Thursday, December 22nd, 2011
By Robb Hemmelgarn
Willshire's run to state was special in 1954-55
Last Curtain Call
Fifty-seven years ago, the Willshire High School Bearcats were perched on the pinnacle of the boys' high school basketball world.
Logging 29 victories over the course of the 1954-55 campaign, the tiny school nestled on the Ohio-Indiana border won more games and hit peaks that were rare for local schools to accomplish during that era.
"We were expecting to have a pretty good season, if I remember right," explained Dick Samples, a junior forward for head coach Bob Games' team that season. "We had good size for a team back then. Gary Kesler was 6-10 and played center and we had a few guys over 6-2 which today isn't that tall, but for back then it was unique. We could also rebound well and were very well-coached, so it made for a fun season."
With a roster dotted by seniors Charlie Koch, Kent Stetler, Dick Marbaugh, Merril Black, Gene Michaud and Rich Marbaugh, the Bearcats rumbled to their second straight Van Wert County League championship with wins over Van Del, Ohio City, Hoaglin-Jackson, Wren, York and Convoy-Union (institutions that today, no longer exist).
At 22-0, the fourth-ranked Bearcats invaded the district tournament at the Celina Fieldhouse and posted a 10-point win over the Bluffton Pirates in the opener, before knocking out Spencerville and Celina Immaculate Conception during the ensuing few days.
In the district championship, Willshire locked horns with the Blue Creek Comets, whose regular-season loss to Bearcats remained the lone blemish on their record. In front of a record-breaking crowd of 2,500 in the Fieldhouse, the Bearcats sprinted out to one of their notorious quick starts before fending off a late Comet rally to secure a 76-65 victory.
"Playing at home and also against most of the teams in our league, the gyms weren't very big at all," Samples recalled. "When we got into the tournament and started playing at a few of the bigger places, we would drive over to Adams Central to practice. It was about eight miles away, but they just built a new school and had a bigger gym, so we used that to get accustomed to the places we were going to be playing."
After competing in Celina, it was on to Toledo where the Bearcats drew 24-3 Montgomery Local. Fueled by 30 points from junior All-Ohioan Kesler and 15 counters from Koch, Willshire notched a 88-61 win. A 17-point victory over Sycamore High School in the regional championship crowned the Bearcats as Van Wert County's first-ever representative in the state tournament.
"Having Kesler in the middle was a huge advantage for us," commented Kent Stetler, who averaged just under three points per game. "Opposing teams weren't real tall back then, plus he had a very good supporting group who all played well together."
Willshire fans gobbled up all of the 1,500 allotted tickets, plus hundreds more, as the 28-0 Bearcats marched into the Cincinnati Gardens and squared off with once-beaten Pleasant City, who averaged an astounding 90 ppg. With Kesler, Koch, Black, and Larry Miller all hitting for double figures, the Bearcats rolled to a 66-50 triumph, leaving one obstacle between them and the state championship trophy.
"We went to Cincinnati and had a heck of a time getting there with a major snowstorm that hit that week," Samples chuckled. "We didn't use school buses to get there so we all carpooled, and there sure were a lot of us. That was really neat. Although most of us were far away from home for the first time, we had a great following."
Waiting from the other side of the tournament bracket were the 25-1 and second-ranked Lockland-Wayne Panthers, who captured the state title three years prior. Unfortunately for the Bearcats' faithful, the outcome was never really in doubt. An eight-point deficit at the conclusion of the first quarter ballooned to 14 at the halftime break before they eventually fell 64-56.
"That was an experience that none of us will ever forget," Stetler explained. "Whether it was traveling so far away from Van Wert County, playing against a colored team like we did in the state tournament, staying overnight in a hotel, or playing in a huge venue; back then it was just something that we had not been a part of and that was truly a lot of fun and very special."
If you wander through the tiny village today, there is little evidence that the tattered sidewalk leading into the bare parcel of land at 103 Green Street once paved the way to some of the hottest basketball in the state of Ohio.
The school building and gym have since been bulldozed, and only a few players from then are still with us. Although the school long ago merged with Rockford to form Parkway Local Schools, those in the area who were "Willshire Bearcats" still cherish the memories from a very special winter nearly six decades ago.
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