Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation

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Larry Cumpston

ACBF HOF Series: Left was right for Cumpston
ACBF HOF Series: Left was right for Cumpston

By KARL PEARSON
Staff Writer

Second of a Series...

In the middle 1960s, the Geneva boys basketball program was undergoing a lot of changes.

The Eagles were not all that far removed from the consolidation of its forces from the days of the old Spencer and Geneva high schools into one unit. Legendary coach Al Bailey was in the process of pulling those elements together.

It required some special players to help make those forces come together to become the great program it did. Bailey was fortunate to have such players pass his way.

One of the most important areas for a team to become truly special is to get great play from its guards. The Eagles were truly fortunate in that regard with the presence of Steve McHugh and the perfect compliment to a player of his stature, Larry Cumpston.

Cumpston provided the Eagles with the treasured element of being a left-handed ballhandler. That made them adept at maintaining floor balance and gave them the ability to attack opponents from almost any angle.

In a time when great play in general, and great guard play in particular, was on display, Cumpston and McHugh made a pretty dynamic duo, a righty-lefty combination that was the undoing of nearly all opponents. Put them together with players like Mark Debevc, who was better known for his exploits in football and track, and Gary Kreilach, a dominating figure on the inside, and they truly made Bailey’s teams a force with which to be reckoned.

During his two seasons of varsity basketball during the 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons, Cumpston and his teammates produced records of 14-7 and 16-5, twice reached the district tournament at North High School and shared the Northeastern Conference champion with the Conneaut squad of Andy Garcia which featured super shooter Ron Richards and in an era when basketball was truly significant in the area.

His old running mate McHugh speaks forcefully for the credentials.

“Larry and I played on Geneva’s varsity for two years together,” he said. “We won two sectional championships and one NEC championship in those two years.

“I know that I never played with or against a more competitive and talented basketball player. That includes playing in two Division I NCAA tournaments at Duquesne University.”

McHugh said the timing couldn’t have been more perfect for the two of them to come along at the same time.

“Having one guy that was right-handed and one guy that was left-handed gave us automatic floor balance,” McHugh said. “It was like looking in a mirror.

“But Larry was such a great defensive player, too. And he hated losing so much, he’d do whatever it took to avoid it. It made the game a lot of fun.”

Kreilach was glad to be a part of such a team because he knew that Cumpston and McHugh would get him the ball where he needed it while still contributing their share to the Eagles’ offensive package and providing tough defense along with it.

“Larry and Steve were the best guard combination around,” he said. “They competed with each other, but they were also very complementary of each other. They both made me look good.

“Larry may have been left-handed, but he could go right and left equally well.”

As much as anything, though, Kreilach admired Cumpston’s competitive spirit.

“Larry was a very intense player,” he said. “His intensity was very infectious for the rest of us. You always felt you were cheating the team if you didn’t work as hard as Larry and Steve.”

Even their opponents had a keen respect for Cumpston and McHugh.

“Larry Cumpston and Steve McHugh were the best guard combination I’ve ever seen around here,” Edgewood High School football coach Dominic Iarocci, who played against them at St. John, said.

Thus, it seems entirely appropriate that Cumpston should join players of the stature of McHugh and Kreilach in the Ashtabula County Basketball Hall of Fame. That is exactly what will happen April 10 at the eighth annual Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame banquet at the Conneaut Human Resource Center.

Cumpston doesn’t hide the fact he thought the call might come some day. At age 62, he is glad it has finally come.

“I thought my time would come around,” he said. “Obviously, I’m thrilled.

“Other than my family, this is the second-best thing that’s ever happen to me.”

It seems almost fitting where Cumpston received the call when he did. He and his wife of 42 years, the former Ellen Alexander, a fellow 1967 Geneva graduate, were on a vacation in Las Vegas when he learned he had hit the jackpot.

“Brad Ellis (former Geneva player and boys basketball coach) told me,” Cumpston said. “I couldn’t believe it when I got the call. I danced around the room.”

It is certainly meaningful to Cumpston to be joining old teammates like McHugh and Kreilach and old opponents like Richards, St. John’s Denny Berrier and Billy Johnson and Edgewood’s Al Goodwin, with whom he played for a brief time at Kent State University-Ashtabula Campus, and Bill Koval, his old JV coach at Geneva.

“It was great basketball back then,” Cumpston said. “I’m just ecstatic. I’m glad I’m still alive to see it.”

But there is one lingering thought of someone he wishes could be on hand for his big moment. Cumpston is hoping all his fellow starters from at least his senior year attend for the occasion. But one important seat will be empty, that of Al Bailey, his late coach who was one of the inaugural inductees into the ACBF Hall of Fame.

