By George Belden
Special to Portage Sports
The phone chimed.
It was 7:54 a.m.
I’m 73 years old.
Nobody calls me at 7:54 in the morning, except doctors and funeral homes.
The Caller ID said Zack Burns, principal at Windham High School.
As soon as I picked it up, Zack said, “George, I have someone complaining because the 1978 basketball team was ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press, and we don’t have a banner in the gym for it. Do you know anything about it?”
Well, I knew that team was good.
But being ranked No. 1 in the state was news to me.
I told Zack I’d check it out, if I could.
I called back 5 minutes later.
“Zack, I checked the official Ohio High School Athletic Association website, and it’s true. They list the 1978 Windham Bombers as the top Class A team in the state, with a record of 17-0.”
I was stumped.
Why, as a Windham sports historian, didn’t I know this?
Five minutes later, I sent Zack an email.
“I figured out why I didn’t know it,” I typed. “The Record-Courier, the newspaper I subscribed to in 1978, did not use the Associated Press poll. They used the United Press International (UPI) standings.”
(The UPI was minor league compared to the AP; in fact, they went bankrupt in 1996 and were now owned by a religious cult!)
So I was able to rationalize my ignorance about the No. 1 ranking, but that sent me on another deep research assignment in the bowels of Kent State University’s library, dusting off the only microfilm machine they still have: Where did the 1978 Windham Bombers finish in the UPI rankings?
All along, 1978 was going to be a special year. Marty Hill had taken the 1976 Bombers, in his very first year as a head coach, to the Final Four in Columbus. The next year was, by Windham standards, a lackluster 14-6 season, but the Portage County League was trembling with the thought that Hill, with three starters back from that state finals team, had built perhaps the greatest basketball team that Portage County had ever seen.
A phrase that would be used by Record-Courier reporter Frank Derry at the end of the season.
Three starters on that team have since been enshrined in the Windham Hall of Fame. This team was so loaded with talent that its managers — Joey Fabry and Bobby Starks — would eventually become the greatest of all time in school history in basketball and football, respectively.
It was one of Hill’s tallest teams ever.
The center of the team, in so many ways, was 6-foot-4 Baxter Jones, who had earned All-Ohio First-Team honors in his junior year with a 21 points per game scoring average.
Flanking him were three-year starters Dave Apthorpe (6-foot-3) and Kevin Fowler (6-3).
But the heart of the squad was its guards, both of whom were almost a foot shorter than the guys they fed the ball to.
Ron McCleary (5-7) was almost impossible to stop in a one-on-one situation. And
spectators had to have their squint-eyes on to see microscopic Sanford Turner out at point guard. Listed at a generous 5-5, he was the smallest player in the league. Any team that overlooked him would pay dearly for that mistake.
Hill’s bench was equally sturdy, with only one player, Bill Kot, under 6-3. Kevin Wert, Brian Everhart, Scott Garrett and Bert Jones were going to see plenty of court time over the next three months.
It didn’t take long for the team to start living up to the hype.
After an easy opening-game win over LaBrae, the Bombers, in the 61st year of Windham basketball, set an all-time scoring record with a 105-66 crushing of Crestwood. The team shot 64 percent from the field. Seven players hit double figures. On defense, they had 33 steals.
It was a scoring record that would last less than two months.
Like Hannibal marching his elephants through the Alps, the rugged Bombers began a inexorable march through the PCL.
Lopsided victories followed — 81-40 over Streetsboro; 81-67 over the Mogadore Wildcats in their bandbox gym, where five dribbles took you from one baseline to the other.
And 86-70 over powerhouse Waterloo to finish 1977 at 6-0 after picking up some non-league victories.
With an undefeated record and a new year beginning, the winter of 1978, which records tell us was the most brutal in modern history, Windham had begun to gain some notice among sportswriters around the state, and they needed to maintain the momentum if they expected to rival that 1976 Final Four team.
Jones and Apthorpe were averaging almost 40 points a night between them — and nearly as many rebounds. Turner was recording assists and steals at a frightening clip. McCleary was demonstrating moves and shots that presaged the arrival of the do-everything point guards of the future.
