Big Dance. The Panthers, led by All-Ohio Russ Sherman and Bob Guinta, the program’s winningest coach, couldn’t get past Delphos St. John’s 72-61 in the semifinals.

King ruled the ’80s

Lorain Admiral King qualified three times under the legendary Mitch Gillam. The Admirals put together an amazing string of success under Gillam, winning seven straight district championships.

In 1980, King (24-4) knocked off Columbus Linden McKinley 53-51 in overtime, then lost the championship to Akron Central Hower 52-48. Current Lorain coach John Rositano was a member of that team. The big stars were Eric Morrison and Tony Nieves.

In 1986, the Admirals (23-4) were led by Lebron Gladden but lost to Columbus South 55-46. And in 1988 they suffered their only loss of the season to Linden McKinley, 69-68. Harold Walton and Jamie Gladden were an outstanding one-two punch.

2 champions, 1 coach

Lorain County celebrated two class championships — Clearview in 1974 in Class A and Oberlin in 1986 in Class AA. They were both coached by Bob Walsh.

The state had three classes in those seasons.

The Clippers’ championship run was led by a pair of Larrys — Harris and Fortner. John Szalay, the current coach of the Clippers, was the point guard. Clearview finished the year 24-2.

The Clippers got past Indian Valley South, coached by Charlie Huggins, 59-49 in the semifinals and Pitsburg Franklin Monroe 74-69 in the final.

Oberlin (27-1) beat Youngstown Rayen 74-65 in the semifinals and Springfield Greenon 74-70 in the final. All five starters could score. Seniors Rodney Cannon, Deon Yarber, Kevin Steen and Danny Jones along with sophomore Tim Shepherd gave teams fits. They had good size, could handle the ball and score from anywhere.

LC and Lawhead

Jim Lawhead took Lorain Catholic to two Class AA state tournaments — 1976 and ’85. The Spartans set a state record by whipping Brookfield 108-84 in the ’76 semifinals but lost a tough, 82-81 decision to Dayton Roth in the final.

Ironically, Roth’s enrollment should have put it in Class AAA that year but it played in the smaller AA. It was Lorain Catholic’s first loss after 24 wins. Big Ron Wilczak (17 points, 12 rebounds), Larry Flynn (14 points) and Mike Horne (17.7) were the leaders. Horne hit on 88 percent of his free throws.

In ’85, state champion Youngstown Rayen eliminated Lorain Catholic 69-64 in the semifinals. The Spartans finished 23-4 and were led by Paul Wilson and Frank Owens.

Contact Tim Gebhardt at 329-7135 or timothygeb@msn.com.

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