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1946-1947 Ashtabula Panthers

By CHRIS LARICK

 

The Ashtabula Panthers were pretty much a run-of-the-mill high school basketball team during the 1946-1947 season.

Until they caught fire in the tournament.

Then the Panthers charged through the opposition, all the way to the state tournament in Columbus before falling in the state semifinals.

"You know it was kind of ironic,” Ashtabula’s senior star, Ramon (“Ray”) Peet once said about Ashtabula’s tournament run that year. "When I was a junior, I played on what may have been Mr. (Bob) Ball's best team. We went 19-1 and then went out and got beat in our first tournament game to Bedford.”

Only two Ashtabula County teams, boys or girls, have ever made the trip to the Final Four, the state tournament in Columbus: the 1946-1947 Ashtabula team in the big school (Class A) division and the 1949-1950 Geneva squad in Class B, the smaller-school division.

Coincidentally, two of the players on those unique teams, Peet of Ashtabula and Dale Arkenburg of Geneva, were first cousins.

Basketball was a different game in 1946 than it is now. Consider: The game itself wasn’t invented until 1891, when Dr. James Naismith hung a peach basket in a Springfield, Mass. gym and had players fire away at it. That was just 55 years before the Panthers took the court before their remarkable season. Since the end of that year, 75 years have elapsed.

There was no three-point shot at that time. In fact, it would have been nearly impossible to make a three-pointer in some of those gyms, so low were the ceilings. No one dunked. And the jump shot itself was in its infancy, having been “invented” just 13 years earlier, when the University of Missouri’s John Miller Cooper was given credit for doing so, in 1934.

Most high school teams stressed defense, so there wasn’t much scoring. Among area coaches, Ashtabula’s Bob Ball, Conneaut’s Andy Garcia and Geneva’s Al Bailey and Bill Koval, all ACBF first-ballot Hall of Famers, were known as defense-first coaches.

Not that there weren’t exceptions. At New Lyme Deming, coaches Ray Rathbun and Russell Bethtel, benefitting from the presence of two eventual ACBF Hall of Famers (Frank Zeman and Richie Scribben), used a run-and-gun offense that produced nearly 100 points per game (97.9) in 1953-54.

Under the tutelage of Ball, the Panthers of 1946-47 followed the more common pattern, averaging just 32.9 points per game. Ashtabula had to step that up as the season wore on to get even that high. Through their first eight games they averaged just 29 points per contest.

Peet, a 5-foot-11 senior guard, led Ashtabula in scoring that season with 234 points, averaging 9.36 points (10.3 in the Lake Shore League).

"Mr. Ball would not fast-break," ACBF Hall of Famer Gene Gephart, a sophomore on that Panther team, once said. "That's how he beat the big teams in Cleveland. On offense, we sent only two players to the boards to rebound; the other three dropped back so the other team couldn't fast-break.

"Mr. Ball was offensively very, very conservative. He was known in the state of Ohio as a defensive coach.

"We played in lousy little gyms. You couldn't shoot. Harbor had beams coming down. Mentor was the only regulation court in the league."

Though the Panthers were LSL champions that year with an 11-1 record (losing only to Harvey, 27-18), they went 0-6 in their non-conference regular-season games, losing five times to Erie teams and once to Cleveland Heights.

"We played the good Erie teams and Cleveland Heights," Gephart said. “We played a strong non-league schedule. I didn't play as a freshman, but Mr. Ball was 46-2 in league games from my freshman year through my senior year. We dominated the Lake Shore League and Ramon was a big part of that in his junior and senior years."

Ashtabula found its niche in the state tournament, topping Conneaut, 36-26; Euclid Shore, 44-38; Shaw, 36-23; Cleveland Heights (avenging the earlier defeat), 40-32; Barberton (17-4 at the time), 46-32; and Cuyahoga Falls, 32-27.

