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

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


By George Belden

Special to Portage Sports


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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 series to this point, click on the following links below:

Part one

Part two

Part three


After an exhilarating finish to the regular season that culminated in a share of the Portage County League championship with the Waterloo Vikings, rookie head coach Marty Hill quickly shifted his attention to the second season.

It was tournament time.

Since Windham was one of the smallest schools in the state, it always had to open play in the far-eastern region. Trumbull County was chock full of rural Class-A schools, which did not field football squads, but played hellacious roundball.

Windham boys basketball head coach Marty Hill, a 23-year-old rookie head coaching 1975-76, talks to his team during a timeout.

But the Bombers were used to playing these teams every postseason, and the one advantage they gained by playing McDonald (earlier in the regular season) was to give them at least a taste of the Trumbull style.

Warren Harding High School, with a ferocious panther emblem on the wall, was the usual site for the sectional tournament. Windham drew old foe Bristol, with the winner moving on to meet the victor of the Farmington-Southington Chalker game for the sectional title.

The unspoken kicker was that the Bombers were taking the floor on Feb. 26 after a prolonged two-week layoff. Having that many days of practice before seeing action sometimes can dampen any team’s competitive desire, leaving them flat.

Rookie coach Marty Hill would have none of that.

He had his boys ready with three tough practices in the days leading up to the game. If the Bristol Panthers were inspired by that Harding mascot on the wall, it didn’t do them a bit of good.

Any team that launches 19 shots after the opening tip and cans 14 of them is not suffering from a layoff, and that’s how the Bombers started the game.

Ron McCleary and Larry Jett did their best imitation of 1960’s legends Ray Ruff feeding Greg

McDivitt a decade earlier. McCleary led Jett to the hoop with pinpoint passing, so that Jett’s soft-bunny layups barely kissed the glass.

The score was tied 6-6 when they went into action with 4 minutes left in the opening quarter, then the scorekeeper grew dizzy trying to record the baskets as the Bombers went on a binge that saw a score of 23-7 at the end of the first quarter.

Baxter Jones dominated the second stanza with eight points, and the domination just continued from there. Barely into the fourth quarter, the Bombers had doubled the Panthers total at 71-35 when Coach Hill pulled all his starters from the game. Eight of his 10 players broke into the scoring column, with four of the starters notching 14 or more points.

The Bombers were headed into the sectional final, hoping to claim Windham’s sixth consecutive sectional championship. And they would have to meet Farmington — a team which had drawn a higher seed than them, a fact that the boys did not appreciate.

Once again, the team had to endure a full week layoff, but Coach Hill didn’t mind, because this rookie coach had to devise a strategy for something his team had not seen all year: A hulking giant of a player who had a feathery shooting touch.

John Kimbel, all 6-foot-7 of him, was deadly from anywhere out to 30 feet, long before the 3-point shot was even imagined. Guarding him, let alone stopping him, had been a coach’s nightmare.

And it was Coach Hill’s nightmare next.

Adding to the coach’s woes was the terrible news that Larry Jett was running a fever of 102 degrees.

He had played through influenza once this season, but would he be able to even score with Kimbel in his face?

The weather was an unseasonably balmy 72 degrees in a February pouring rain when the team left the bus in Warren that night. Maybe the steamy gym was to Windham’s liking because from the opening tip, it looked like this might be a rerun of the Bristol game.

McCleary decided to use Dave Jett as his passing partner this game, and each of them tallied eight points in the first 8 minutes. Coach Hill’s running game was working like clockwork, and the Bombers jumped out to a 24-8 lead after one quarter.

Kimbel had been kept in check with four points in the first quarter, but sensing an impending rout, he started to take most of the team’s shots, and they began to fall like the rain outside.

Thirteen Kimbel points in the second quarter kept the Indians within striking range, even though they were behind 44-29 at the half. Ten more points in the third, combined with cooling Bomber shooting eyes, saw that comfortable margin shrinking down to a 58-50 tally with one stanza to go.

Kimbel was relentless, launching bombs from all directions and seldom missing, inching his team closer by the minute, until a glance at the scoreboard showed Windham up 76-74 with less than 2 minutes to play.

Hill wasn’t going to allow the Kimbel’s magnificent show derail the Bombers’ tournament trail.

The Windham Bombers pose for a team photo after winning the regional championship over Monroeville. First-year head coach Marty Hill sits front and center holding the game ball.

Pulling a tactic he had rarely used all season, he scrapped the fastbreak and sent his boys into a four-corner stall that was designed to make the desperate Indians send the Bombers to the foul line.

It worked.

Coach Hill knew that his kids were shooting over 75 percent from the charity stripe over the course of the season, so he took his final stand on that spot, and the Bombers came through.