“He was a tough coach,” Cumpston said. “It wasn’t 100 percent with him. It was 110 percent.

“But, you know, everybody got something out of him. He did something for all of us. There wouldn’t be anybody else I’d like to be there more than Mr. Bailey.”

For years after his playing career ended, Cumpston wasn’t sure how Bailey regarded him. But he found out several times later.

“(Bailey) was a big Kent State fan,” he said. “I’d never expect a call from him, and all of a sudden, he’d call and tell us we were going to the game and to be ready, and we’d just go and have a great time.

“I always thought that he didn’t like me. He was pretty rough on me. But I went one time to see (McHugh) play when he was at Duquesne, and I happened to run into Mr. Bailey as he was walking into the gym. He walked over, shook my hand and thanked me for what a wonderful time he had coaching me. That meant so much to me.”

Somehow, Cumpston believes Bailey will have a special seat to his Hall of Fame induction.

“I’m sure he’ll be sitting up there smiling,” he said, with a smile creasing his face as well.

B-ball become almost a be all for Cumpston

Everybody has a Christmas gift they remember fondly. Larry Cumpston is no different.

Apparently, his parents, Floyd and Janet Cumpston, had noticed their oldest child had developed a keen interest in basketball in informal games in the basement of the home of his cousin, Lloyd, in the latter’s home in Carmichael, Pa. That gave them the idea for the appropriate gift for Larry.

“That year, I got a hoop and a ball,” Cumpston said. “My dad hooked it up on the barn.”

At the time, the Cumpston family, which also consisted of  daughters Tammy Williams, who still lives in Geneva, Tracy Spangler, the wife of future Geneva and Ohio State placekicker Rich Spangler, who now live in Grove City, and Kimberly Ellis, who lives in Eastlake, resided on Leslie Street in Geneva.

“It didn’t make any difference what the weather was like,” Cumpston said. “We’d just shovel off the dirt and play. There wasn’t much dribbling.

“Steve (McHugh, another ACBF Hall of Famer) would come over and play. I’d met him in Little League and we became buddies. We’d have guys like Paul Demshar and Larry Perry come over and play, too. It was the same way in football.”

The backyard games were about the only time what became Geneva’s awesome twosome in basketball played together in the early days.

“We played on different teams in midget league,” Cumpston said. “We had midget league during the week and Rec League on Saturdays. I was the leading scorer in midget league, but Steve was always on the league champions.”

Some clue of what the future held for both came in other areas.

“I did play together on an all-star team with Steve,” Cumpston said. “We played against the Mount Carmel team that had (future Ashtabula County Football Hall of Famer) Denny Allan (of St. John). We split two games with them.”

Cumpston started getting down to really serious business with basketball in the seventh grade.

“Garrett LeVan was our coach,” he said. “We learned a lot of fundamentals with him. It was always about defense. We didn’t work much on offense. He ran Mr. (Al) Bailey’s system. We learned about sliding our feet and boxing out. They taught us to use the other hand shooting the ball. It was the same in eighth grade.

“We had a pretty good team. I think we lost only two games. That’s the first time I met up with (Riverside’s) Dunlap twins (current Lake County Sheriff Dan and his brother, Darryl).”

Through junior high basketball, the matchups that would exist throughout high school were established.

“I remember they had NEC playoffs in ninth grade,” Cumpston said. “We played on the stage at Braden Junior High. We lost to St. John. We had lost to St. John and Ashtabula during the regular season.

St. John featured Allan, future ABCF Hall of Famer Denny Berrier and other players like Dominic Iarocci, the current Edgewood football coach, and Lou DiDonato, a prominent coach in basketball, cross country and track at Perry.

“We learned how to run an offense through in eighth grade, how to set picks and run the pick and roll,” Cumpston said. “I played guard and we had other guys like Mark Debevc, Chuck Spellman and Harry Hunter.”

His sophomore year was spent as a time of apprenticeship at Geneva High School. He often scrimmaged against Bailey’s varsity squad, but ended up playing the majority of the season with the JV team coached by ACBF Hall of Famer Bill Koval.

“I knew what was coming,” Cumpston said. “I knew I was going to play JV. I probably averaged 20 points a game. I did get to dress for the tournament games. We lost to Edgewood (featuring ACBF Hall of Famer Dan Foster).

“I enjoyed playing for Coach Koval. He was nice to me.”

He did learn some important lessons that season.

