By George Belden
Special to Portage Sports
Editor’s Note: This is the second of 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 read part one, click here.
Following an up and down start to the 1975-76 boys basketball season that produced a 3-3 record, the Windham Bombers found themselves on the balance point of a season.
When the boys have to take their fate into their own hands.
A good coach helps tip things in their favor.
A great coach makes sure of it.
And this was the point, with one-third of the season over, when Marty Hill had to show what kind of coach he would be.
Now, it always helps to have a hapless opponent when a team decides to live up to its potential, and the Field Falcons, which had not won a game all year, were the dish served up piping hot for the Bombers in their last game before the Christmas vacation — and seventh game of the season.
Although it was not the large margin of victory one would expect, a 63-56 win was just what the Bombers needed. But even then, a ominous trend again reared its ugly head.
Sporting a comfortable 10-point lead with 4 minutes remaining, defensive lapses allowed Field to creep within a single basket with a minute to go. But Ron McCleary and Dave Apthorpe became foul-line magicians, netting both ends of 1-and-1s to seal the deal. That gave Apthorpe 20 for the night, more than enough to offset an unexpectedly low six from Larry Jett.
Tom Denvir was coming into his own as a rebounder, snagging 13 caroms to lead the squad.
As the team headed into the holidays, the personality of the team was beginning to come into focus.
The Jetts were the Jetts, and when Larry regained his full health, they ranked with the best in the league. Jeff Stanley and Denvir were as solid as football linemen, and the lanky Apthorpe had emerged with the potential to score major double-digits from anywhere on the floor.
McCleary, although not yet a scoring threat, was a wizard with the ball in his hands, often because he had stolen it from the other team.
And Baxter Jones was coming back, Hill hoped.
With the flip of the calendar, 1976 opened with a visit from a non-league foe, the McDonald Blue Devils. Coach Hill didn’t know much about them, and they demonstrated that they were nobody’s pushover. Windham won, but once again, it was not in the way champions triumph.
Larry Jett scored 23 points. Dave Jett scored 24. The Bombers scored 59. Simple math shows that the rest of the team scored 12 points. The casual observer might conclude that something was lopsided here. And that imbalance created the first overtime game of the year.
With the score tied at 55-55 at the end of regulation, Larry Jett tossed in a basket to take the lead with 3 minutes remaining in the extra period. Moving to a zone defense instead of their preferred man-to-man, the Bombers forced McDonald into an errant shot, and Dave Jett managed to stall for over a minute, forcing the Blue Devils to foul him. Converting both ends, he cemented a win that came harder than it should have.
These wins were coming at a psychic cost to the young coach. Not a single one had been a laugher.
They were all grind-em-outs, and he was hoping that things would get easier, because every game from this point on was win-at-all-costs if he hoped to keep the Bombers’ championship streak alive. There were no non-league games left until the state-tournament trail.
The Jetts were averaging exactly 18.4 points apiece after 10 games. Hill had expected that from Larry, but Dave was a gift that no one expected. This was a scoring pace the siblings would have to maintain for the rest of the season for Bomber dreams to come to fruition.
As the league schedule resumed, Windham rode the bus to Mogadore and a contest on the Wildcats’ home court. Imagine the 3-point arc on a modern court. That was the center line in Mogadore. To call it a bandbox is being generous. Coffins are roomier. And Mogadore knew the advantages of such a rinky-dink court, so it would be a real test of Windham’s character.
They succeeded with flying colors. Using the sharpshooting of its forwards, the Bombers flew to their highest total of the year, dumping Mogadore 94-80. The Jetts had 54 points between them, Apthorpe had 17, and despite 17 fourth-quarter points from Wildcats legend-to-be Scott Pollack, the Bombers managed to bring home the win.
The fact that the Wildcats handed the Bombers 40 free throws didn’t hurt, either. Hill’s stifling defense forced 30 Mogadore turnovers compared to Windham’s 16.
Things were looking good.
Playing on back-to-back nights, next foe Crestwood was riding a two-game winning streak when it came into the Bombers’ home court on Jan. 11. They didn’t have it when they left. The score was 76-46, and it really wasn’t that close.
The Jetts stayed hot, and Larry demonstrated that he was back at full strength, leading the scorers with 22. Dave totaled 17, and Ron McCleary started to contribute substantially with 12.
Living up to his preseason prediction that he would run a lot of players in and out of the game, Coach Hill landed 11 players in the scoring column against Crestwood. Bringing up the rear, scoring two points,was a name that had not appeared in a box score all year.
Baxter Jones was back.
Half a season for Monroe’s brother was better than the alternative, and it could not come at a better time: Garfield was hosting to open the second half of the season, and both teams stood at 6-2, looking up at Waterloo’s 7-1.
The gym would be packed.
The stench that the G-Men created could clear the arena. The Bombers jumped out with 10 unanswered points, and they never looked back. Coach Hill did not even address the team at halftime, because he was afraid he would jinx them.
“The first half was our best defensively of the season so far,” he later said. “Dave Jett and Ron
McCleary put good pressure on their guards, plus our running game was really going. There was nothing I could say to the kids, because they were doing everything right.”
Things were different over in the Garfield locker room. Coach Dick Brockett lamented, “We were ready, but we couldn’t have played any worse if we handed Windham the ball and said, ‘Here, do whatever you want.’ We were like a girl who got dressed for the prom and had nowhere to go.”
Marty Hill had begun to make opposing coaches reach for metaphors, apparently.
But the bugaboo of fourth-quarter lethargy was still there. Garfield crept to within four points with a minute left, and once again it was up to Dave Jett to toss in four free throws and a hoop to make the final score 65-56. Jeff Stanley and Ron McCleary supported the Jetts in scoring, but still Coach Hill was a bit alarmed at how lackadaisically the Bombers had played in the second half.
“I guess it was because we were trying to hang on to the lead, but I’m sure glad the game ended when it did.”
So were the fans.
Field was up next, and it was still searching for its first win of a dismal season.
That was the red meat the Bombers’ faithful was looking for.
The Bombers did not disappoint them. Despite trailing at the half for the first time all year, Windham outscored the Falcons 22-5 in the third quarter to fly out of range.
The Jett brothers canned their usual totals, accounting to well over half of Windham’s 68 points, but the brightest footnote in the boxscore was that Baxter Jones was now up to eight points a game.
Slowly but surely, he was becoming an important contributor, not indispensable, but certainly nice to have back.
Especially when, in the next game against Southeast, Hill had to deal with an adversity he had not encountered before: The Jetts got in foul trouble early and had to ride the pine for much of the game.
Had he brought his inexperienced sophomore squad along well enough to take up the slack?
Larry still managed his 20 points, but Dave Apthorpe had 12, Jeff Stanley had 10, and Baxter Jones, despite scoring only six, snared 11 missed shots to lead all rebounders..
Without the Jetts pouring it in, the Bombers fell behind in shooting percentage, 39 percent to the Pirates’ 50 percent.
But the real difference in the 62-53 final score was the rebounding, with Windham snagging 45 to the Pirates 18. Many of those were offensive rebounds, with the Bombers getting three or four shots at the basket.
Baxter Jones was going to change the game. The kid could jump again on that healed leg, and that was a good thing because the final road through the Portage County League schedule was awaiting.
Editor’s Note: Part three of Marty Hill and the Impossible Dream: The story of the 1975-76 Windham Bombers will publish on Portage Sports on Thursday.
Nicely written article, looking forward to reading part three.
Omg I Remember Those Games. Takes Me Back.