Glory Days: La Salle's 1967 state semis team remembered

Glory Days: La Salle's 1967 state semis team remembered


Glory Days: La Salle's 1967 state semis team remembered


Terry Sillis sits in La Salle’s gym in front of a mural celebrating the 1967 Class AA state semifinalists.

Over the course of a marriage that reached 33 years on Feb. 2, Pam Kromer has lost count of the number of the times she’s heard her husband, Chuck, describe THE play.

Yet she still listened last week with rapt attention as the former La Salle Lancers’ forward went through the dramatic, disappointing conclusion to one of the most improbable tournament runs in the history of Ohio high school basketball.

The block by 6-foot-8 Cleveland East Tech senior center Ray Reynolds of Kromer’s layup preserved the Scarabs’ 63-62 win over La Salle in the semifinals of the 1967 Class AA state tournament at Ohio State University’s St. John Arena.

That La Salle even was there was more stunning than the decisive play – stunning, that is, to everybody but the Lancers. They went into the tournament after bumping through an injury-plagued regular season that ended with a 7-11 record, then reeled off seven straight wins to capture the Southwest District regional championship for what – at the time – was the state’s big-school division.

Along the way, they were labeled in headlines as “Lucky” and “Dark Horse” and “Cinderella.” That last designation still rankles Kromer.

“They didn’t understand that I missed the whole first half of the season, and we only got healthy at the end of the year,” said Kromer, a 6-4 senior co-captain with Terry Sillis – Sillies during his playing days before changing his name, dropping the “e.” “It wasn’t a Cinderella team. We simply became healthy enough to become the team we should have been all year long.”

Sillis, another 6-4 senior forward who led La Salle in scoring and rebounding, also takes issue with the labels.

“Actually, we were the wrecking balls,” said Sillis, who owns a Monfort Heights-based construction company. “Physically, we just beat teams up. We outrebounded everybody. We were on the boards. Sometimes, that was our game plan. You say Cinderella? I don’t think so. There was nothing pretty about us.”

La Salle, which opened its doors for the 1960-1961 school year – the same year as Moeller – was in just its fifth season of varsity basketball. St. Xavier High School and Xavier University product Bill Cady, who’d coached McNicholas before taking over at La Salle, already was building a noteworthy program. The first three seasons featured the exploits of center Dick Haucke, who became the first place in local history to lead the area in scoring in each of three consecutive seasons.

Two seasons after Haucke graduated, La Salle went into the season with high expectations based on the return of all five starters from the previous season, including Sillis, Kromer, twin brothers Ed and Don Schwegman and 6-foot guard Bill Huellemeier. All were seniors, as was 6-6 Steve Poppe, while sharpshooting 6-2 junior Jim Ruwe split time with Huellemeier.

Their rugged style of play stemmed from playing on the junior varsity under coach Bob Wiesenhahn, a McNicholas product who’d built a reputation for hard-nosed play but also led the 1960-1961 University of Cincinnati Bearcats in scoring on their way to winning the NCAA championship.

“If anything, he made me tough,” Kromer said. “He would throw elbows with the best of them. He would just nail you to the ground.”

Sometimes it backfired, recalled Ed Schwegman, the 6-4 center.

“We worked hard on each other,” said Schwegman, who’s retired and living in Guilford, Ind. “We tended to injure each other.”

That self-destructive tendency came back to plague La Salle. Kromer was kneed in the left thigh during a pre-season practice so severely that he suffered a torn muscle and bone bruise that forced him to miss the first 14 games of the season. He eschewed surgery that probably would have cost him the season, and he still wasn’t 100 percent when he came back, but a bulky pad fashioned by Cady from the foam rubber of a seat cushion allowed him to at least return to the court.

“I remember my dad crying because the student section gave me a standing ovation when I came in off the bench,” Kromer said. “Eddie and Terry were grinning because we were finally all back together.”

Kromer wasn’t the only casualty. Schwegman had cartilage problems in his right knee and recalls Poppe breaking a finger. Sillis had ankle issues.

Kromer’s return gave the Lancers a fresh look, which was highlighted by new uniforms issued for the post-season. Instead of “La Salle” in block letters on the jerseys, the Lancers wore jerseys with “Lancers” or “La Salle” spelled out in a catchy script across the front.

