‘I was not a good player’
Despite his self-deprecating look at his many talents, Conneaut’s Dave Sillanpaa was one terrific basketball player
By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
It’s not often that a high school basketball player slams an opponent.
But it’s much rarer still when a player downplays his own talent. Especially when that person scored 1,000 points in his high school career, from 1975-1978.
Meet unassuming Dave Sillanpaa, the Conneaut Spartan who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame Sunday, March 25.
“I was not a good basketball player,” Sillanpaa said. “I couldn’t dribble, I couldn’t pass and I couldn’t shoot.”
So how did Sillanpaa score all those points? Teamwork and a great offense brought in by Harold Rose, the Spartan coach, according to Sillanpaa.
DAVE SILLANPAA of Conneaut (left) battles Tom Hill (13) of Ashtabula for a rebound during a game in the 1977-78 season at Garcia Gymnasium. Sillanpaa will join Hill in the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on March 25
“He was really a good coach,” Sillanpaa said of Rose. “We were considered excellent at what we did. We ran the same offense for three years. If the defense was running a man defense we would run the exact same play. Nobody could stop it.
“We did it every time down the floor. It wasn’t hard to learn.”
This was the offense: A guard would bring the ball down court. Playing center, Sillanpaa would run to the high post. One wing (guard or forward) would go to the low post to the strong (ball) side; another would race to the weak sidde.
The guard would pass to the player on the strong side. Sillanpaa would set a screen for one of the wings, then roll to the basket. The strong-side player would pass it back to Sillanpaa, take the shot, or pitch it to the other wing. If none of those players had a good shot, they would set it up, then run it again. When the shot went up, all five Spartans would hit the boards for a possible rebound.
“In my junior year, I set the screen for Mark Sanford, in my senior year it was for Joe Terry,” Sillanpaa said. “If the ball got to me within five feet of the basket, I knew how to put it in. The high post was the only spot I could play.”
The Spartans weren’t very good when Sillanpaa was a sophomore, but went 13-6 his junior year and 15-5 his senior season.
When he was a sophomore, Sillanpaa played with Bob Greenwood, Jerry and Gary Anderson and Sanford. His junior year was Sanford’s senior season and they played alongside Pat Simpson and Vince Vendetti.
But the best group of players, the ones he started with his senior year, included Joe Terry, Brad Gee, Mark Maire and Jay Bunnell.
“Madison won the (Northeastern Conference) when I was a sophomore. Then it was Geneva and Ashtabula. Nobody (in the league) beat Ashtabula my senior year, though we had a chance at home and on the road.
“In Conneaut, I cost us the game. I missed a layin at their place. When we were at home, it was an even game. Lou Murphy shut me down; him and (ACBF Hall of Famers) Deora Marsh and David Benton were in my pocket.”
Sillanpaa thinks the Spartans could have been even better that year except for the one that got away.
“Danny Boehm moved away my sophomore year,” Sillanpaa said. “He went to South Carolina. He became very good there and their team won the state championship. But we had some good teams. That came from playing with Mark (Maire). Having him on your side was a good thing. The class behind me was a very good team, too. Jim Davin was my buddy.”
Despite scoring so many points, Sillanpaa was a reluctant shooter.
“I’d prefer that other guys shoot. I would rebound. I preferred to go get it.”
In his senior year at Conneaut, the Spartans lost only to Ashtabula (twice), two Erie teams and Youngstown Cardinal Mooney in the tournament. One of his lasting memories of that season is Jay Bunnell hitting the winning shot at Harbor when Conneaut was behind.
“We weren’t playing that well that night,” Sillanpaa said.
Sillanpaa was selected for the first-team Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County and All-Northeastern Conference team. Ashtabula’s Tom Hill, a point guard now in the ACBF Hall of Fame, was chosen as Player of the Year.
“If we could have beaten them once, I might have had a shot,” Sillanpaa said. “It was an enjoyable year.”
Sillanpaa moved on to college, but didn’t play basketball there. He graduated from East Carolina in 1983 with a political science major.
