Thursday, March 10th, 2011
IC fell one step short of state title
Last Curtain Call
By Robb Hemmelgarn
Through the wintery months of 1963-64, the cultural landscape of America was captivated by the arrival of the Beatles on our soil, fears of a world-wide Soviet infiltration, and a fresh heavyweight boxing champion named Cassius Clay, who would later be known as Muhammad Ali.
While each of these eventually forged their place with worldwide and historical significance, special happenings on a much smaller scale were unfolding inside the Celina Fieldhouse.
High school basketball had dominated the winter agendas for local fans for nearly 40 years, but never before had a group of wide-eyed teenagers captured folks' attention quite like the ones from Immaculate Conception High School 47 years ago.
"We went 19-2 the year before, but lost the first game in the tournament," recalled former IC sixth man Bill Sacher. "Almost everyone returned from that team plus we had an exceptional sophomore, Kerry Myers, so we were prepared for a very successful season."
As the regular season weaved through December and into January the Spartans, with their intimidating pre-game slam dunks and swift-moving offensive firepower, hurdled opponents en route to an unblemished 16-0 record and number-one ranking in both the Associated Press and United Press International weekly state polls.
Just as the size of newspaper headlines grew with each win, IC's perfect regular season finally ended during the first weekend of February when the Spartans' machine was jammed up with a 72-66 loss to the Parkway Panthers.
Coach Bob Guinta, who was never without his trademark smile, encouraged his boys to shake it off, and they went on to finish the regular season with convincing victories over Ayersville and Mendon-Union. "That loss was near the end of the season and we were very disappointed, but we couldn't let it get us down," commented Ron Houts, a junior guard for IC that year. "We beat them in Celina earlier in the year and then went to Rockford and lost. We had a lot of guys in foul trouble that game, but Rockford also played an outstanding game."
The Spartans earned a brief rest with a bye in the opening round of the final Mercer County Tournament, and then fired up their postseason exploits by beating St. Henry by 26 points. Still perched atop the AP rankings at 19-1 overall, IC needed every extra ounce of effort it could manufacture a few nights later in a 62-60 win over the Coldwater Cavaliers, the team which ousted them from the tournament the year before.
The Spartans marched on to the sectional tournament, where they pounded New Knoxville by 20 points behind 24 points from senior Lee Sutter and 20 more from junior Tom Link.
"We were not a very tall team, but we were extremely balanced," explained Sacher, who later coached basketball at Immaculate Conception, as well as serving as an assistant to Dean White at Celina Senior High School. "You could say that the loss to Rockford helped us to refocus on things with the postseason approaching. We had a couple of close games in the tournament, but we were able to pull through as a team."
The win pushed IC to the district tournament at Lima Senior High School where it fell into a couple more too-close-for-comfort battles. First was a 46-44 victory over the Miller City Wildcats, followed by a nine-point decision in overtime against the Kalida Wildcats, where IC was led by 19 points from senior co-captain Bill Reichert.
The next week, Kerry Myers opened the regional tournament with 21 points in an 83-54 laugher over Hopewell. Glandorf - playing its last season before merging with Ottawa - was next on the list and the Spartans sent them home with a 60-55 loss in front of close to 3,600 in attendance.
Before the season tipped off, many penciled the IC Spartans in as favorites for the state tournament. Now that their ticket to St. John Arena was punched, the same prognosticators overwhelmingly predicted they would win Mercer County's first state championship.
The first call to order was Piqua Catholic, a fellow Wayne Conference foe and a group that the Spartans destroyed by 27 points earlier in the season. It was much of the same the second time around, as the Spartans shuffled on to the state title game with a 64-36 victory in front of 13,742 spectators.
"Our gym at IC only held about 300-400 people and it had water issues in the spring," Houts pointed out. "Pretty much all of our games were played in the Fieldhouse to accommodate the crowds. When we walked out on the floor at St. John Arena and looked up, the size was amazing, unlike anywhere else we had ever been."
The final obstacle at the pinnacle of IC's historic ride was the Dresden Jefferson J-Hawks. Unfortunately though for the Spartans, Bill Reichert's status for the game was questionable after suffering a back injury in the clash with Piqua Catholic. Despite that, state-wide media still agreed that IC was a near shoe-in for the state championship.
Unfortunately, the media got it wrong.
Hindered by Reichert's absence, as well as a sluggish start and outstanding free-throw shooting down the stretch by Dresden, the Spartans stumbled by a final of 71-61, closing their season with a 26-2 overall record.
"We were always a very confident team, but I would not say we were over-confident going into that final game," Houts reasoned. "Dresden was the better team that day - they got in front early and sort of took the wind out of our sails. That was a very special team to be a part of and we were just a group of guys who enjoyed being around each other. We all just loved to play basketball and were pretty good at it too!"