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Part three: The story of Marty Hill and the 1975-76 Bombers

Part three: The story of Marty Hill and the 1975-76 Bombers


By George Belden

Special to Portage Sports

Editor’s Note: This is third in a five-part series that tells the story of Marty Hill’s first year as a head coach and the 1975-76 Windham Bombers boys basketball season. To catch up with the rest of the series, you can read part one here and part two here.

With a healthy Baxter Jones back in the lineup, the Bombers were finding their footing to what was becoming a solid season.

In fact, in Marty Hill’s first year, the Bombers were in the hunt for the Portage County League championship.

To get there, though, the Bombers had to navigate the final stretch of the league season, which included a rematch with Streetswboro.

Windham High School boys basketball coach Marty Hill (left) and Waterloo High School boys basketball coach Fred Brookover hold their trophies after being named Co-Coaches of the Year in the Portage County League during the 1975-76 season.
Photo: Record-Courier

The Rockets had already turned away the Bombers once during the 1975-76 season and they wanted nothing more than to sweep their season series and knock the mighty Windham Bombers out of the championship race.

Windham was sluggish from the get-go, scoring only 32 points in the first half to lead the Rockets by only three at the intermission.

But a couple factors were working in the Bombers’ favor.

First, Streetsboro’s Tom Lewis, who had canned 17 points in their first meeting, had been suspended by head coach Ken Grabowski for two games.

Secondly, Bombers guard Ron McCleary, who would ever after bear the tag of being hardheaded, clashed noggins with Arlene Earles, who had 16 points in that first game, loosening several of Earle’s teeth and putting him on the bench for the rest of the tilt.

And finally, whatever Coach Hill said at halftime, the Bombers equaled their first half output in the third quarter alone, logging 32 markers to put the game so far in the books that Hill was able to rest his starters for the fourth quarter.

The Jett brothers — Larry and Dave — had 49 points altogether, and McCleary helped his average with 13 points despite a bit of residual wooziness from the early collision. Vengeance was sweet, as the Bombers claimed an 85-59 spanking to keep Waterloo in their sights for the league crown.

In the return match with Crestwood the following Saturday, the Bombers sank 13 straight free throws in the fourth quarter to win by 10 points.

They needed those free throws.

But it sure wasn’t a stirring prologue to the next game against Rootstown. The Rovers were 7-4 in the league and no slouches.

They were more than happy to stab a dagger into the heart of the Bombers’ championship hopes. In the most painful way possible: By a single point, 74-73.

The boy who had carried the team the whole season, Larry Jett, for maybe the first time in his career failed to salt away a victory, missing a foul shot with 8 seconds left, allowing Rover rebounder Steve Gut a chance to heave an improbable nothing-but-net shot, stealing a heartstopper of a win at the buzzer.

In the Windham locker room, Hill had two succinct statements: Larry Jett’;s missed shot did not lose the game and that there was a fervent wish that Garfield would beat Waterloo three days later.

It would be the Bombers’ only hope to stay in the race for the trophy.

It happened.

Back in 1966, the football Bombers, in Leo Kot’s last season, needed Kent State High School to knock off kingpin Southeast, coupled with a Windham win over Garfield in a blizzard, to earn the Dean of Portage County football one last championship to crown his career.

That happened, too.

First, though, and 10 years later, the basketball Bombers had to defeat Mogadore one more time. The game was nearly knotted at halftime, but some incredibly balanced scoring helped them pull away for the rest of the game.

The Jetts got their usual allotment of points, but their teammates showed remarkable poise as

Baxter Jones notched a season-high 16, McCleary added 15 and Dave Apthorpe continued his steady contributions with 12.

A final score of 83-66 set up a showdown that rivaled the O.K. Corral for tension. It would be a Battle of the Titans.

Vikings coach Fred Brookover claimed that he could not remember the last time his boys had won on the Windham court.

Now, Brookover had never forgotten a single game he had coached in his long and illustrious career, but he had made his point.

The Vikings were going to be in for the fight of their lives. At stake was the championship of the

league. They were virtually assured, barring a final-game upset by still winless Field, of at least a share of the title.

And Hill, in his first year coaching above the sixth-grade level, had a chance to show that he was Ron Kamada’;s worthy successor with a co-championship.

The local Record-Courier was all a-twitter, running a huge preview of the game.

