November 23, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria Sports Hall of Fame: 1972-73 Pioneers basketball team’s run to state captivated city

It’s a play fans just can’t forget. Forty years later, just a mention of the 1972-73 Elyria High School boys basketball season and you can bet someone will bring up the charging foul that wasn’t called in the state semifinals at St. John Arena.

And why wouldn’t they? It just might have cost the Pioneers a state title.

CT photo illustration by Ed Betzel.

Elyria’s 1972-73 basketball team, along with Elyria Catholic’s team from the same year, join Brooke Bader, Ken Fenik, Adam Larrick, Briant McLaughlin and Jan Sito in being enshrined in the Elyria Sports Hall of Fame at Lorain County Community College’s Spitzer Center on Saturday. The late Cooper Hudnutt will also be honored with the Distinguished Service Award.

The Pioneers, behind junior Jerry Gilbert and senior Dave Sellers, had rallied from a 58-45 deficit to within a point of Cincinnati Elder with just 2:37 left. Gilbert scored three straight baskets — a jumper, a layup off a steal and a rebound — while Sellers added a pair of long jumpers, which only counted two points in those days.

“Big Jay (Underman) and John (Mongerson) were out for a time in foul trouble,” Gilbert said. “We were down by 11 (60-49) and scored 10 straight points.”

Underman fouled out with 4:56 left and Mongerson was saddled with four personals.

With 33 seconds left to play, Elder’s Steve Grote took an inbounds pass, turned, took one step and ran over Stevenson. In the minds of Pioneer fans, at least, it was a clear charge and should have given the ball to the Pioneers, who had the momentum clearly going their way.

Official Virgil Emswilder, however, whistled Stevenson for a block that sent Grote to the foul line where he hit the two free throws. Elder went on to win 64-59 and then captured the state title two nights later in a much easier game against Akron Central-Hower.

The five-point deficit was the most Elyria lost by all season.

“The winner of our game with Elder was going to win the championship,” Sellers said. “No doubt about it, but we dug ourselves too big a hole.”

Several years later as both waited to board a plane, Stevenson crossed paths again with Grote, who later played at Michigan and was drafted by the Cavaliers.

“He said, ‘I think we got away with one there,’” Stevenson said. “But really, you know there are a lot of plays in a basketball game. We had the lead early. I know I personally missed a couple layups. Elder was different. They played a zone defense — kind of like the one Jim Boeheim and Syracuse play. It was a little confusing to us.”

Underman, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, was killed in an automobile accident on New Year’s Eve in 1980. Ironically, his father, Dr. John O. Underman, had also died in an car accident in 1969.

“One of the saddest days of my life was when I got the phone call about Jay Underman,” said Mike Riley, Elyria’s coach. “I can’t even talk about it without crying. Jay was ultra special.”

Underman, who will be represented at the banquet by his younger brothers, and his classmates really pulled the team together.

“The key to the team was the function of the seniors,” Stevenson said. “Great leaders. Smitty (Jeff Smith), Underman, Mongerson and Sellers. They set the example.”

Underman and Mongerson stood 6-foot-8 and 6-7, respectively. Smith, at 6-3, was the undersized sixth man called on to spell the big guys. Sellers was an outstanding ballhandler and shooter, who scored a then-school-record 42 points at Fremont Ross a year earlier.

“All four of us seniors were committed to turning things around,” said Smith, who played despite a bad knee. “We grew up expecting to win if you played for Elyria.”

“Smitty was the guts — the heart and soul of the team,” Stevenson said. “He could have been the best athlete on the team had it not been for blowing out his knee playing football as a freshman. He was our sixth man and he’d get out there and drag that knee around. He was an inspiration to us all.”

“Those guys worked really hard in the offseason,” Gilbert said. “It rubbed off on us younger guys.”

Riley, who later led Canton McKinley to a state crown in 1984, had a 124-31 record in his seven years at Elyria. He was selected to the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2009. He had basically been recruited to take Elyria’s job after a successful run at Bellefontaine.

But it took time for Riley to feel comfortable and for the fans and players to warm to his style.

