September 2, 2014

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Elyria Sports Hall of Fame: 1964 Pioneers football team was tough, talented

The 1964 Pioneers lost their first game of the season then won nine straight to claim the Buckeye Conference title and end up ranked third in the state. PHOTO PROVIDED

The 1964 Pioneers lost their first game of the season then won nine straight to claim the Buckeye Conference title and end up ranked third in the state. PHOTO PROVIDED

Harry Gonso had to be wondering what the heck was going on.

“Red Rover, Red Rover, send Gonso on over,” the Elyria High defense chanted in unison.

Gonso was Findlay High’s quarterback in 1964 and he would go on to lead Indiana to its only Rose Bowl appearance four years later.

He had brought his unbeaten Trojans to Ely Stadium fully expecting to head back home with another victory under his belt. After all, his team had averaged 39 points through the first four weeks of the season and Gonso appeared headed to Buckeye Conference and All-Ohio honors.

“He was really a good quarterback,” said Elyria’s Jim Westbrook, an All-Ohio defensive tackle though he weighed just 172 pounds. “Our coaches simply didn’t want him to get around the corner. We successfully did that.”

Successful was an understatement. Elyria buried the Trojans 39-0, holding Gonso to a mere 43 net yards on 20 rushes and one pass completion for 5 yards.

But that was the 1964 Pioneers, who were champions of the prestigious Buckeye Conference and won their final nine games after getting upset 6-0 at Barberton in the season opener.

They’re being inducted into the Elyria Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday at the Spitzer Center at Lorain County Community College along with Jessy Verhoff, Mike Kozma, Dr. David Krol, T.J. Staton and Tim Sweigard. Jim Tomsic will be honored with the Distinguished Service Award.

No one remembered exactly how the Red Rover thing began but Pete Swanson, the Chronicle-Telegram sports editor at the time, credited first-year coach Bill Mrukowski in his story on the game.

Mrukowski, a local icon after his playing days at EHS and as quarterback at Ohio State, had joined Bill Barton’s staff after graduation. Six years earlier his own Pioneers used the same Red Rover chant to unsettle Findlay all-league fullback Chuck Hickle in a 56-0 win, the most lopsided setback in Findlay history.

“It got to be such a joke that we started taunting them,” Westbrook said. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Gonso on over. He never made it around the corner — the whole night. We would just run him to the sidelines.”

“We tried to rattle him,” said Al Fields, one of only two two-way players Elyria used that year. “We stayed after him. We shut him down pretty good.”

“We had him rattled,” said Gary Krone, the other two-way starter. “Not only that, but I think it inspired us.”

Krone is a retired veterinarian while Fields and Westbrook are retired teachers and administrators.

Resiliency needed

The Pioneers, who went 8-2 the year before, returned a good nucleus of 27 seniors in ’64. They dominated both sides of the ball and ended the season ranked as the third best team in the state.

“Coach Barton was real sick before the game,” offensive lineman Dick Glover, a real estate investor in Westerville, said of the Game 1 loss. “He couldn’t call the plays. We kept running sweeps when we all felt we could just run the ball up the middle on them. We were bigger up front and with Houston Love, Bill Alley and Al Campbell in the backfield, just run the ball up the middle. The last series, we finally did but we ran out of time.”

“That was a real wake-up call,” said Alley, the fullback, who is retired and living in South Carolina. “After that first game, the offense got better and the defense kept improving. Everybody contributed whatever they could. It was a lot of fun.”

“We were so upset after that loss,” said Love, who later coached and served as athletic director at Admiral King. “This is not going to happen again.”

And it didn’t.

Elyria shut out West Tech 33-0 and Cuyahoga Falls 20-0 before starting league play against Admiral King. The Pioneers thrashed the Admirals 37-6 to set up the Findlay showdown. The Pioneers beat Mansfield 36-0 a week later.

That brought a trip to Sandusky’s Strobel Field to take on the big, bad Blue Streaks, who had not lost at home in 30 games and had winning streaks of 28 overall and 20 in conference play. The Blue Streaks were ranked third in the state and favored to repeat as conference champs.

“It was the premier league in the state,” Love said. “The league was known for its tough football.”

“There was a big build up the week leading up to Sandusky,” said defensive lineman Duane White, still practicing law in Columbus. “I remember riding on the bus and seeing the caravan of cars from Elyria that traveled on the turnpike.”

An estimated 10,000 fans jammed into Strobel Field. They roped off the end zones and people stood three to four deep to take in the game.

Elyria came ready to play, scoring the first two times it had the ball and went on to shock the Streaks 32-6.

Barton called it his greatest victory.

“We were probably as good as any team in the state that night,” Barton told Swanson on Monday after the game. “We aimed to reach our peak against Sandusky. Now we have to keep that edge.”

No problem.