That final regional championship game took them to the state semifinals, where they finally met their match in Middletown, state champions in 1943-44, 1945-46 and 1946-47. The Middies averaged three inches taller than the Panthers and used it for a 36-31 victory over Ashtabula in a game the Panthers led 30-27 after a steal and layup by Peet and a basket by Gephart halfway through the final quarter.

"We slowed it down against Euclid Shore, Cleveland Heights and Shaw,” Gephart said. "And some of us scored more points. Against Barberton in the  first half, we probably played the best we did all year."

Ben Klepac, who died suddenly of a heart attack at age 49 in 1979, was the center on that team, backed up by Delbert Devaughn. Tom Fish, Bob Halgas and Joe DeChurch also started at times, though a sophomore, Gephart, also started. Others on the team included Richard Nelson and Wilbert Jordan.

Peet, a guard, notched his best scoring effort, 20 points, against Willoughby on Feb. 7, 1947. Peet was held scoreless in one game and had two points in another in which he got into foul trouble. But he impressed enough to be named Most Valuable Player in the Lake Shore League, first team on the Lake Shore District team and first-team all-state tournament team.

Peet, who died in 2000, was more than a basketball player. He excelled in football as the quarterback, in baseball as a pitcher-third baseman and in track, qualifying for state in the discus.

"He was what they call a natural athlete," Averill Peet, his younger brother by three years, said. "He was a great leader in baseball as a pitcher. He threw the ball so hard they wouldn't let him pitch, had him playing third base.

"In basketball, he ran the whole floor. He played his position like Bob Cousy (former Boston Celtics guard). He was a floor manager who hit the open man. He was the quarterback in football. When he played in Columbus, he had pneumonia, but he still went out and played and never told anybody. 

"He should be in the Hall of Fame of everything to do with sports. I tried to get into sports because he was ahead of me, but I looked terrible in comparison. It was hard because I was his brother. At about 5-11, he could play defense against the pivots or the outside shooters He could guard any player."

Peet never went to college. He worked at Reliance Electric for 36 years before retiring in 1991.

"It was a great honor to represent the students and the administration of Ashtabula High School," Peet once  said. "Mr. Ball was the greatest high school coach Ashtabula or this county ever saw. I also had a great coach at West Junior High in Mr. Don Hogan.

"As for that '47 team, we all played so well together. We were a true team. I remember playing that season against (Don) Shula when he was at Painesville (Harvey).”

Gephart, one of the first class in the ACBF Hall of Fame (Ball, Garcia, Bailey and Koval were also in that class, along with Ed Batanian, Beth Helfer, Bob Hitchcock, Diana Davis, Jon Hall, Sr. and Flo Carey), may have well been the second-best player on the team despite being just a sophomore.

Gephart later said, "I never played a JV game. My sophomore year, I was the first substitute on the outside.”

That was probably because Ball realized Gephart could inject some much-needed offense into the 1946-47 Panthers squad. 

"I could shoot," Gephart said. "I was a good outside shooter. Plus, I could play defense. And I was the fastest guy in school even then.” 

Even as a sophomore, Gephart made significant contributions. The biggest probably came in the regional championship, when he scored 10 points against Cuyahoga Falls to help the Panthers punch their ticket to the state tournament. Ashtabula finally fell to Middletown in the state semifinals.

Gephart was expected to take over a key leadership role for the Panthers in 1947-48, since all the other starters had graduated. With the help of center Delbert DeVaughn, Gephart led the Panthers to another Lake Shore League title, though the Panthers lost to Cleveland Heights in the sectional finals of the tournament. Both earned first-team all-league honors.

 "Of course, I think so much of Mr. Ball because of the way he taught defense and handled his players,” Gephart said of his coach. "And he was like a second father to me. “

Gephart was a fine football player and track athlete, too. After college at DePauw University, he returned to Ashtabula to become a teacher and coach (head basketball coach for years) and later a principal. A member of the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club’s Hall of Fame as well as the ACBF’s, he died in 2016.