“Two guys taught me how to play defense, Dick Goff and Ron McCary,” Cumpston said. “They showed me how to keep my hand on a player to get them to go a direction I wanted, and how to swipe at the ball to get it. They were very good.

“It was subtle defense. That’s probably why I always got the toughest guy to guard.”

It was all good preparation for Cumpston’s time with Bailey and the varsity.

Cumpston was on guard

There were plenty of highlights, with a few lowlights, mixed in when Larry Cumpston arrived on the varsity for his junior year of 1965-66 for Al Bailey, even though Andy Garcia’s Conneaut team won the Northeastern Conference title outright.

“My junior year was actually pretty easy,” he said. “The only thing was that we lost a couple games because of foul shots.

“Mr. Bailey always emphasized defense and free-throw shooting. He’d have us shoot 50 free throws on our lunch break and 50 after practice. One time, Steve (McHugh) and I made 50 in a row. Steve went on to make 55 straight.”

It was a fairly young team in Cumpston’s junior year.

“Jim Boyner was our only senior,” he said. “Gary Kreilach started as a sophomore with Steve, me and Mark Debevc.”

There were some memorable games from that 14-7 season.

“We played St. Joseph’s here,” Cumpston said. “We came from eight points down to tie the game, but eventually lost. Steve and I both played well in that game.

“We played Harvey when they were undefeated. Mr. Bailey really had them scouted and he came back and told us how we could beat them. We shut them down and upset them. I had 27 points and Steve had 28 in that game.”

Cumpston became Bailey’s defensive stopper, at least out front.

“My first assignment was against John Smith from Ashtabula, who was the county’s leading scorer,” he said. “I held him to 11 points.

“I ended up guarding guys like Lou DiDonato from St. John, Mark Andrews from Harbor and Don Andersen from Riverside (eventually the Beavers’ head football coach).”

The Eagles got hot in the sectional tournament, reaching the district semifinal at North before dropping out.

“I had the flu for that game,” Cumpston said.

Cumpston, who averaged 12.8 points, and McHugh, who had 14.1, made first-team Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County and Coaches’ All-NEC honors.

With a veteran club coming back for their senior year of 1966-67, big things were expected of Cumpston, McHugh and Kreilach. Debevc didn’t go out for basketball, deciding to concentrate on football, which earned him a scholarship to Ohio State and eventually to national championship honors with the Buckeyes. But the Eagles had able replacements in players like Doug Warren, Dave Birsa, Ron Cerjan, Marty Skidmore and Tim Lanigan.

“I thought we had one of the strongest teams,” Cumpston said. “I knew Conneaut was loaded, too.”

It turned out to be a wild season in an era when every game was a battle.

“St. John beat Conneaut, but Ashtabula beat us,” Cumpston recalled. “We lost to Conneaut over there, but beat them at home.

“We were down to them by six with two minutes to go at home, but I stole the ball twice and fed Steve. With four seconds left, I fed Steve and he hit about a 12-footer at the buzzer to beat them.”

There was another big game against St. Joseph during the regular season.

“We played up there,” Cumpston said. “Steve had 30 and I had 27, but he twisted his ankle. We lost by two.”

Geneva and Conneaut would meet again. The final time came in the sectional tournament at Ashtabula’s Ball Gymnasium. The atmosphere was electric and somewhat toxic as both Bailey and Garcia complained afterward about the conduct of fans, mainly adults.

Geneva built a lead as high at 28-13 at halftime and still held a 42-30 lead after three quarters before Conneaut came storming back to fall just short, 58-57. McHugh scored 29 points, Kreilach had 13 and Cumpston had 10 to offset 20 from Conneaut’s Andy Raevouri, 19 from Ron Richards and 11 from

Dick Viall.

“I had the flu for that game, too,” Cumpston said. “We had a big lead and ended up beating them by a point.”

Cumpston’s high school career was ended by Shaw in the district semifinal at North, 65-46. He finished with eight points against the Cardinals, while Kreilach had 16 and McHugh had 13.

The Geneva and Conneaut players got together again on the Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County and Coaches’ All-NEC team. Cumpston, who averaged 15.3 points, and McHugh, who had 18.3 points, were joined by Richards, who scored 19.1, Raevouri, who had 17.6 and St. John’s Denny Berrier, who had 16.8.

With those numbers, it would have figured that the 6-foot-1 Cumpston would have been an intriguing college prospect. But some other numbers, chiefly his grades, held him back.

There is an amusing sidebar to that, though.

“During my junior year, I got called out of English class by a guidance counselor, who told me there had been a call from the Naval Academy about me,” Cumpston said. “But I knew I didn’t have the grades.

