Rick Reder, right, is hugged during the halftime ceremony honoring the 1964-65 St. Xavier basketball team, Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, at St. Xavier High School.
Hamilton County needed 51 years before producing an Ohio High School Athletic Association big-school state basketball champion.
That was Elder in 1973.
The county even had problems getting teams to the state final four. Only seven local teams captured regional championships, earning trips to the state semifinals. Only three of them reached the championship game before the Panthers.
The team that got closest to winning a state championship before Elder celebrated a 50th reunion on Feb. 13. The 1965 St. Xavier Bombers rode a remarkable 22-game winning streak – including wins over three teams ranked among the state’s top 10 – into the state finals, where they lost by one point, 54-53, to Columbus South.
“Those are good memories,” said Bob Arnzen, who was named the state tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “There’s a little bit of bittersweet. It was a good experience for all of us – the students and the school, too. I don’t bring it up very often, but when I talk to people, the first thing they want to talk about is that game.”
The 6-foot-5 Arnzen, a Fort Thomas, Ky., native who operates The Olde Fort Pub there, and 6-2 guard Joe Sadelfeld were the only starters returning from a Bombers team that went 17-3 overall and won the 1963-1964 Greater Cincinnati League championship before losing in the second round of the tournament. They lost to a Hughes team led by senior Bob Quick, who would go on to star at Xavier and play in the NBA and ABA.
“That had quite an impact,” Arnzen said about the affect of the 1964 tournament loss on the next season. “You realize how quick it can be over. That was a shock to all of us. We’d had a pretty good year.”
Arnzen’s classmate, Jed O’Connell, remembers that St. Xavier lost on Feb. 29.
“I remember telling somebody that we won’t have a game like this next year, because there won’t be a Feb. 29,” he said.
The 6-1 O’Connell moved into the next season’s starting lineup as a guard, along with 6-4 senior center Rusty Martin and 6-2 senior guard Joe Speier. Unlike Arnzen and Sadelfeld, they had to wait their turns in coach Dick Berning’s senior-oriented approach.
“Players like Arnzen and Sadelfeld were exceptional athletes,” O’Connell said. “I think they started as sophomores.”
Berning had installed an offense known as the “Auburn Shuffle,” a variation of another shuffle offense that focused on the center playing a high post and setting screens at the free-throw line elbows for cutters. O’Connell suspects Berning’s search for the right players to execute the offense played a role in St. Xavier losing at Dayton Chaminade, 62-52, in the third game of the season and at Elder, 44-43, in Game Four.
“Eventually, we got it together,” O’Connell said. “We seemed to be getting better and jelling together.”
Some of the players still might’ve been adjusting from football to basketball, said Arnzen, an end on Tom Ballaban’s football team.
“I remember Dick Berning let us have it,” Arnzen said. “He said, ‘You’re not doing what you should be doing. If you don’t want to play, I’ll find some other kids who want to play.’ He got on us hard, but I think we deserved it. We weren’t playing as hard as we did later. I think it fired us up.”
Whatever the reason, the Bombers embarked on the roll of rolls. Starting with an 82-62 win over Woodward, St. Xavier won 22 straight games by an average margin of 15.8 points. Their closest games were five-point wins over a La Salle team led by record-setting scorer Dick Haucke – an Associated Press Class AA first-team all-state pick – and Urbana in the regional finals.
St. Xavier went 11-1 in the GCL, including a redemptive 52-42 win over Elder.
O’Connell, an attorney who grew up in Hyde Park, remembers St. Xavier being uncommonly lucky when it came to injuries.
“That was another important factor,” he said. “There was nothing that kept anybody out of a game – maybe a couple of turned ankles.”
St. Xavier went into the tournament as the second seed behind Withrow and rolled to a district championship, clinching with a 68-35 win over Anderson in which Arnzen scored 28 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. That set up a rematch with 21-2 Chaminade in the region semifinals at Cincinnati Gardens. Arnzen scored 21 points and led the Bombers to a whopping 48-26 rebounding advantage with 19 in a 60-47 win over the team that would win the next season’s state championship.
“We were kind of ready for them,” Arnzen said. “We had revenge on our minds.”
“I know we lost to them earlier, but we felt like we were the better team,” O’Connell added.
That set up a regional final battle at the Gardens with the 23-0 Urbana Hillclimbers, ranked second in the state by the AP and first by United Press International. Again, St. Xavier dominated the rebounding – with Arnzen being credited with 25 in one newspaper story and 19 in another – while Martin led four Bombers in double figures with 21 points in an 83-78 win.
“That was a shootout,” Arnzen said. “I thought they had the best team of any we played in the tournament.”
St. Xavier became the first county team to reach the state semifinals since Hughes in 1955, when they were played at Cincinnati Gardens. The Bombers were due to meet another undefeated team, 25-0 Lima Shawnee, in the last of four games on March 26 at Ohio State University’s St. John Arena.
Not only was St. Xavier trying to become the first Hamilton County team to capture a big-school title, the Bombers also had a chance to become the first Catholic school from anywhere in the state to accomplish the feat.
“I don’t remember much talk about the Catholic-school thing,” O’Connell said. “I remember the papers talking about the last team to reach the semifinals was Hughes, but I don’t think we went in with any motivation to win because of it.”
The Indians, led by 6-5 AP Player of the Year Jeff Miller, had outscored opponents by an average of 25 points.
St. Xavier was respectful, but not cowed. Arnzen scored 22 points with 13 rebounds while limiting Miller to a season-low 15, and Martin held 6-8-1/2 Denton Sullivan to just five points as the Bombers pulled away in the fourth quarter for a surprisingly easy 71-58 win.
“We beat a very good team,” O’Connell said. “We were feeling pretty good after that win.”
Arnzen added, “After we beat Lima Shawnee, we thought that was the state championship.”
Instead, St. Xavier still had to overcome a 22-1 Columbus South team led by 6-1 Bill Bullock, an AP second-team all-state pick.
For whatever reason – O’Connell suggests that playing the last game of the previous day and staying overnight in a hotel while the Bulldogs got to sleep longer in their own beds – the Bombers came out sluggish and ended up shooting a season-worst 38 percent (19-of-50) from the field. Still, St. Xavier limited Bullock to 11 points and outrebounded South, 31-28, but fell behind in the fourth quarter, 47-40, before putting together an 8-0 run to take a 48-47 lead with 3:20 to go.
South regained a 50-49 lead before Sadelfeld, who was named to the tournament’s all-star first team, fouled out with 1:48 to go.
“That hurt us,” said Arnzen, who watched South open up a 54-51 lead before he drove for a layup as time expired. South’s Mel Thompson inexplicably tried to block the shot, risking a foul that would have sent Arnzen to the line for the potential game-tying free throw, but the officials’ whistles remained silent.
“I got hit,” Arnzen, who finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds on his way to being named the tournament’s outstanding player in a poll of reporters, told reporters after the game. “I know that.”
“It was close, but I didn’t hit him,” Thompson said.
“To me, it was close,” said O’Connell, an all-tournament second-team pick. “They easily could have called it. I always wondered why he went up to contest it. There was certainly body contact.”
The late Ballaban, who also was a Big Ten basketball official, reportedly chased the officials off the floor, yelling at them the whole way.
Berning, who died in 1995, was left to ponder what might have been.
“I guess I’d rather lose by 30 than get beat this way,” he said after the game. “These kind make you wonder. You always think of things that could have changed the outcome.”