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.
Big news, but...
In the Monday, March 4, 1923 Star Beacon, a story about the accomplishments of Drake’s heros read as follows:
“As a result of their undefeated standing in the Northern Ohio Tournament, Harbor is eligible for entry in the all-state finals to be played at Ohio State University, Friday and Saturday of this week.
“The North End authorities have not decided yet whether or not to send the team to Columbus. If they do, arrangements will have to be made to play the Ashtabula-Harbor game, which conflicts, some other time.”
So, all that separated Coach Drake’s Harbor Mariners from being part of the first state boys basketball tournament in Ohio was being able to work out a reschedule date with archrival Ashtabula, right?
Well, hold the horn... not quite.
The very next day, Tuesday, March 5, 1923, the Star Beacon carried a story that read as follows:
“After an investigation, the district board of the Northeastern Ohio Athletic Association has declared forfeited to the opposing schools the games which were won by Harbor High in the district basketball tournament in Cleveland last Saturday, owing to the fact that Harbor was entered in the tournament in the wrong class.
“This information was contained in a formal statement made by the committee today, which is composed of Supt. H.L. Rawdon of Oberlin, chairman; Principal Harry Gorrell of Massillon High School and Supt. H.C. Dietrich of the Ashtabula City Schools. The vote declaring the games forfeited was two to nothing. Because of Mr. Dietrich’s position, he preferred not to vote.
“The statement, authorized by Mr. Rawdon and Mr. Gorrell, is as follows: ‘After an investigation, the district board of the Northeastern Ohio Athletic Association has voted, 2-0, that inasmuch as Harbor did not belong in Class B, according to Harbor’s own statement, that the games Harbor played in the district tournament be declared forfeited to the opposing teams — Kipton, Berea and Wadsworth.
“In order to enter Class B, a school must have no more than 150 students enrolled on Feb. 1. At that time, Harbor had 226 students enrolled, but through a mistake, the Harbor attendance was given as of the end of the last semester.
“The instructions sent out by the district board stated that the enrollment must be taken Feb. 1. We declare, therefore, that the games should be forfeited and that Harbor shall not be permitted to represent in the Class B tournament, for two definite reasons:
“1) It would not be fair to other Class B schools with an enrollment of 150 or less, which will be represented in the state meet.
“2) As Harbor belongs in Class A, it was unfair to delcare her winner in Class B in the Cleveland tournament held last Saturday.
“While we feel that the mistake was absolutely unintentional on Harbor’s part in entering in the wrong class, yet we also feel that the other schools should not suffer, and as a result, we have made this ruling.”
With the school being left with a healthy dose of egg on its face, Harbor Principal H.A. Volburn fell on his sword after the ruling was announced.
“We wish to make it clear that we made the effort in filling out registration blanks,” he said. “Instead of giving the enrollment as of Feb. 1, we gave the enrollment for the first semester, the time when we received the blanks.”
Volburn attempted to explain how such an error could be made.
“This was due to the fact that we did not clearly read the instructions,” he said. “The ninth grade entering in January raised our enrollment from 147 to 226.
“And as a result, we should have been in Class A.”
Plattsburgh High School, coahed by Paul Glenn, defeated Bellpoint, coached by Guy Zimmer, to win Ohio’s first Class B state championship, 16-15.
In Class A, coach A.W. Collins led Lorain High School past coach Willis Fulton’s Bellevue squad in the title contest, 15-14.
To their credit, the Mariners did not hang their heads. They had three games to play and needed to win two to claim the Ashtabula County championship.
Harbor did just that, knocking off archrival Ashtabula, 21-15, on Friday, March 9 with Hakala knocking down 13 free throws, and wrapped up the county title with a 44-22 triumph at Jefferson on Friday, March 16. That made a 32-29 loss at Geneva in the season finale on Friday, March 23 moot.
Drake did not return as head coach at Harbor for the 1923-24 season, with Alton Douds taking over the Mariner program.
It took another decade for an Ashtabula County team to win a district tournament and reach the Sweet 16, though it was not the state tournament by that point in time.
Coach Leonard “Dutch” Hoppes’ 1930-31 Conneaut Trojans won a Class A district championship, bowing to Akron West, 26-14, on Friday, March 13, 1931 at Goodyear Gymnasium in Akron. Hoppes is now a member of the Ashtabula County Football Hall of Fame as coach of the Trojans.
Harbor returned to the Sweet 16 the following season, coached by C.C. Mitchell, and fell at the hands of St. Vincent, 26-14, on Friday, March 11, 1932, also at Goodyear Gymnasium... in Class A.
McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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