La Salle opened the sectional tournament with a 75-60 win over McNicholas, setting up a second-round matchup at Xavier’s Schmidt Fieldhouse with Elder, which had beaten the Lancers twice by double figures on the way to a Greater Cincinnati League (now Greater Catholic League) championship and No. 1 tournament seed.

Sillis scored 17 points to lead four players in double figures and La Salle built a whopping 59-24 advantage in rebounds on the way to a satisfying 65-47 win.

“The team that beat them they didn’t play the first two times,” Kromer said.

Victories over Hughes – punctuated by a brief post-game fight between Kromer and a Big Red player – and Norwood set up a district championship game against Mariemont at the University of Cincinnati’s Armory Fieldhouse. In what would be the Lancer’s closest shave of the tournament, Huellemeier scored all of his 10 points in the second half to lead La Salle from a 50-46 deficit going into the fourth quarter to a 63-60 win and the program’s first district championship.

Tipp City Tippecanoe and its stiff defense was La Salle’s regional semifinal opponent at Cincinnati Gardens, but the Lancers were even more stingy, limiting the Red Devils to a season-low in points in a 49-44 win.

“Whenever we got the ball in close, it looked like a forest of arms in there,” Tippecanoe coach Jim Blasingame said. “They covered us like a blanket.”

Colerain, also celebrating a first-ever district championship after beating Hamilton Taft, knocked off Dayton Dunbar in the other semifinal, creating a regional final between team from schools just a few miles apart.

The Lancers resorted to their dependable game plan, outrebounding the Cardinals 20-5 in the second half and 41-13 in the game on the way to a 70-58 win.

Kromer scored 18 of his team-high 22 points in the second half after Sillis got La Salle started by scoring 10 of his 15 points in the first quarter of what he considers to be the best win of the run.

“Here we are, La Salle, a relatively new high school, while Colerain was kind of established and they got more press,” he said. “We knew those guys – who was strong, who was weak, what to do. That was fun.”

The win was so momentous that La Salle actually needed two trophies to commemorate it. Kromer recalls and Sillis confirms that one of the Christian Brothers – the religious order that started the school – dropped it out a moving convertible while celebrating a bit too enthusiastically. The trophy was run over by another car, they said, and had to be replaced.

The Lancers became just the fifth Hamilton County team to reach the big-school state semifinals. Looming was 20-2 East Tech, a frequent state tournament qualifier which would have been undefeated except for forfeiting two wins for using an overage player.

The game, televised locally by WLWT on a statewide broadcast sponsored by Lawson’s Milk and Sohio, was close throughout. Ed Schwegman gave La Salle a 2-0 lead with two free throws, but Cady took him out, and he never went back in – a development that still mystifies him, Kromer and Sillis. Cady went strictly with five players the rest of the game, apparently believing Poppe’s height advantage over Schwegman gave La Salle a better shot against East Tech.

“That game for most of us was pretty boring,” Ed Schwegman said. “I didn’t go back in. My brother didn’t play. That was one thing that was different than any other game in the tournament.”

Poppe and Sillis each scored 19 points and Huellemeier added 12, and with La Salle in the game the entire way, Cady – who died June 25, 2012 – apparently saw no reason to make changes.

The Lancers led, 48-45, going into the fourth quarter, but a spirited Scarabs comeback left the leading, 63-60, with time running out. La Salle scored to cut the lead to one and forced a turnover to regain possession. Cady called a timeout to set up the final play, which involved getting Sillis an open shot from the left wing with Kromer cutting to the basket for a possible rebound.

“You remember those things forever,” Sillis said. “(The Scarabs) all came to me. I wanted the shot, but he was wide open. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I remember thinking as I passed it, ‘We just won the state championship.’ (Reynolds) turned around like a rocket. I thought it was going to be called a foul.”

Reynolds’ block of Kromer’s shot as time ran out was clean, Kromer said.

“Just as I got it, I looked out of the corner of my eye and saw that center coming,” he said. “I had two options. I could fake it and hope the guy goes up, but we only had two or three seconds left, and I was afraid if I faked it, the gun would go off with me holding the ball. I didn’t have any option. I went up as high as I could.”

That’s as high as he and those Lancers would climb.

Bill Huellemeier goes for a layup against Cleveland East Tech in the 1967 Class AA state semifinals at St. John Arena.

Bill Huellemeier goes for a layup against Cleveland East Tech in the 1967 Class AA state semifinals at St. John Arena.


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