By George Belden
Special to Portage Sports
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a five-part series that will publish on Portage Sports throughout the week.
He was replacing a legend.
He was just a kid, and he was taking the place of one of the greats.
The Windham High School basketball teams of coach Ron Kamada had not lost a home game since the 1971-72 season. His teams had won three Portage County League championship in four years, but Kamada was moving to a bigger school, Parma Valley Forge, a “reward” for what he had accomplished.
Marty Hill, who had just a whiff of coaching experience with a fifth and sixth grade team, was going to helm the mighty Windham Bombers, which had graduated 4-of-5 starters from Kamada’s final championship team.
He was a Portage County boy, playing for the Garfield G-Men in high school, and then moving three miles up the road to finish his career as a Hiram College Terrier. He had local roots, and he knew what the Bombers had meant to this tiny school system since the town built its first gym back in 1927.
And what he accomplished in his first year of 1975-76 was going to become one of the most
incredible coaching feats in the annals of Ohio schoolboy hoops.
One day in the future, his style of play would be known statewide as “Bomber Ball,” but in this rookie year, he was going to have to learn on the run.
And the kid he was counting on, who one day would be a First Team All-Ohio player, had a broken leg.
A few years previously, the brilliant Monroe Jones had made Third Team All-Ohio in two consecutive years.
Marty was hoping that the old adage of “genes don’t lie” was true, because he was supposed to inherit Monroe’s kid brother, Baxter, who had the potential to make fans forget all about Monroe.
But Baxter had broken his leg earlier in the year, and wouldn’t be available until after Christmas. He would be welcomed back with open arms, but in the meantime, the novice coach had a big hole to fill.
Kamada certainly had not left the cupboard bare, even if First Team All-Ohioan Jody Hill had graduated, bound for a career in theology. After all, Larry Jett had proven himself one of the PCL’s finest shooters in the previous year’s 17-1 season, and this 6-foot-4 senior would take over Jody Hill’s post position.
The young head coach hoped juniors Joey Hill and Dave Sabula might fill the hole Baxter Jones had been slated for at forward, and sophomore Ron McCleary, whose tricky ball-handling at point guard could stack up with anyone in the area, would be bringing the ball up the court.
Gambling again on lightning striking twice, slated to start at the wing spot was Larry Jett’s brother Dave, a senior with tons of experience. Coach Hill was hoping that the other wing position would be filled by Jeff Stanley, who hadn’t played for two years, but had slimmed down an impressive 30 pounds to try his hand at basketball his senior year.
Looking over his reserves at the start of the season, Hill saw depth that would serve the Bombers well.
Tom Denvir, Frank Simcox and Scott Garrett all added height off the bench, and Rich Waggoner and Harold Clark could hold their own with any of their teammates.
Backing up McCleary at the point would be sophomore Sanford Turner, whom Hill listed generously as 5-foot-5, but only if someone had slipped platform shoes on his feet. By the end of the season, the legend of Sanford Turner would far outstrip his diminutive size.
And then there was Dave Apthorpe, a sophomore who had sprouted up to 6-foot-2 and whose name carried a lengthy legacy in the annals of Bombers sports. If he had the same talent as his ancestors, he just might do some good for this inexperienced squad.
Marty wanted to play eight or nine kids every game, and the breakneck pace he planned would demand it. If these kids weren’t in shape when the season started, they would be before long.
There were more than a few Windhamites dumbfounded when Record-Courier columnist Frank Derry issued his annual preview of how he expected the Portage County League race to unfold.
There was a skimpy mention of the Bombers in the middle of the pack.
So much for any residual terror that Windham might inspire in its competition. Marty and his team were going to have to earn their spurs the hard way: On the court and not in the newspaper.
The Bombers opened the year with a lackluster performance in the annual PCL Preview match. They topped the Crestwood Red Devils in the opening quarter, but Crestwood was playing without its star.
Moving right into the next one-quarter match with Streetsboro, defensive lapses against a fastbreak offense allowed the Rockets to eke out an 18-14 win. Nobody knew it then, but that was an omen.
But coaches never play their best hand in these exhibition games, so no one knew what Coach Hill’s team really looked like.
Nov. 28, 1975, marked the actual debut of Marty Hill as the head coach of the Windham
Bombers. He took his team down to County Highway 18 to do battle with the Southeast Pirates.
The game article in the Record-Courier was headlined “Jett-Propelled Bombers Soar Past Pirates.”
It was a pun-filled lie.
Actually, this opening game was a true nailbiter, and if it hadn’t been for Ron McCleary, Dave
Apthorpe and Tom Denvir scoring 20 points between them, Dave and Larry Jett would have been all that the Pirates had to deal with that night.
Fortunately, the Jetts were a handful to handle. Larry scored 13 and Dave exploded for 29, and every single one of those points was necessary for a 62-58 win, as Denvir blocked a last-second Pirates shot, which would have tied the score. The Jetts also grabbed 21-of-31 rebounds.
So Coach Hill apparently had all the elements to have a good team. But whether they would be as tough as the squads Kamada had created remained to be seen — and Bombers fans had grown to expect greatness.
They were going to have to wait, because the next game with visiting LaBrae marked the end of the incredible run on home-court wins.
