The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 1, 2014

A Don McCormack column: County-wide galas

For almost four decades, Ashtabula County came together for high school basketball tournaments

By DON McCORMACK - donmac@suite224.net
Sports Editor

— As we flip our calendars ahead to 2014 as we bid adieu to 2013, wouldn’t it be an extremely edifying experience if we could, at least in our minds and our hearts, flip it backward?

As in, a half-century, or so?

Consider, Loyal Readers, there are presently eight schools in Ashtabula County that field high school boys basketball teams -- Conneaut, Edgewood, Geneva, Grand River Academy, Grand Valley, Jefferson, Lakeside, Pymatuning Valley and St. John -- seven, of which also field girls squads, save for Grand River Academy.

Now, imagine, if you will, if all eight boys teams and all seven girls squads convened in one place to take part in an Ashtabula County Tournament.

Considering the fractured relationships in terms of conference affiliations that exists between county schools, it sounds like a pipe dream, I know.

However, for the younger generation, which is probably not aware, the exact scenario played out each and every year, for decades, generations, in fact.



Back in time

Even before the 20th century began, there was high school basketball -- boys and girls -- being played in Ashtabula County.

In fact, our research documents high school games being played as early as 1896.

By the time 1900 rolled around, games were being held all across the county.

When the 1917-18 season began, Ashtabula County Tournaments began to be held.

Girls and boys tournaments were contested, mostly at Jefferson (at the now-demolished Jefferson Elementary building, which served as the high school in town through the 1960-61 school year) or at Braden Junior High.

Interestingly, using the phrase the tournaments were "staged" at those locations could be taken literally as both arenas had the playing surface up on a stage in an auditorium setting.

Girls tournaments were as well attended as the boys, at least until the Ohio High School Athletic Association decided to do away with high school sports for girls after the 1937-38 school year, mostly because, believe it or not, "strenuous sporting activity was not lady like." That’s a bit of a paraphrase, but the stated mumble-jumble rationale was akin to that. State tournaments were not put in place for girls sports until the 1975-76 school year.

Meanwhile, the boys tournaments were held in the county through the 1956-57 school year.



How it worked

Even back in the Depression era and prohibition, the tournaments were split at least two ways, according to enrollment size — Class A and Class B.

The county-tournament system was tantamount to what the sectional tournaments are in this day and age. Each county would conduct tournaments within its borders, with two teams from each respective division moving on to what was then called sectional play, usually toward Cleveland.

To give you an idea how big a deal these tournaments were way back when, while there are eight boys teams and seven girls teams in the county, those numbers pale in comparison to what they were before the consolidation craze descended across the Buckeye State.

Let’s select a random season... OK, take the winter of 1938-39, for example.

At that point, a staggering total of 21 high schools fielded boys and girls basketball teams:

Ashtabula, Conneaut, Edgewood, Geneva, Harbor, Jefferson, Orwell, Rowe, Rock Creek, Kingsville, Spencer, Deming, Pierpont, Austinburg, Andover, Williamsfield, Dorset, Colebrook, Windsor, North Kingsville and Rome.

Class A winner Ashtabula moved on to sectional play at Euclid, where it defeated Harvey before being eliminated by Lakewood, which was defeated in the sectional championship game by Harvey, which advanced to district play in Akron, where it bowed to Massillon, 36-20.

In Class B, which was played at Jefferson, Edgewood defeated Pierpont, Rome, Andover and Rowe to win the county tournament and move on to sectional play at McDonald, along with county runner-up Rowe and a third county team, North Kingsville.

Edgewood defeated Leetonia in a first-round game at McDonald, while North Kingsville was eliminated by Liberty.

Meanwhile, Rowe, coached by future Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Famer Charles Hirsimaki, tangled with Bristol and took the Panthers to overtime before being felled, 36-33.

One other nugget from the 1938-39 season:

On Friday, Feb. 10, 1939, Rock Creek’s Ken Smith fired in 59 points against overmatched and visiting Colebrook.

The 59 points scored by the late Smith, now a member of the ACBF Hall of Fame, remain the second-highest point total scored by any basketball player in county history.



Tracing the roots

As mentioned previously, the county tournaments began to be held in the 1917-18 season. The first three years, the events were held at Ashtabula.

Interestingly, the girls and boys tournaments in the 1920-21 season were held at, believe it or not, the Ashtabula YMCA.

The next season, the tournaments were split, being held simultaneously at West Junior High and Columbus Junior High, where they remained through the 1927-28 season.

In 1928-29, both tournaments were moved to Andover High School.

In 1929-30, seeking a more centralized location, both the girls and the boys tournaments were moved to Jefferson. They would remain in the county seat through the 1944-45 season.

The following winter, most of the games were moved to Edgewood, though a few games were still contested at Jefferson, and they would remain there through the remainder of the county-tournament era, which had the curtain drop on it after the 1956-57 season.

When the 1957-58 season tipped off, the system still used today -- sectional, district, regional -- was implemented.

As stated, the county-tournament format remained in place in Ohio through the 1956-57 season for Class B schools (pretty much every county school, with the exception of Ashtabula, Conneaut and Harbor, Class A schools that would play in tournaments at Euclid Shore, in most seasons), though nearby schools Fairport and Harvey were eventually shipped out this way to take part, making the events more of a county tournaments, plus two events.

The 1957-58 season was most definitely a season of change for high school basketball in the county as not only was the system shifted from a county-tournament formula to that which is still in use today, it also forced every gymnasium in the state to receive a bit of a paint job.

On the playing surface, anyway.

The key, which up until that season had been 6 feet in width, was extended to 12 feet, where it’s remained since.



Epilogue

In the history of boys basketball in Ashtabula County, 14 teams have won district championships, the most recent being the 2007-08 Pymatuning Valley Lakers of coach Jeremy Huber. That PV squad was the first county boys team to win a district title since Dick Heath’s Edgewood Warriors turned the trick in 1990-91, knocking off county rival Harbor, coached by ACBF Hall of Famer Andrew Isco, in a memorable district championship game at Warren Western Reserve.

Ironically, of the 14 county boys teams to win district crowns, seven came during the county-tournament era, the other seven being a product of that system used to this day, starting with ACBF HOF coach Joe Shantz’s 1961-62 Pymatuning Valley Lakers, a squad that featured ACBF Hall of Famers Bob Hitchcock and Paul Freeman.

Ashtabula County’s first district championship squad were the 1930-31 Conneaut Trojans, led by ACBF Hall of Fame coach Leonard (Dutch) Hoppes.

The Trojans’ record that season?

Eleven wins, six losses.

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at donmac@suite224.net.