Starting today at Value City Arena in Columbus, the 89th Ohio state boys basketball tournament will be contested.
It’s been long believed in these parts that Bob Ball’s 1946-47 Ashtabula Panthers and Bruno Mallone’s 1949-50 Geneva Eagles are the only Ashtabula County basketball teams to qualify for Ohio’s state basketball tournament.
Turns out, though, that while those squads coached by Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Famers — teams that also featured ACBF Hall of Fame players — are still the only two teams to actually play in the state tournament, they actually have some company.
Our research has shown that while those Panthers and those Eagles are still the only teams to play in the Buckeye State’s big basketball dance, they were not the first county team to actually qualify for the state tournament.
For more than a quarter of a century before those 1946-47 Ashtabula Panthers, the 1922-23 Harbor Mariners produced an AC/DC season — an electrifying run on the hardwood, but a fizzle at the finish.
A different era
At that time, the “state tournaments” in Ohio were the equivalents to a pair of regional tournaments by modern standards.
Sixteen teams in the size classifications of that era — Class A and Class B — qualified from sectional and then district tournaments to what was called the “state tournament.”
And the first of the then-state tournaments were held in, you guessed it, in the 1922-23 season.
The first state tournaments were played at the Columbus Fairgrounds Coliseum. Ironically, the state finals moved back to that facility in, you guessed it, the 1946-47 season when Ashtabula battled its way to the state finals in the capitol city.
The Northern Ohio Tournament, from which one Class A and one Class B team would qualify for the state tournament, was held the first week of March, 1923 at Western Reserve University.
Class B was for schools with an enrollment of 150 or fewer students, with any school with 151 or more students being classified as a Class A school
In that first season for statewide postseason play, only four county squads entered the Northern Ohio Tournament — the Ashtabula Panthers and Conneaut Trojans in Class A and the Geneva Eagles and Harbor Mariners in Class B — with a total of 44 teams in the region participating.
Coach Kelly McBride’s Panthers defeated Cleveland YMCA Day School in an opening-round game, but were then eliminated by Shaw in the next round.
Coach Lawrence Kennon’s Trojans were bounced in the opening round by St. Ignatius.
Coach H.H. Geiger’s Eagles bested the Fairport Skippers in a first-round Class B matchup, but were ousted in a second-round clash by South Euclid.
That left it to coach Lowell Drake’s Harbor Mariners to carry the flag for the county.
In their first contest, the Mariners whipped Kipston High School, 37-5, on Friday, March 1. In newspaper accounts of the day, only last names were printed, so first names are difficult to come by.
Charles Koski, listed as a right forward, led the Mariners with eight points, while left forward John Hassett (6 points), center Frank Lacksonen (4 points) — who was listed as a “7-foot pivot man” (though that height appears to be a bit of a... stretch) during the season — and left guard William Humphrey (3 free throws) also scored. Captain Carl Hakala, listed as a right guard, was the only other Mariner to play in the contest. Also listed as playing during the regular season were McLaren and Quance.
Hassett, by the way, was the grandfather of twin brothers, Mike and Tony Hassett.
“My grandfather died when we were 6 or 7,” Tony, the varsity football coach at his alma mater, Geneva said. “Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about him.”
John Hassett did post a season-high in points for the Mariners during the 1922-23 season, firing in 24 points in a 66-18 rout of visiting Jefferson on Friday, Feb. 24, 1923.
Back at Western Reserve University, following the romp against Kipston, Harbor matched up against Berea in a semifinal matchup and the locals prevailed in a low-scoring dogfight, 13-9. Captain Hakala led the way with five points, while Koski had four and Lacksonen and Humphrey had three apiece. Hassett and teammates Martin Snelus, Ray Kotila and Martin Kinnunen also played in the win.
That set up a championship encounter against Wadsworth, played later that same day.
The Mariners trailed the Grizzlies, 10-7, after two quarters of play when Drake make a strategic change that the Star Beacon account said made the difference — he switched from playing zone defense to man-to-man, and it paid huge dividends.
The Harbor pressure limited Wadsworth to but one second-half field goal, while the Mariners registered 11 points of their own to lay claim to an 18-15 triumph and a berth in the state tournament.