“I went into sales,” he said of his time since. “I’ve been in sales forever. I sold insurance in the Cleveland area. We live in Perry now.”
Sillanpaa and his wife, Lori, who went to Bay Village and Bowling Green, have been married for almost 26 years. Lori is an accountant for the pipefitters union in Cleveland. The couple has “two great daughters”: Melissa, a 2011 graduate of Ohio State who now lives in Switzerland six months a year with her “hockey boyfriend” and Megan, a senior at Ohio State majoring in hospitality management.
Sillanpaa wound up with 1,000 points, but makes note of the fact that he got to play only 19-game regular seasons at that time.
“It could have been more,” he said.
Sillanpaa continues to hold Mark Todd, at that time a sports writer in Conneaut, but now a news reporter for the Star Beacon.
“Some of the stuff he did was tremendous,” Sillanpaa said. “He went above and beyond. He was always a good guy.”
"McClusky taught me about seeing the floor and organizing practices," Isco said. "I took a lot of his offense like the five-man weave, which most people call the motion offense now. Later on, I found out Knight used it.
"My defense is kind of from all three of those guys. They believed in good man-to-man defense if you could. I wasn't crazy about a zone, but sometimes you had to use it. But you have to go with man defense first. It's easier to go from man to zone defense than the other way."
The coaching wheel
Isco didn't play at Kent State, but he hooked up with the basketball team as a manager, serving in that capacity his freshman, junior and senior years. Those were teaching experiences of a different type.
"I learned the things you don't want to do," he said. "I learned you can't go into practice, or anything, without a plan. I also learned you can't just yell at people. You have to show them how. Many times, you have to repeat things over short periods of time."
Another bonus from his days at Kent State, which ultimately got him to Ashtabula, was meeting his wife, the former Susan Giordan. They've been married 36 years and have five children — Angela Orr, who lives in North Canton with her husband, Steve, Andrea, who resides in Los Angeles, Bill, who lives in Kingsville with his wife, Maryann, Raymond, who lives in Orlando, Fla. with his wife, Suzanna, and Suzanne, who lives in Cleveland. The Iscos have five grandchildren — three from the Orrs and two from the Kingsville Iscos — and another on the way from the Orlando connection.
Isco counts his blessings.
"I'm so lucky to have a good wife," he said. "If you're going to stay in coaching, you need a good wife who understands. Susan raised our kids."
After graduation from Kent State, the Iscos initially headed back to Ashtabula County as he earned a teaching job in Pymatuning Valley Local Schools. He served the 1968-69 school year as Al McClung's seventh-grade boys coach in New Lyme, was his JV coach at PV the next year and served in the same capacity for Bob Hitchcock in 1970-71, as well as being an assistant football coach for Thad Kisnowski.
His first opportunity to be a head coach came at Jackson Center. The three years there were quite a change for two young adults with a young family from Northeast Ohio.
"That was a real education," he said. "It was hard on Susan. It was a nice town of about 500 people who were all related to each other. And you couldn't get a good piece of Italian bread there to save your life.
"I had a lot of ideas I had to change. I learned a lot more things you don't do, like trying to make sure you don't make the same mistake twice."
Back home again
The lure of home brought the Iscos back to Ashtabula for the 1974-75 school year.
"Susan was homesick," he said. "She'd come up here and spend the summers. She told me there was a job opening down at Harbor and she told me to go apply. I think Ange Candela was the superintendent then."
But there was no basketball coaching job at Harbor.
"I was the assistant football coach at Columbus Junior High for Tony Chiacchiero," Isco said. "I ended up coaching track with Ron Chutas and Dean McQuaide when Darrell Sargent was around."
The lure of basketball coaching called for desperate measures.
"I just had to be around the game," Isco said. "I stuck my nose in around Kent-Ashtabula and ended up coaching for two years with Bob Peura."
Finally, the freshmen basketball job at Harbor came open for the 1976-77 school year. Isco spent five years in that post, first for Ed Armstrong, then Higgins.
