In a league of his own Bob Ball won more games than anyone in county hoops history
By KARL PEARSON Staff Writer
Nearly 20 years after his death and more than 40 years after he last coached a game, the mention of Bob Ball's name still is spoken with reverence when basketball is the topic in Ashtabula County. There is good reason for that. In more than a century of playing the game, Ball's 1946-47 Ashtabula High School team is one of only two Ashtabula County basketball teams to reach the final four in the state. It is the only county team to qualify for the state tournament in the big-school division of its day. In a career that ranged from 1933-34 through the 1960-61 season, Ball's teams the best records ever in Ashtabula County basketball. His teams compiled a 361-165 record for a .686 winning percentage. That included eight Lake Shore League championships, four Northeastern Conference titles, 14 sectional-tournament crowns, two district championships and one regional championship. The 361 wins represent the most by any coach in Ashtabula County basketball history. Moreover, the gymnasium at the high school where Ball did all his work, even though the school now bears a new name, still is considered one of the area's finest playing facilities. Now the home of the Lakeside Dragons, Ball Gymnasium, which received its name on the night of Aug. 22, 1961 after its construction in 1956, has hosted some of the area's best basketball for 42 years and continues to do so. For all these reasons, Ball is a no-question choice to be in the inaugural class to be inducted into the newly-formed Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation. That ceremony will take place Sunday at the Conneaut Human Resources Center at 6 p.m. Although it comes two decades after his death, Ball's son, Jeff, a member of his father's Panther varsity for three seasons before his graduation in 1959, believes the elder Ball would enjoy such an occasion. "I think he'd feel privileged," Jeff Ball, who plans to attend along with his sister, 1956 Ashtabula graduate Susan Ball Ralph, said from his home in Cuyahoga Falls. "He was the kind of guy who liked awards, even though he might not have said so. "Dad would be very happy to be there going in with men he coached with and against and would be pleased that basketball players were being recognized," he said. "He'd say this was long overdue, but he'd be pleased to be there." As much as Ball is remembered for his achievements in basketball, he is remembered for the qualities he demonstrated on and off the court. His son perhaps said it best about Ball, who died on July 30, 1983. Thanks to the care of Gene Gephart, a sophomore on Ball's state qualifier and another three-year varsity player, the words Jeff Ball spoke on Feb. 10, 1984 at a ceremony to put a portrait of his father in the lobby of Ball Gymnasium have been preserved. They speak eloquently of the coach and the man. "When he became a coach, he decided that to win, he would be a student of the game and a practitioner of defense," Jeff Ball said. "He would win graciously and lose with class. "Competitor, style, class and sportsmanship went with his name," he continued. "Ashtabula was fortunate to have him and he was fortunate to have Ashtabula. They made a great team." Some other thoughts of his father were shared by Jeff Ball. "Dad would tell us 'Be humble in victory, be gracious in defeat,' " he said. The road to Ashtabula Bob Ball was born Nov. 1, 1907 in East Palestine. He was a fine all-around athlete in his own right, excelling in football, basketball, baseball and track before graduating from East Palestine High School in 1926. 1/25/2018 TheACBF.com - Hall of Fame Archives 2/3 From there, Ball moved on to Mount Union College in Alliance. His exploits in football, basketball, track and baseball were enough to earn Ball, who graduated in 1930, induction into Mount Union's M Club, its Hall of Fame, in 1967. He arrived at Ashtabula High School in the throes of the Great Depression and worked one year as the JV basketball coach before taking over the head coaching job in 1933-34. Certainly the Panthers of 1946-47 are considered Ball's marquee team, and are arguably the greatest team ever from Ashtabula County, but there were other great Ashtabula teams before and after that under his tutelage. For instance, Ball's 1944-45 Panthers reached the Class A regional finals.That team was powered by seniors Jack Cummins and Bill Kelly and two junior standouts who also excelled on the gridiron, Mel Olix and Bill Ritter. Jeff Ball believes the Panthers of his senior year, which featured future Ashtabula head coach Bob Walters, was one of his father's best. Young Ball himself had progressed from a reserve role as a sophomore to sixth man as a junior to a starting guard spot as a senior. "We were 16-6 and went to the district finals before losing," he said. "We beat Glenville in the semifinal, which was considered a huge upset. That was probably Dad's last big win." That season carried other special moments for Jeff Ball, especially playing such a key role for his father. "He didn't treat me any differently than any of the other players," he recalled. "We won the NEC that year. We knocked off Harvey with (future Ohio State athlete) John Mummey." Other special games are recalled by Jeff Ball. "One of his most important wins was in the 1956 sectional final against Geneva," he said. "Both teams were state-ranked at the time. "I remember the time we played against Cleveland South at Cleveland Arena," Jeff Ball recalled. "They had a 6-10 center named Sawyer who ended up going to Louisville, but we beat them. That was a big upset, too." That special season But, sooner or later, the discussion always seems to return to the 1946-47 Panthers. Ironically, it probably seemed unlikely at the end of the regular season. The Panthers were