“Later in the day, I got to practice and Mr. Bailey had all the JV and varsity players saluting me.”

Cumpston also had a big impact on other Geneva teams.

“My senior year, (legendary tennis coach) Arnie Bradshaw didn’t have enough players for his team,” he said. “Mr. Bailey liked to play tennis, and he came along and told us, ‘You’re playing tennis.’ We did and I really liked it.”

Winning an NEC championship probably helped with that enjoyment.

Bailey tried to give Cumpston further guidance. He advised Cumpston if he got his grades up that he could probably walk on at some other four-year school. So he decided to try it.

“I got ready and went to Kent State-Ashtabula,” he said. “When I got there, they had an all-star team. They had Ron Richards, Dan and Darryl Dunlap, Sid McPaul (from Pymatuning Valley), Al Cooper, Bob Niemi and Al Goodwin (from Harbor).

“Richards and I became pretty good friends. He and I, the Dunlaps and Niemi started. We lost the first game because we had no chemistry, but after that, we won the rest of them while I played. I remember we won a game at Jamestown where we were way down at half, but Ron came out in the second half and hit 11 in a row. That was before there was the 3-pointer.”

But the academic life was not for Cumpston at that time. He has come to regret that a bit over the years.

“I flunked out,” he said. “I had a brand new car that I had to pay for.

“Looking back, I would have liked to have an education. I had a dream of playing college basketball.”

Geneva standout reveled in pure joy of the game

Most of the time, basketball can be a rather serious game. But, if one has the right attitude toward it, the game can have a serious side to it, too.

It’s previous obvious Larry Cumpston played basketball with great passion when he was at Geneva High School. But, right from the time when he first picked up a basketball, he also found a sense of joy about it, sometimes even unintentionally.

For example, even the way young Cumpston first started learning his craft in basketball makes him chuckle when he reflects upon it more than half a century later.

“I lived about five blocks south of downtown when I was growing up,” he said. “When I started playing basketball, I would walk up to what’s now Geneva Elementary on Saturday mornings.

“I got to know Mr. Bartholomew, who was the janitor. I knew on Saturdays he’s be up at the school about 6 a.m. to open up and I knew he’d be around, so I convinced him to let me come and use the gym when he got there.”

Here’s where the fun, or funny part, comes in.

“We only had one alarm clock and my dad (Floyd) had it in his room so he could get up to go to work on time,” Cumpston said. “I started tying my foot to the bedpost to make sure I woke up on time to get up to the gym when Mr. Bartholomew opened up. I must have woke up 10 times a night, but I always was on time.”

Cumpston put the time to good use.

“It was our secret,” he said. “I had the gym to myself for about an hour and half and I’d work on my dribbling and shooting. Then I’d go over to the Rec Center (on the corner of Route 20 and North Forest Street) for our City Rec league games. I only did it for about a year.”

It is a secret that has lasted until this day. When Cumpston’s future high school running mate, Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Famer Steve McHugh, was told the story, he marveled at it. This coming from a guy who had his own amazing story of developing his love for the game when he found a new ball at the Rec Center that nobody claimed.

“If I had known Mr. Bartholomew had set up that kind of deal with Larry, I’d have tried to do something like that myself,” he said.

Actually, Cumpston had first made his connection to basketball in a rather unorthodox manner, anyway.

“My cousin, Lloyd Cumpston, lived in Carmichael, Pa and I used to visit him quite a bit,” Larry said. “He’s the one who introduced me to the game.

“He had a 20-pound sauerkraut crock down in his basement and we’d go down there and shoot the ball at it. I was probably about 9 years old then.”

Throughout his playing days, Cumpston not only showed a great work ethic, but a remarkable gift for subterfuge. Perhaps the best example came before his senior year.

“Before we went on summer vacation before our senior year, Coach (Al) Bailey (who went on to recognition as an inaugural ACBF Hall of Famer) gave each of us a ball to use on the outdoor courts up at the high school,” Cumpston said. “When he gave us the ball, he told us when we came in for practice for the season, he wanted them back and he wanted to see them smooth, with all the pebbles worn off. That was his way of making sure we worked on our game over the summer.”

Being a somewhat typical teenager, Cumpston got wrapped up in other summer activities and knew he hadn’t spent the time honing the skills Bailey was seeking. Finally, as the day of reckoning approached, Cumpston realized he was in line to face the disapproval of his coach.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. Cumpston’s first attempt seemed pretty inventive at the time.

“I went into my dad’s workshop and got some sandpaper,” he said. “I tried to sand all the pebbles off the ball.”