"That was great," he said. "When you coach freshmen, you're on your own. It was a chance to work on my new philosophies. Ed and John let me teach the motion offense."
A connection with the players that would make him at success at the varsity level, guys like Andy Juhola, Tony Lignetta, Chris Jones, Al Altonen, Joe Sadler, Scott Johnson, John Light, John Ringer and Chris Lunghofer, was developed.
"That was a good group," he said. "They were very close."
After the 1981-82, Higgins took the head coaching job at Madison. Isco stepped up to head coach.
"I was elated," he said. "I knew that group, and I wanted to make sure they achieved excellence.
"There was no pressure with that team. Putting in the motion offense was easy with those guys because they'd played it. The fact they were an intelligent group made it even easier. All I wanted to do was help them reach their potential."
Which they did in the 1983-84 season, reaching the Class AA regional championship game at Canton Fieldhouse before falling to an Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary team that featured future Cleveland Cavalier Jerome Lane and future NFL player Frank Stams. No Ashtabula County boys team has been that far since.
"That was a hard loss to take. It still is," Isco said. "But Tony Lignetta kind of put it all in perspective when we were having dinner after that game. He said, ‘You know, we could play that team 20 times and they'd beat us 20 times.'
"If I had to do it over, I'd probably slow the ball down more, but we only had one day of practice to put it in, which wasn't enough. That (season) was probably the highlight of my coaching career."
Strangely, those Mariners did not win an NEC championship. Two later Harbor squads did.
"Now that was pressure," Isco said. "I can't tell you the sense of relief when we won the NEC the first time."
His Harbor days still resonate with Isco.
"I feel good about my time there," he stated. "I have a lot of fond memories of Harbor, of all the great kids and great assistants I worked with. I loved coaching there."
When he arrived at Ashtabula for the 1994-95 season, he found a group of players eager to enjoy the type of success his Harbor teams had and return to the glory days of the Panther program.
"The kids at Ashtabula wanted to play just as hard as anywhere else," he said. "I just had to get them to play as a team, rather than individuals."
It took two years for everyone "to get comfortable.
"After that, I felt we were starting to gel," he said. "We had a great group of kids like Carlos Cancel, Alan Dunbar and Joey Boggs. We got off to an 8-1 start, and then we found out we had an ineligible player, someone that was way down our bench. We forfeited three games, which dropped us to 5-4. We never got it back after that."
His fourth season was also solid but, in his 30th year of teaching, Isco decided it was time to leave.
"We had a good year," he said. "I remember we played a fantastic game at Edgewood. I got a little burned out that year. But I think I left the program (to his former Harbor player and Ashtabula assistant Tim Tallbacka) in good shape."
His expectations were no different when he took over the Lakeside girls job.
"I never thought of the girls as anything other than athletes," he said. "I think that it helped that I had three girls at home.
"My expectations weren't different. There are hard workers and not-so-hard workers among girls, the same as boys. The girls at Lakeside did the same workouts and worked just as hard as any of my boys teams. I really enjoyed myself."
Those who think Isco is done on the area basketball scene might be surprised. After all, coaching is his passion.
"I'm not closing the door on coaching again," he stated. "It would have to be the right timing and the right circumstances, but I think I'm still physically and emotionally capable of doing it. I haven't forgotten my name yet.
"I still have goals. It hurts that I haven't reached those goals. I still hope I get the chance."
Isco realizes he's received a whole lot from the game, even if he never coaches again.
"I worked with a lot of fine young kids over the years," he said. "If I've been able to help them grow in any way, to be honest, that's far more important than any win."
Besides, there's one other achievement in which he ultimately takes pride.
"I'm most proud of my family," he stated emphatically, the emotions showing again. "Getting the chance to coach my kids has been one of the best parts."
For now, Isco just enjoys being around the game, even if it's on the fringes, because he loves it.
"I like to go to a game and say hello to (Tallbacka) or (Conneaut's Kent) Houston or (Jefferson's Steve) Locy," Isco said. "I think I had a good relationship with other coaches, and even officials. We're all in it for the same reasons."