Pinning Coach Hill down on whether the Bombers had a home-court advantage, Hill was loathe to claim it, saying that Waterloo would be bringing a huge contingent of fans. Considering the dinkiness of the visitor’s stands in Windham’s gym, they would have to be mighty skinny to fit even a fraction of them in.

Instead, he played on the fact that his Bombers liked to play with fire without getting burned. “We’ve had a lot of pressure games, and although there has not been many with quite this much riding on it, I believe our boys will handle it well.”

One thing the coaches both agreed on: The one factor that was different than the first time around was the 6-3 presence of Baxter Jones guarding the paint.

The game was so highly anticipated that local FM station WKNT signed on to broadcast the game across northern Ohio, with noted sportscaster Les Levine at the mic.

The weather on Feb. 13, 1976, was a seasonable and dry 47 degrees. It was a whole lot hotter

inside the Windham gym that night.

Hill ran his horses hard.

Every single one of his starters played all 40 minutes. He could not afford to let them catch their breath.

Dave Jett, who had emerged as his brother Larry’s equal, had the worst night of his career, scoring two points. Other heroes would have to be born to save the season.

They were Larry Jett, Apthorpe, McCleary and Baxter Jones. They wrote themselves into

the history books that night.

Waterloo led 31-27 at the half, and things looked even bleaker for the Bombers’ quintet in the third stanza. The Vikings shot 50 percent from the field and although the Bombers, with superior rebounding, managed to match them point for point, they still trailed 49-41 with less than 7 minutes to play.

Windham clanked a shot off the rim, but Baxter Jones showed the aplomb of an Olympic diver, leaping for the ball as it headed for the sideline. He slapped it to Apthorpe, who calmly

dumped it in the hoop and the complexion of the game did a 180.

In front of an incredibly loud, two evenly matched teams punched and counter-punched every moment of those 6 minutes and 45 seconds, but inexorably, the greatness of

Larry Jett winched his team back point by point.

In one of the finest schoolboy quarters in the history of the county, the unstoppable Jett tossed bomb after bomb into the bottom of the net, racking up 16 points in the final 6:45.

But it was McCleary, all 5-6 of him, who saved the day.

With his team up by four points, the elfin guard tied up the Vikings’ Donnie Franks with 8 seconds left. He didn’t win the tip, but he helped eat up enough clock that the final Vikings bucket with no time on the clock left them two points shy.

Windham won, 61-59.

They were co-champions of the Portage County League in Hill’s first season. The Bombers still had not lost a PCL game at home since February of 1973.

Hill, in a manner that would become his trademark over half a century of coaching, deflected any praise that might have come his way.

First he credited the Bomber faithful: “The fans really helped us in the fourth quarter. They were great. A lot of people thought we would be down this year, but the fans stuck with us. We showed that a winning attitude can make up for a lot of inexperience.”

Then he turned to the quiet man at his side: “Everybody has done an outstanding job, especially my assistant coach, Jim Rykaceski. He has helped me so much this year.”

Finally, he credited the Waterloo Vikings as the worthiest of foes: “If we have to tie for the title, I can’t think of anyone better to do it with than Waterloo. Fred Brookover is a real competitor and a fine gentleman. I have a lot of respect for him and his team.”

And then he turned his full attention to the most pressing matter — one season was over, and the second season was about to begin.

It was tournament time.

Editor’s Note: Part four of Marty Hill and the Impossible Dream: The story of the 1975-76 Windham Bombers will publish on Portage Sports on Friday.


  1. Roger Stier June 29, 2023

    Cant wait to read part four . You sure make the past memories come alive George . Love reading about our past Bomber Athletes and coaches .

  2. Don Franks July 3, 2023

    A very nice tribute to a memorable game and historic season. I would like to make a correction though. With about 10-15 seconds left in the game and the Bombers with the ball and up by only 2 points. I stole the ball from Ron Mcleary for a breakaway potential tying basket. Not an easy task mind you. Back then there was no flagrant fouls and I was pulled down from behind. Since we were not in the one and one, Waterloo took the ball out of bounds.. I remember there were very few fouls in the game from either side. It was A very well played and officiated game. Something you would want in a championship game. With a few seconds left, we had 15 foot missed shot and failed tip to give the Bombers a point victory. —Donnie Franks


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