One of his teammates, junior Gary Kreilach, caught Cumpston in the act, sitting in the trunk of his car, with the ball and the sandpaper. It gave Kreilach, another future ACBF Hall of Famer, quite a laugh.

“Gary just looked at me and said, ‘What are you going to do?’” Cumpston said.

But that planted the seed of another plot in Cumpston’s brain. He knew Kreilach had followed Bailey’s instructions, worked diligently on his game and had worn his ball smooth over the summer.

So Cumpston got the team manager in on his new scheme.

“I knew that Gary had already turned in his ball, and I knew he’d worn it smooth,” he said. “So I asked the manager to give me Gary’s ball so I could turn it in when Coach Bailey asked for it.”

“I didn’t know that,” Kreilach said.

Cumpston had an extra bit of luck when the first day of practice rolled around.

“Mr. Bailey had a dental appointment that day and he ended up getting to practice late, so we were able to pull it off,” he said.

Somehow, one has the notion the wily old coach probably was aware of the chicanery, but chose to ignore it. According to a couple of his old teammates, if anyone could have pulled off the trick without Bailey realizing, it was Cumpston, mainly because of his athletic gifts.

“Larry was just such an instinctual player,” Steve McHugh, his running mate at guard for the Eagles and a member of the ACBF Hall of Fame, said. “He was just a natural athlete and such a great player. Where I had to practice something for two or three hours, Larry could probably get it done in half that time.”

“Larry was just so smooth,” Kreilach said. “I played rec ball with him years later and he was still a great player. He was a great teammate, too.”

Life Lessons

When Larry Cumpston reflects on where life has taken him, he said the truths Al Bailey taught him on the basketball court got him there and gives him that much greater a sense of gratitude for his old coach.

Having dropped out of school, he had to find a way to pay for his fancy new car. Marriage to his high school sweetheart, Ellen Alexander, was just down the road.

“We got together when we were sophomores in high school,” Cumpston said. “We got married in 1968.”

The Cumpstons are the parents of two daughters, Cari Van Hoy and Amy Peet, who are both Geneva High School graduates and who both still reside in Geneva near their parents.

His father, Floyd, provided him with the answer.

“My dad got me into the (roofing) business,” Cumpston said. “I started working with him right off the bat.”

At first, Cumpston worked for other roofing firms.

“I worked for Tremko Maintenance out of Cleveland for three years,” he said. “Then I worked for ITI Roofing, which is out of Cleveland, for three more years.”

Cumpston had an offer to go with his father to work with a firm in Nashville, but he decided to stay in the area, even though his father went.

Having been in the business for a while, Cumpston decided to strike out on his own. He started Building Technicians, employing just three workers at the time, eventually coaxing his father to come back home in 1976.

It has turned out to be an excellent decision.

“Today, I have 52 people working for me and we do about $7 million every year,” Cumpston said. “We work basically throughout Ohio and down to Pittsburgh.”

You might recognize some of the work of Cumpston’s firm.

“We did the Browns Stadium roof over the concession stands,” he said. “That lasted about a year. We did the roof at the Save-A-Lot warehouse (in Austinburg Township). That took about nine weeks.

“We did a lot of work at Lucasville Prison. We’ve also done a lot of work at schools around the area.”

Cumpston is pretty much out of the hands-on end of the business. That’s because he has dependable people like his sons-in-law, Matt Peet and Ed Van Hoy, overseeing the projects.

“I go around and look at the jobs and I get the work,” he said. “I probably go and visit the close jobs around three times a week. When we were doing the prison, I was probably there twice in three months.”

Keeping his family close has been one of the primary benefits of his business endeavors. He and Ellen are able to follow the activities of granddaughters Allie Van Hoy, a junior golfer, and Hailey Van Hoy, a freshman cross country runner, for the Eagles, as well as granddaughter Sydney Van Hoy and grandsons Blake, Brady and Bryce Peet.

There are two elements Cumpston has found he seems to have in common with his employees.

“The people I have don’t seem to like to work indoors,” he said. “And I have a couple people who have college degrees work for me. One’s an engineer and another was a criminal justice major.”

But there may be an even more important guiding principle.

“The people that I have working for me tend to have sports backgrounds,” Cumpston said. “They show up for work every day, they’re never late, they’re dependable and they listen to everything you tell them. You don’t have to worry about them.”

They are the principles that have guided his work and his family life.

“It carries over into everything,” Cumpston said.

He attributes it all to what Bailey taught him more than 40 years ago.

“Everybody got something from Mr. Bailey,” Cumpston said. “He did something for all of us.

“I think we’ve all been successful because of what he taught us.”