Six-of-8 free throws touched nothing but net, and despite two more Kimbel hoops, the Bombers came home with an 82-78 win and the sectional crown, sending them to the district tournament the following week.

And Larry Jett, burning up with that fever?

He led all scorers with 18 points and 13 rebounds.

Coach Hill gave due honors to the spectacular night Kimbel achieved, but he had his own ace to get healthy as the Bombers prepared for the spacious Canton Fieldhouse for the sixth straight year.

Ron Kamada had made the that arena feel like it was a home away from home.

Their opponent, the Crestview Rebels, had not won a sectional title in 11 years, so if one was a

gambler, the smart money might be on the Bombers. But Crestview had one special thing going for them: Their coach knew Marty Hill and Windham basketball inside and out.

Rod Truman had graduated from Southeast in 1965, and with a degree from Kent State, had begun his coaching career at Waterloo in 1971 (he later would become the head coach at Streetsboro and Rootstown).

He had played and coached against Windham for years. He knew the Bombers’ reputation,

and he was not intimidated.

In fact, for a coach with a 13-7 record facing a rookie bringing in a 16-4 squad, he was actually a bit cocky.

“They have three sophomores, so that pretty much eliminates the experience advantage. And it’s a big step from coaching sixth grade to the district tournament in one year,” Truman had said.

If printed words could sneer, these were a prime example. Nowadays, that would be called trash talking.

Hill had scouted Crestview twice, and was impressed by their big man, 6-4 Steve Neiheisel, but after surviving Farmington’s John Kimbel and his 37 points, Hill had faith in the defense he had drilled his boys in all season.

It was going to be two stingy defenses going after each other.

Truman was gearing his strategy to stopping Larry Jett, who was fully recovered from his malady of the week before. Apparently, he had overlooked one sophomore, who was ready to step into the limelight on the Fieldhouse floor that night.

And two other sophomores were more than willing to thumb their noses at his assessment of them.

The Rebels stifled the Bombers’ fastbreak offense in the first half, and Windham trailed throughout both periods. Shortly after they inched back to knot the score at 34-all early in the third quarter, a skinny 10th grader with a Beatles haircut decided that it was his turn to shine.

David Apthorpe had been improving weekly after earning a starting berth early in the season, and the faith Hill had shown in him began to reap its rewards in an incredible fashion.

Truman made the fatal mistake of switching to a zone defense in the second half.

Hill saw his opening.

He moved Apthorpe out to the wing, and in the process created Windham’s newest rock star.

Spurred on by the increasing volume of the packed Windham stands, which made this seem almost like a home game, Apthorpe took one, and then another, and then finally six straight jumpers that barely grazed the rim on their way through.

Apthorpe’s 23 points were enough to top every single veteran on that floor.

Baxter Jones added 17, and it was his offensive rebounding prowess that proved to be his major contribution. Ron McCleary once again demonstrated his sneaky ability to trigger the fastbreak.

Apparently, this inexperienced trio had grown up in front of Rod Truman’s eyes, because those three were the predominant reason why the Bombers were able to coast to an 80-72 win.

This earned them the right to return a couple evenings later to face an undefeated juggernaut from Trumbull County, the Lordstown Red Devils, maybe the best small-school team in Ohio that year.

And Lordstown had a mighty grudge against the Bombers.

After all, those two teams had met in the same place last year, when Ron Kamada rallied his troops from a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter to demolish Lordstown’s hopes for a regional berth.

That was the last game that the Red Devils had lost, and they returned four of the five starters.

Although Lordstown might have been the shortest team the Bombers had faced, a team does not go 23-and-0 without some deadly shooters in their ranks.

According to Coach Hill, he had a simple defensive objective.

“We have to keep a hand in their face every second. If they get open anywhere within 30 feet, they’ll let it fly. But with Larry Jett and Baxter Jones in the middle, if they miss their shot, we should be able to control the boards. That’s the key.”

He had another ace in the hole.

He had scouted the Red Devils and knew they had a tendency to get into foul trouble. If he could get their stars Bill Warfield and slick point guard Jamie Andriko to commit transgressions, he thought his boys could handle their subs.

“Part of our gameplan was to box them out from the inside, knowing they would have to foul to get at the ball,” Hill said.

Never did a gameplan work better than it did that night in March 1976.

Unfazed by facing a team that had never tasted defeat, the Bombers got down to work right off the opening jump. They took control by netting eight unanswered points to lead 19-10 to end the first quarter.

Lordstown narrowed that to 21-18, but a Jett layup and a couple foul shots, coupled with some superb

Baxter Jones rebounding, helped jump the margin back to 30-20, and that’s when the Lordstown propensity for handsiness got them in trouble. Warfield picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter and Andriko was gone early in the fourth.