“That first year, we ended up 10-8 and we lost our first sectional game to Lorain,” Riley said “There were a lot of people in the community who were really questioning (the hiring).”

Riley primarily used seven players, including sophomore ballhandling whiz Eclister James. Others on the team included juniors Don Mason, Bob Bosley, Rocky Trice, Joe Kruzewski, Craig Schumacher and Lew Teter. Terry Phillips and Larry Cook assisted Riley. The managers were Gary Mason, Phil Davis, Dan Simmons, Jim Heidrich and Nick Yuhasz.

It was a season of dramatic twists and turns. In the sectional at Admiral King, Elyria barely got past St. Edward (49-46) and North Olmsted (58-55).

In the district semifinal against the Admirals, a tremendous Underman blocked shot in the waning seconds preserved a 58-57 win. Elyria then knocked off Medina 64-53 to earn a trip to the regional.

The region was one of the toughest in the state. Unbeaten and top-ranked Barberton was pitted against defending state champion and third-ranked East Tech in one game, while Elyria, ranked 19th, had to play 10th-ranked Cleveland Kennedy.

Elyria got past the tall and physical Kennedy team 56-55 as Gilbert and Underman scored 15 points each, but it was Stevenson’s two free throws with 47 seconds left and Gilbert’s clutch rebound with just four seconds remaining that sealed the victory.

East Tech eliminated Barberton 77-72 to set up the final, which was set for St. Patrick’s Day, a Saturday. However, a blizzard hit the area just as the Pioneers got in their vans to head to John Carroll. Tennis coach Jim Rakestraw made it through with a number of reserve players but most of the starters and Riley were stranded in Elyria.

“The woman at the turnpike entrance told us to turn back,” Riley said. “(East Tech coach) John Chavers is still mad at me. Rakestraw was ready to coach the team with the players he had.”

The game was postponed to the next night and Elyria came ready to play, beating the favored Scarabs 72-61.

“East Tech was the best game we played,” Stevenson said. “We played a team-help defense on the ball. Coach Riley had a great man-to-man scheme.”

“I just don’t think Kennedy or East Tech saw that kind of defense during the season,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert scored 20, Sellers 17, Mongerson 14 and Underman 10. Underman had fouled out with more than seven minutes to play but Stevenson and Sellers came up big on defense and Mongerson was a monster on the boards with 20 while Underman had 11.

Mongerson and Sellers were impressed with the way the community backed the team. Tickets were always a premium. Mongerson remembers George Day, who owned a downtown hardware store, following the team everywhere.

“He was a part of the team,” Mongerson said.

“It made you feel like you were doing something very significant,” Sellers said. “We had doctors and businessmen following us. It wasn’t just the parents and students.”

Elyria had finished the regular season tied with Mansfield for second place behind King in the always-tough Buckeye Conference. Elyria had split with Admiral King but the Tygers had beaten the Pioneers twice in the regular season. King was ranked seventh in the state; Mansfield ninth.

“The Buckeye was really something,” Riley said.

Underman went to Bowling Green but later transferred Villanova, where he played for Rollie Massimino. He had a brief pro career overseas. Mongerson, a beverage distributor in Florida, could have gone to Villanova or Penn but instead went to Ashland. Gilbert, an outstanding pitcher, followed him there a year later. Gilbert is now associated with Rite Aid in Sacramento.

Stevenson is president of the PAC-12 enterprises. Sellers is a retired air traffic controller who still helps with training, while Smith is an insurance agent for Allen, Thorley, DeLloyd in Elyria.
Underman, Stevenson and Gilbert are all enshrined in the Elyria Sports Hall of Fame.

Sellers, whose passion for Elyria High started at an early age, said falling short at state was tough to take.

“I went to Elyria High football and basketball games growing up,” Sellers said. “I wanted to play for Elyria High. Not winning the state title was the biggest disappointment for all of us. We wanted to win a state championship for the city we grew up in.”

Next up

  • WHAT: 42nd Elyria Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet
  • WHEN: Saturday
  • WHERE: Spitzer Center, LCCC
  • TICKETS: Sold out

Contact Tim Gebhardt at 329-7135 or at timothygeb@msn.com.