After wins over Rootstown and Garfield, the UPI voters took notice. On Jan. 6, the Bombers were ranked seventh. One week later, they were ranked fourth in Class A. And then on Jan. 13 came the game that would define this group of players for all time.
They beat Waterloo, 109-69. The 3-point shot had not been invented yet. Those were old-school points.
It’s a record that still stands 45 years later.
McCleary, Jones and Apthorpe each scored over 20. Twelve players notched points. Scott Garrett’s foul shots with 1:24 left set the new record. Lest anything think Hill ran up the score, Waterloo coach Fred Brookover said, “ I believe fans come to see run-and-gun, and that’s what we gave them tonight. I wasn’t going to slow the game down to keep Windham from scoring.”
But the euphoria was not to last long — not with undefeated Southington next up on the schedule.
The Wildcats had won even more games than Windham at that point in the season, but had not even received notice from the state-poll voters.
Knowing that this might be a battle of the titans, Southington gave up their home-court advantage, moving the game to the gym on the Trumbull County campus of Kent State University. Approximately 3,000 people showed up for the game.
They got a show worth every penny they paid.
The Bombers trailed 37-33 at halftime, and for the second half, neither team led by more than four points.
Finally, with a four-point lead, Windham went into a stall, and the Wildcats waited until only 20
seconds remained to foul Turner.
With the same calm he had shown two years earlier on Hill’s state-bound team, Turner sank both foul shots, two of his 15 points for the game, and despite a furious Wildcats flurry, those points salted the game away.
The Bombers had shown that they could take on the best team in the area, which bode well for the rest of the season, and it was back to the PCL wars.
McCleary scored 23 points, mainly on fastbreaks, in the win over Mogadore. Southeast was held to five baskets in the first half, and the Bombers forced the Pirates into 25 turnovers. Against Streetsboro, Windham clinched the PCL title as Baxter Jones scored 24 points, nabbed 18 rebounds, blocked fives shots and had 10 steals.
After the game, Jones told a reporter, “We haven’t even begun to break loose yet.”
He wasn’t boasting. He scored 35 points in the next game against Rootstown. It was his career high.
Against Garfield in the penultimate league game, Everhart, a reliable bench player who had
earned Coach Hill’s trust, entered the game late in the fourth quarter and pumped in six points to save a Bombers victory, as the G-Men had crept within four points with only two minutes to go.
The Black and Gold took their sterling 16-0 record into the final game, which was a makeup with Crestwood.
They were still ranked No. 4 by the UPI, with three perennial monsters sitting undefeated in the rankings ahead of them.
The Bombers crushed the Red Devils, 90-38. They had done everything they could to convince the voters.
And then Mansfield St. Peters, Morral Ridgedale and Indian Valley South, the three teams ahead of Windham, all lost.
And one of the state polls took notice.
On Feb. 21, 1978, Coach Marty Hill was informed that Windham had ascended to No. 1 in the final Associated Press Class A poll. It had never happened before. It has never happened
There was little fanfare because the tournments lay ahead.
Windham breezed by Farmington and Bristol to win the Warren sectional, and then knocked off 15-5 Kirtland 92-44 in the first game of districts at the Canton Fieldhouse.
That would be their last hurrah.
Sebrin, which was ranked No. 12 in the state and had a 19-1 record, was not intimidated by facing Ohio’s No. 1 team.
Sadly, in front of a crowd of almost 7,000 fans, the Bombers were eliminated from the tournament in a 71-60 defeat.
It was the last time that Windham’s “Big Four” of Jones, Apthorpe, McCleary and Turner, would wear the Bombers’ colors.
Baxter Jones earned All-Ohio honors again that year. Apthorpe and McCleary were First Team All-PCL.
Maybe soon, a banner celebrating that magnificent and sudden No. 1 ranking by the Associated Press will hang in the gym named for the greatest coach in Portage County history, Marty Hill.
But not even as a footnote should anyone remember that the Record-Courier, Windham’s local paper, still printed the final UPI poll, which showed Windham as … No. 4.
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