Even though the Bombers seemed to back off the throttle, the outcome was never really in doubt, and for the second year in a row, the Red Devils fell to Bomber superiority, 70-62.

Larry Jett maintained his phenomenal pace, leading all scorers with 23 points, and his sophomore teammates gave him plenty of assistance, as Baxter Jones had 17, McCleary had 16, and Dave Apthorpe chipped in 10.

For the third straight year, the Windham Bombers were going to the regional tournament, the Sweet Sixteen of Ohio schoolboy basketball. And it was again going to be at the Canton Fieldhouse, which Windham had come to think of as its happy place.

Their opponent, the Hillsdale Falcons, had a better record than the Bombers, and they could match them for height. But Coach Hill had seen his team grow game by game, and in the preview in the Record-Courier, he chose to praise his own players rather than dwell on what the team from the tiny town of Jeromesville in Ashland County might throw at them.

“Larry Jett is not just scoring in the most recent games. He dished out 17 assists in the districts, showing how unselfish he is. Baxter Jones had 26 rebounds in those two games, and a lot of them were off the offensive boards. Dave Apthorpe showed me that he can handle pressure with the best of them, and Jeff Stanley has been a super sub coming off the bench.”

He concluded with, “Hillsdale shut down Lutheran East last week with 50 points. Like us, they like to emphasize defense. Let’s face it, you can’t find too many faults with any team that reaches this point in the state tournament.”

With that, he led the Bombers back into battle again.

Two things happened that Hill had not counted on.

Hillsdale thew a stifling press on Windham from the start, forcing the usually sure-handed Bombers into a mind-boggling 20 turnovers for the game.

And Dave Apthorpe got hurt — and Coach feared his season might be over.

Despite these horrors that might have thrown any other team for a loop, the Windham Bombers and their rookie coach kept rolling along with a 76-67 triumph to move into the Elite Eight.

Larry Jett was magical this night. Eleven times he took aim, and eleven times the cords rippled. When a player is in the zone, all the opponents can do is stare.

Behind this otherworldly performance, the Bombers exploded to a 36-21 lead after the first two

quarters. But as Apthorpe was driving for a layup after the break, his knee went one way, his body went the other, and in a silent arena in which he could hear his own heartbeat, the sensational sophomore saw his season sliding away.

Taking advantage of Apthorpe’s absence and the distraction of his teammates, the Falcons threw on a halfcourt press that the Bombers were slow to puzzle out. Hillsdale banged in 10 straight points, and suddenly a comfortable lead had become a lot closer at 50-43.

Point by point the Falcons edged closer until the lead was down to three, but time had become Hillsdale’s enemy. They had to start fouling in order to get the ball back, and the free throws, which had been Windham’s secret weapon all year, did not let them down.

Fourteen straight swishes, including six by McCleary in the waning seconds, were all it took to clinch the win.

Larry Jett finished the game with 30 points, and Hill was quick in the postgame press conference, to say that Larry should have been named the Player of the Year in the Northeast Region, an honor that had gone to Lordstown’s Bill Warfield.

Jett was content to just say that he thought the Bombers were more confident than at any point in Ron Kamada’s reign, and that their goal all year had been to take this team farther than any Windham team had ever gone.

His brother Dave had regained his mojo with 16 points and 13 rebounds, Baxter Jones was a human vacuum under the boards, and McCleary could make any defender look foolish with his ball-handling wizardry.

Their dream was not dead yet, not by any stretch, even with Dave Apthorpe gone.

By this time, all of the other Portage County League teams had turned in their uniforms and begun preparations for the spring baseball and track seasons. That also meant that the All-League teams had been chosen and published almost a month earlier.

Although, without a hint of irony, a case could be made just to name the Windham Bombers’ starting five as the all-conference team, that might have irritated the other eight teams in the league.

So the Bombers had to be content with having the Jett brothers topping the First-Team listings, with Larry the league’s top vote getter. Ron McCleary and Dave Apthorpe were nestled down among the Honorable Mentions.

And because he had lost half a season to that broken limb, there was nary a mention of Baxter Jones.

Baxter’s First Team All-Ohio honors would have to wait a couple more years.

Having co-champions dictated that there would be Co-Coaches of the Year. The Record-Courier published a black and white picture of the winners standing side by side.

Waterloo’s Fred Brookover’s face looked straight into the camera from above a turtleneck

sweater and a jaunty houndstooth plaid jacket. He had been here before.