Doomed by a third quarter, where the basket seemed to be a moving target, Windham fell to the Vikings 47-42, but the home fans got a first look at the style of defense Hill’s Bombers were going to play that year.
The quick hands of Ron McCleary led to timely steals, and the Jetts once again dominated the boards, but their scoring dropped off as the Bombers tallied only six points in that tragic third quarter.
The next game was another road trip, to Atwater in the nether reaches of Portage County, where coaching legend Fred Brookover’s Vikings had just suffered a four-overtime loss to Rootstown — and they were thirsting for revenge on whoever was in their path.
It happened to be the Bombers, and the officials, a set of brothers, were no help. If there was an actual cloak of invisibility, they were wearing it. Brookover pulled no punches, saying “that was the worst exhibition of basketball officiating I have ever seen.”
Both coaches were livid over the brutal play that barely resembled the sport James Naismith had invented. In fact, Larry Jett set what might have been an all-time Bombers record for free throws by canning 18 in a row in the first three quarters. That accounted for over half of the 33 points he scored that evening, which in turn was over half of Windham’s total of 61.
Waterloo scored 65. Windham lost, blowing an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter.
It seems that any team named the Vikings had the Bombers’ number. Marty Hill now had a losing record as a coach. And Rootstown, the preseason pick to take the league, was coming to town, and they were sporting a 90 points-per-game average.
Two energetic practices that week gave the rookie coach a good feeling, and that’s what he told the boys in the pregame pep talk. The fact that Larry Jett had the flu should have given him pause, but Jett did the old “put me in, Coach” routine — and actually rose to the challenge, as he canned 22 points to help hand the Rovers their first league loss of the season.
Unveiling a tenacious man-to-man defense that gave Rootstown ice-cold shooting, the Bombers led by 13 points with 5 minutes to play. Ghosts of a blown eight-point lead at Waterloo hovered over the gym as the Rovers cut the lead to four with 2 minutes to play,
when his brother Dave fouled out, that’s when Larry Jett took charge, tossing in two buckets and a couple free throws.
Rootstown, which ended the evening shooting only 20-for-70 from the field, could
not muster an answer for Jett.
Even 25 turnovers did not spell disaster for Windham. They had met the best the league had to offer without buckling.
After that game, the usually reticent Coach Hill could not help but celebrate.
“Nobody sees defense in this league until they play Windham,” he told the assembled reporters. “These kids play defense all the time in practice. They eat and sleep defense, and they love it.”
If these words from a head coach with four games under his belt and a .500 record might seem a little brash, it also bespoke a confidence that would carry a program for the next 47 years. But there were still wars to be fought to hold onto the crown on which Kamada had stamped his name.
The next team up was James A. Garfield High School — the alma mater of the Windham coach. They were undefeated, and there was nothing G-Ville likes more than to kick some Bombers butt, any time, anywhere.
But Coach Hill offered a singular advantage. He had been playing pickup ball with the Garfield starters since they were in seventh and eighth grade, and he knew the style of Joe Malmisur, Tim Andrews, Steve Angel and Mitch Collins, and believed his boys could shut them down.
It would be Hill’s man-to-man versus the G-Men zone, and may the best team win.
In front of a standing-room only crowd in Windham’s gym, these two longtime foes went toe-to-toe for three quarters, only to have the Hill style of defense create terminal foul problems for Garfield, which lost both its starting guards to the officials’ whistles with almost an entire quarter to play.
Larry Jett clung to Malmisur all night, denying the 6-foot-5 big man his usual route to the basket, and allowing Jeff Stanley to collect two charging fouls on Malmisur as he sought to escape Jett.
Sophomore Dave Apthorpe emerged as a potent scoring threat equal to the Jett brothers, swooshing 16 points, while Dave Jett netted 21 to lead the scoring parade. Only Mitch Collins could muster double-digits with 16 points for the G-Men, and Windham sent them on their way with a 61-49 whipping.
Garfield still led the league with a 4-1 record, but the Bombers, led by a novice mentor, were nipping at their heels at 3-1. The heat they were generating kept the December chill at bay in that overheated Windham gym, and it looked like they were becoming an unstoppable force in the PCL.
But to paraphrase poet Robert Burns, the best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry. And it certainly applies to schoolboy athletics.
When your vaunted defense breaks down, when a lightly regarded foe shoots 51 percent to your 39 percent, when your guards get held to two points each, when the opponent outrebounds you consistently, when you blow a seven-point lead after three quarters, bad things happen.
Like a 69-66 loss to Streetsboro that no one saw coming.
Dave Jett tried to hoist the team on his shoulders with 25 points, and Jeff Stanley erupted for another 14, but Larry Jett, still showing the after effects of influenza, was held to 11, and three Rockets each canned almost 20 points each.
Streetsboro had caught Windham on a bad night in the Rockets’ gym, and they took advantage of it. The Bombers were tired after three quarters, and it showed. At this point in the season, with a 3-3 record, some people were beginning to doubt that this would be the Bombers’ year.
Every team hovers on a balance point in each 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.
Part two of Marty Hill and the Impossible Dream: The 1975-76 Windham Bombers will publish on Portage Sports on Wednesday.
Cant wait to read the next article, Love reading about Bomber sports . Well done 😊👍🏀. Remember all these great Bomber players 🏀