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1949-1950 Geneva Eagles

by CHRIS LARICK

 

Once, a long time ago, the Geneva Eagles’ boys basketball team caught lightning in a bottle.

That happened in the 1949-1950 season when a squad of four seniors and a junior, aided by a slim cast of role players, became the second and sadly, the last, Ashtabula County basketball team to make it to the state tournament  in Columbus.

Ashtabula’s 1946-1947 team preceded that Eagle team to Columbus. Since then, neither a boys nor a girls team has escaped regionals.The Eagle team was made up of its two leading scorers, junior Dale Arkenburg and senior Don Marsh, in addition to senior center Jim Merrell and senior guard Dick Eller, along with either senior Andy Mellon (early in the year) or Bob Scoville, as the season progressed. Bruno Malone, who had himself starred at Geneva, was their young coach.

Arkenburg and Marsh were similar players, about 6-foot or 6-1 forwards who were the scorers for their team. That year, Arkenburg nipped Marsh, 161-160 in league games to win the Lake Shore League scoring championship. The LSL selected the pair as co-players of the year.

"Marsh and I carried the scoring load, but Eller was a good shot," Arkenburg said in 2000. "We'd tell those guys to shoot to take the pressure off Don and me. But (Eller) would just pass it off.

"Dick Eller was as tough as they come on defense. He always took the other team's leading scorer, unless it was a center. He wasn't big enough to shut a center down. I would have hated having him guard me. He was tough and quick as a cat. (Merrell) was a giant back then (at 6-3). Jim was big and strong. If he got his hands on the ball coming off the boards, nobody was going to get it. He was tough and very big.”

Merrell, who would later become a long-time dentist in Geneva as well as one of the founders of the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club, was the enforcer on the team.

"We had a few set plays on tipoffs (which were then held at the beginning of each quarter)," Merrell said. "Usually, we had picks to set up Marsh or Arkenburg to get open some place. They played at the foul line or farther out so they could drive. They were good outside shooters.”

"It often occurred to me that we were fated to be together," Eller, who would become an English teacher and then an English professor, said in 2000 while pointing out that, other than Arkenburg and Merrell, few members of the Geneva team were born in that community. Eller himself moved from Madison in the fourth grade. Marsh came to Geneva from Martins Ferry between the fifth and sixth grade, Mellen's family moved from Toledo and Bob Beech, a key substitute, began his life in East Liverpool.

"They all came here with a passion for basketball," Eller said. "You've got to love the game to play it well. I think we all loved playing. I think that's why you play.

"I think we played intense basketball. We played with the expectation that we were going to win, not because we were better, but because we were going to play better, play harder."

According to Marsh, his family moved north to Geneva when his mother and father divorced.

In the 1949-50 season, Geneva won its first 13 games before being beaten by Harbor, 32-31, in the Mariners' gym, which had I-beams hanging from the ceiling that hindered Arkenburg's and Marsh's shots.

"Back in those days, we called it the 'Harbor Arch,'" Arkenburg said. "In practice, we would take a rope and hang it about four or five feat above the rim and shoot under it.

"The gym was a cigar box. The Harbor guy (Johnson) threw in a bullet at the end of the game. I don't know how it went in; it was a low line drive. You couldn't shoot from any distance on that floor."

That was the Eagles' only league loss. They lost one other game, to Cleveland Lincoln, before the state tournament, prevailing in a clutch victory over Ashtabula in Ball Gym, 40-38.

Down 10 points with two minutes left, Geneva tied it at 38-all on a free throw by Merrell, setting the Eagles up for the win.

"Dick Eller was all over the place," Arkenburg recalled in 2000. "(On the final possession), Don Marsh shot and got drilled into the wall. I didn't react at first because I expected a foul to be called. But I was trailing the play and went back up with it (for the winning shot).

"That was a big game for us. We were able to beat Ashtabula. We were the little kids on the block at that time.”

The Eagles reached the state semifinals in the tournament and finished at 23-3, being eliminated by imposing center Gene Neff and Eaton, 56-41.

A number of years ago Eller recalled the hysteria that consumed Geneva during the Eagles’ march to their destiny.

"It was amazing,” he said in 2000. "We'd had a good football season, then started advancing in the tournament and the whole community became more and more excited. I remember suddenly the members of the team became names in the community, known faces. I'd be walking to school and people would offer me a ride, people I wasn't sure I knew.

"I was kind of flabbergasted with all the attention. The businesses and the school were great. You didn't have to be a player on the basketball team to be part of that season. I had a lot of classmates and we all shared.”

Though similar in their talents on the court, Marsh and Arkenburg were quite different as individuals, team manager Earl Gornick pointed out in an article on the Geneva team published shortly before Arkenburg and Marsh were selected to the ACBF’s Hall of Fame.

Marsh, his class's valedictorian and a straight-A student, was cool and collected, Gornick says.

"Marsh exhibited an ironic detachment, seemingly loath to show any emotion on the court, and was an ominous, foreboding presence to opponents as he displayed a practiced, elegant repertoire of precisely-arched shots from the outside and clever feints and strong power moves to the basket; he likewise excelled at defensive play and rebounding."

Gornick considers Arkenburg "the most naturally gifted player on the team," one who played with "dash and sparkle."

Though they played cohesively as units of the team, theirs was never a close friendship, Gornick said.

"(Marsh and Arkenburg) barely nodded to each other, other than meeting in the school hallways or at parties, or at Rees' Drug Store, or Louie's Poolroom, apparently reluctant to risk diluting or squandering their basketball magic," Gornick wrote.

"They developed the curious ritual of stiffly, almost formally, shaking hands a moment before the tipoff in games, as if acknowledging to each other that they were the two best players on the court."

Merrell, Arkenburg and Eller have died since the 50th anniversary of the best season in school history, in 2000. Merrell and Arkenburg within a couple months of each other, in December, 2004 and February, 2005, Eller more recently. That left Marsh as the only living survivor of the 1949-50 team who saw any significant playing time. Marsh moved to Connecticut many years ago. It is not known whether he is still alive.

Marsh and Eller went on to attend Kenyon College together. Arkenburg started at Ohio State, hoping to play baseball there, but found out that college was not for him. He became advertising manager at the Star Beacon for many years. Marsh became an insurance agent in Connecticut.