At his side, styling in what appears to be a loud 60’s flower-power shirt with the collar points out, and an up-to-the-minute polyester leisure suit jacket, replete with cuff links, was Marty Hill, the rookie prodigy, two years out of Hiram College, appearing shifty and uncomfortable next to this coaching legend, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.

It wouldn’t be the last time he got his picture in the paper holding this trophy, but this time, he was the only one in that picture who still had a game to coach.

It was the regional final against Monroeville. It was for a ticket to the Promised Land, that realm to which few travel, the Final Four of the Ohio State Class A Basketball Tournament.

This would be the stage for a new man of the hour to emerge, a player scarcely big enough to wear the cape traditionally granted to a superhero,

Everyone knows the stories of David versus Goliath, Rocky versus Apollo Creed, yada yada yada.

Well, the regional final was a story of 5-5 versus 6-9.

David Apthorpe was done. Famed area physician Tony Adamle had diagnosed a torn ligament in his knee, and it had been tapped once to drain fluid. Jeff Stanley was doing yeoman duty filling in for him, but Coach Hill brought sophomore Guy Ruff up from the JV squad in case more gaps needed to be plugged.

Monroeville High School, which would become the Bombers’ nemesis on the the basketball court and the gridiron for decades to come, were massive. While the Bombers sported six-footers everywhere but at guard, the Eagles brought in gargantuan Burl Nesbitt, who was five inches taller than anyone Hill could match against him.

And that gave Hill the germ of a plan.

As Larry Jett explained it, “Going into the game, we knew all we had to do was run. They had these really big guys, and they just weren’t in condition to do much running. As much running as Coach has us do in practice, the running he wanted us to do tonight was nothing.”

When Nesbitt hit the first 10 points of the contest, it looked like the Bombers would have to buckle down with a much tighter defense to compement their fastbreaks, and by halftime, that seemed to be doing the trick, as they took the lead 24-20 halfway through the second quarter.

Then things fell apart.

Moments after the Bombers gained that advantage, Larry Jett was banished to the pine with three fouls.

Looking down his bench , the next man up was Hill’s rawest rookie: Guy Ruff.

“I told him to just go in there and keep his hands up and do the best he could,” Hill said, suddenly having to coach on a wing and a prayer.

Despite Ruff’s best efforts, the Eagles exploded for nine points to take a 29-26 lead at the intermission.

Tossing the dice that he could keep error free for the rest of the game, Hill put Jett back into the game to start the third quarter, and the Bombers responded by reeling off eight straight points to claw back into the match. That set the tone for the rest of the game, with the victory riding a seesaw, neither team able to stay ahead for more than a minute or two.

The game careened into hold-your-breath territory when the unimaginable happened, even more disastrous than Apthorpe’s torn knee ligament.

Ron McCleary, the shortest player on the court at 5-6 sprained his ankle.

His replacement, a sophomore who had seen scant action during the year, was 5-5. His name was Sanford Turner, and he would have to replace the guy who was leading the scoring with 20 points.

With 90 seconds remaining in the game, and Monroeville holding a one-point lead, this kid, who looked like he should be riding on the back of a Kentucky Derby entrant instead of playing point guard in the biggest game in Windham history, doffed his warmups, checked in at the scorer’s table, and wrote his name in the record books with lightning.

Bringing the ball up the court, Coach Hill expected him to find Larry Jett or David Jett or Baxter Jones under the basket, but Sanford Turner had a different idea.

Suddenly pulling up 25 feet from the basket, without a moment’s hesitation, he launched a slowly rotating sphere that hung in the Canton Fieldhouse lights for an eternity — and then passed through the cords like a soft early spring breeze.

After the game, Turner handled the press with the cool of a professional.

“I never had any doubts. The only way the ball can go in is if you shoot it.”

As Marty Hill clutched his chest on the sidelines, this Lilliputian benchwarmer grabbed the ball after an Eagles misfire and forced Monroeville to foul him. Stepping to the line as if he had been doing this all his life, he sank first one and then a second foul shot to give his team a three-point lead before he had even broken a sweat.

Monroeville’s Garry Schaffer cut the lead to a single point with a basket 13 seconds later, but a frantic foul on Dave Jett meant that Coach Hill’s incessant emphasis on foul shooting could be the Bombers’ salvation.

Two swishes later, and the Bombers were statebound.

“I feel like I’m dreaming,” said Coach Hill. “I was shocked when Sanford took that shot, but that just exemplifies our whole season. All year long we won when we were not expected to, and it’s the guy you least expect who comes though game after game.”

Marty Hill was 23 years old.

It was going to be a whirlwind, red-carpet week.


Editor’s Note: The final part of this series, part five, of Marty Hill and the Impossible Dream: The story of the 1975-76 Windham Bombers will publish on Portage Sports on Saturday.

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