just 11-7 in the regular season, going 11-1 against Lake Shore League competition to win the league, but losing all six of their non-conference games. But Gephart has an explanation for that. "Mr. Ball always had us playing the tough teams from Cleveland and Erie of that time," he said. "We just didn't have any success against them that year." One of the most satisfying set of games in the regular season was beating a Harvey squad that included senior Don Shula, who would go on to greater things on the gridiron for John Carroll University, the Cleveland Browns and became the NFL's winningest coach with the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins. "Shula was just an average basketball player," Gephart noted. The Panthers started five seniors - Ramon Peet at point guard, Tom Fish at the other guard, Joe DeChurch and Bob Halgas, their tallest player at 6-foot-1, at the forwards, and 6-0 Ben Klepek at center. Gephart, just a sophomore, was the first guard substitute. "I could shoot," he said in explaining his role. "But I knew I had to play defense. I knew I could play defense." And Ball decided to ride his old standby, defense, and a more deliberate offensive style in tournament play. Sectional and district play in that era was at old Euclid Shore High School. "We slowed it down against all the Cleveland teams so they couldn't fast break on us," Gephart said. It worked. In fact, it worked so well that the Panthers turned the tables on Cleveland Heights in the district championship game to earn a 38-32 victory. "They had beat us at Ashtabula during the regular season," Gephart said. The momentum continued in the regional at Kent State University. Ashtabula beat Barberton in the semifinals, then outlasted Cuyahoga Falls, 32-27, to earn the ticket to the state tournament. "I scored 10 points against Cuyahoga Falls," Gephart said. The Panthers drove to the state fairgrounds in Columbus for their state semifinal game, while many of their fans took the train to the game against Middletown. The Middies were coached by Paul Walker, who was in the opening phase of his stellar career, which would reach its peak with Jerry Lucas in the late 1950s. The strategy of playing tough defense and slowing the pace down offensively nearly worked against Middletown, too. The Middies featured a front line of 6-5, 6-4 and 6-2, but Ashtabula managed to keep them on their heels most of the game. "We had them by two points with three minutes left in the game, but we didn't score again and they won, 36-31," Gephart remembered. A team with a very average record finished its great run with a 17-8 mark. A great teacher To former players like Gephart, Ball was far more than a coach. That was quite a statement for a man who was on the same Ashtabula teaching staff as legendary football coach George "Chic" Guarnieri. Their careers seem eternally linked. The same night Ball Gymnasium was named for the basketball coach, the Panthers' football field at West Junior High School was named Guarnieri Field. Ball is an heroic figure to Gephart. "Mr. Ball was my 10th grade English teacher," he said. "He was an outstanding teacher. He was a perfectionist. He was an outstanding grammarian and great in vocabulary. He knew all the works of Shakespeare backward and forward. "Next to my mother and father, Mr. Ball was probably the greatest influence in my life," Gephart, who took over the coaching reins at Ashtabula from his mentor for the 1961-62 season when Ball became Ashtabula's athletic director. Gephart followed in Ball's footsteps as a teacher, too. He became an English teacher in his own right. "Along with my parents, Mr. Ball inspired me to become a teacher," Gephart stated. 1/25/2018 TheACBF.com - Hall of Fame Archives 3/3 Legacy His coaching philosophy was also derived from Ball. "He was just an outstanding defensive coach," Gephart said. "He was a very conservative coach offensively, but I always remembered the defense. And he was a master psychologist, especially subtle psychology." And Ball made the coaching transition easy for Gephart. "His cooperation was so important," he said. "He was so supportive of me. He was like a second father to me." The willingness to take on opposition of any size and to stick with his defensive credo was not lost on his son, either. "Defense was his calling card," Jeff Ball said. "I still can hear him barking out defensive calls. "We always played the tough teams. I can remember always playing teams from Erie and Cleveland and top teams like Canton Timken and East Tech." Jeff Ball feels he has a handle on who his father would consider his best players. "I think he'd say Bill Ritter, Ray Peet and Bob Walters," he said. It wasn't entirely about Ashtabula High School athletes, either. "My dad was very instrumental in the formation of the NEC," Jeff Ball said. And he probably would have approved of the consolidation of Ashtabula and Harbor into Lakeside. "He always said Ashtabula had too many high schools for the size of community," Jeff Ball said. "I think he'd like the idea of one big school." And as long as basketball players utilize Ball Gymnasium, the memory of Bob Ball and what he did for basketball in his community, Ashtabula County and the area will never be forgotten. THE 300-WIN CLUB FOR ASHTABULA COUNTY BASKETBALL HISTORY COACH SCHOOL YEARS GAMES WON LOST WIN. PCT WINS PER YEAR Bob Ball Ashtabula 28 526 361 165 .686 12.9 Jon Hall Edgewood v26 547 333 214 .609 12.8 oRod Holmes Jefferson (girls) a19 428 314 114 .734 16.5 Andy Garcia Conneaut 22 484 312 172 .644 14.2 Bill Koval Geneva 27 550 303 247 .551 11.2 v Denotes includes 9 seasons at Kenston, 6 at Edgewood, 3 at Kent Roosevelt, 2 at Chesterville, 2 at New Philadelphia, 1 at Solon, 1 at Fairport, 1 at SS. John and Paul, 1 at Berkshire. a Denotes includes 18 seasons at Jefferson, 1 at Bristol. o Denotes active as head coach.