Elyria pounded Marion Harding 40-0, then beat Fremont Ross 30-0 to set up the annual season-ending rivalry against Lorain. The Steelmen, with nothing to lose, jumped in front 14-0 and an upset appeared in the making.

“Lorain was super-jacked up for us,” said quarterback Dave Strickler, a retired carpenter living in the Phoenix area. “Billy Alley saved us. We ran a zip left and I pitched the ball out to Billy. There was a whole group of Lorain defenders but somehow Billy got away for a touchdown. That gave us a whole lot of energy.”

“I knew we’d come back,” Krone said. “I don’t remember it bothering us that we were behind.”

Krone’s confidence was well-placed as the Pioneers rallied for a 23-14 win to claim the Buckeye Conference championship outright for the first time.

When the final rankings came out, Elyria trailed only Massillon and Canton McKinley in the polls. The state playoffs were still eight years away.

No shortage of talent

Fields, Elyria’s right end on offense, and Krone, who split time at quarterback with Strickler, were safeties on defense. Lowell Cavin was at left end, Tom Bolinski and Dan Andrick were the tackles, Glover and Walt Fabian the guards with Geza Kozmits at center.

Love and Al Campbell were the halfbacks with Alley at fullback in Barton’s full-house backfield.

On defense, Westbrook and White were the tackles with Bill Humphrey and Ray Rounds at ends. Randy Stevenson, Pete Christensen and Merle Wilford were the linebackers with Bill Corder and Mike Aquilino in the backfield with Krone and Fields.

White had replaced two-year starter Lewis “Breezy” Edwards after the third game of the season when Edwards dislocated his shoulder.

Fifteen of Elyria’s players were mentioned on the all-conference team. Westbrook and Campbell were all-state.

“I thought I was going to be a running back,” White said, “but Hersman told me I’d have to play on the line or not at all.”

Westbrook, White and Edwards were simply too quick off the ball. Elyria’s defense allowed only 32 points the whole season.

“I always told them it made my job easy,” Stevenson said. “We only gave up about five scores all year.”

“I never played against anyone tougher than Jim Westbrook,” said Glover of the weekly practice scrimmages. “He was the toughest SOB you ever saw.”

That Westbrook was even in uniform at Sandusky is a story all its own. His grandfather, Frank Barnhill, had passed away earlier in the week and Westbrook was at the funeral in Pennsylvania the morning of the game. Ray Faro, a Pontiac dealer on Middle Avenue, made arrangements for Westbrook to fly back to Elyria in his small plane.

“That was my first flight,” Westbrook said. “It was a small Cessna 172. He picked me up at the Washington County airport after the funeral and we landed at the Elyria airport off Middle Avenue.”

Westbrook and Fields have been inducted into the ESHOF along with Stevenson, Love and Campbell. Stevenson was one of only four juniors to win letters for the Pioneers in 1964. The others were White and special team players and backups Larry Bidlingmyer and Don Boddy. Campbell, Edwards and Bidlingmyer have passed away.

“Practices were the tough part,” said Boddy, now a member of the Elyria school board. “Playing the game was nothing. I knew they were going to hit me as hard as the guy from Sandusky.”

One of the best

Barton, who won 152 games in his storied 23-year career at Elyria, had a great coaching staff that the players revered. In addition to Mrukowski, veterans John Sheldon, Bob Hersman and Tom Willing were on board. Like Mrukowski, Don Hunsinger, who later coached and became the athletic director at Oberlin College, was in his first year. Vance Carter was the trainer and Dr. Robert Stevenson, Randy’s dad, the team doctor.

“Barton, Sheldon, Hersman and Willing,” said Hunsinger, the only coach from the staff who is still living. “They were all great dealing with the kids and they taught us (Mrukowski and Hunsinger) a lot between sessions.”

“They taught us that the team was more important than one guy,” Love said. “You would just do the things necessary to win. I carried that same philosophy in my own coaching days.”

“We didn’t have any discipline problems that I remember,” Fields said. “Everyone wanted to play and play well. We would do anything for the coaches.”

“Barton was a hard-nosed coach,” Alley said, “but he got the most out of us.”

Barton, like Woody Hayes at Ohio State, hated the pass and relied on a stout defense. With backs like Campbell, Love and Alley and the defensive schemes he ran, no one could question the strategy.

The induction certainly validates the vision Campbell had in 2002 when he was enshrined.

“I really wish we could go in as a team,” he said in his own Hall of Fame feature story. “I would challenge anyone — I really think our team or Janowicz’s team (1947) were the best ever at Elyria High.”

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

If You Go:

WHAT: 43rd Elyria Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet
WHEN: Saturday, social hour at 5 p.m.
WHERE: Spitzer Center, Lorain County Community College
TICKETS: $35. Deadline is Tuesday. Available online at elyriasportshalloffame.org using PayPal or by contacting Linda Schuster at Elyria Catholic at schuster@elyriacatholic.com or 365-6390, ext. 120.

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