'The Cane' towered over Charleroi in '57 Johnstown tourney
Anyone who followed high school basketball in the 1950s will tell you that the Cambria County Invitational was one of the best holiday tournaments of its kind in the country.
Some of the best teams and players participated in the two-day event at the War Memorial Arena in Johnstown.
Charleroi High School held that distinction in 1956 and 1957.
The subject evolved again with a question about Wayne Hightower, one of the many basketball legends out of Philadelphia Overbrook High School. A reader asked if Charleroi ever played against Hightower and the answer is a resounding yes.
The date was Saturday, Dec. 28, 1957, and the occasion was the championship game of the Cambria County tournament.
Hightower, a 6-8 All-State performer, scored 36 points to lead Overbrook to a 72-58 victory over Charleroi and dethrone the Cougars as champions of the Invitational.
"Wayne 'The Cane' is what they called him and he was very good, no question about that," Jim Chacko, a junior at Charleroi that year (1957-58), recalled "He pretty much dominated the game with his shooting and rebounding. He had to be good to play so well against (Cougar star) Ollie (Payne), who is one of the best I've ever seen."
Charleroi advanced to the finals of the 1957 tournament by defeating highly-touted Chester, 62-58, in the first round. Overbrook gained its shot at the title by stopping Portage, 60-47.
Payne, who also carried All-State credentials into the tournament, led coach Henry Pennline's Cougars with 37 points against Chester.
Overbrook was in complete control of the championship game as Hightower scorched the nets for 13 baskets and connected on 10 of 12 foul shots. Overbrook coach Paul Ward pulled his regulars out of the game with just over four minutes remaining and the Philly team in front, 61-41.
Overbrook's other starters were Howie Horenstein, Ralph Hayward, Frank Smith and Mike Jordon. The top reserve was a sophomore named Walt Hazzard, who came off the bench to score 12 points.
"They had a great team, lots of talent," Chacko said. "I don't think they lost a game that season and won the Philadelphia League championship. Philadelphia was not part of the PIAA then, so Overbrook didn't get a chance to play for the state title. But they would have held their own against anyone."
Payne (14), who was selected as the most popular player in the tournament, and John Hanchin (13) were the only Charleroi players in double figures against Overbrook.. Others scoring for the Cougars were Art Artis, 9; Chacko, 6; Bob Coulter, 6; Al Thiry, 6; Ed Rader, 3, and Joe Uhlman, one. Also seeing action for Charleroi were Jim Colditz and Lou Partazana.
Charleroi rebounded from that defeat to complete one of the most successful seasons in school history.
The 57-58 Cougars swept through their WPIAL Section 5-A campaign with a 12-0 record and throttled Springdale, 55-49, and Uniontown, 70-45, in the first two rounds of the WPIAL tournament. Those two victories set up a showdown with Washington in the Class A championship game Wednesday, March 19, 1958, at the Pitt Field House. Washington had nipped the Cougars, 45-42, in an exhibition game in December.
Charleroi avenged that setback and captured its second WPIAL basketball championship in 18 years with a thrilling 46-45 victory over Washington. Chacko's clutch free throw broke a 45-all tie with only three seconds left in the title game watched by 4,863 fans who were on their feet most of the final quarter.
Chacko finished the game with 11 points, the same number as Washington's Don Ferrell, but Payne led all scorers with 14. Hanchin, 10; Thiry, 5, Uhlman, 4, and Artis, 2, completed the Cougars's scoring. For those keeping track of such things, Washington's other regulars were Chuck Smith, John Phillips, Herky King, Paul Henton and Roland Kimbrough.
Veteran whistle-tooters Red Mihalik and Nick Jacobs were the referees for that game.
The Cougars' bid for PIAA honors came to an abrupt end when they were upset, 49-47, by Altoona on March 22 in the regionals at the Field House.
That loss left Charleroi with a 24-4 record for the 1957-58 season. In addition to the setbacks at the hands of Overbrook, Washington and Altoona, they also bowed to Homestead in an exhibition affair.
"We played a tough schedule," Chacko said. "Henry (Pennline) believed in playing the best teams possible in exhibition games. Tthere were no easy games. Section competition was the same. There were strong teams and outstanding players."
Payne, who had gained All-State honors in football after the 1957 season, became the first Pennsylvania athlete to gain such recognition in two sports when he was elected to the first team of the United Press All-State basketball squad on March 27, 1958. He was part of a select group that included Hightower, who led the balloting; Len Chappell, the rugged 6-8, 230-pound standout from Portage; Jerry Foster of Chester, who averaged 28 points per game that season, and Ron Warner of York.
Chacko garnered honorable mention on the All-State team. Others from the area who designation among Pennsylvania's top schoolboy players were Davey Russell, of Donora, and Mel Freeman, of Uniontown, second team, and Bob Chuey, of Brownsville, the Section 5 scoring champion, honorable mention.
We mentioned above that Charleroi was the defending champion in the 1957 Cambria County Invitational Tournament.
The Cougars won the 1956 event with victories over host Johnstown, 65-57, and Altoona, 48-33.
Payne, a junior that season, scored 24 points in the opening round romp over Johnstown on Dec. 28 and had strong support from George Schoener and Myron Pottios, who tallied 13 and 11, respectively. Carl Witmyer, 8; Chacko, 7, and co-captain Bob Boda, 2, also scored for Charleroi, while Don Baker also saw action for the Cougars.
In the championship game on Dec. 29, Payne again paced the offensive punch with 23 points as the Cougars throttled Altoona, 48-33. Pottios added 10, Chacko eight, Schoener 4 and Boda and Witmyer two apiece. Also writing their names into that championship chapter of Charleroi's history were Ed Rader, Bob "Tex" Coulter, John Hanchin and Don Baker.
Charleroi's man-to-man defense stymied Altoona and Bob Boda drew accolades for his extra efforts in holding Altoona's scoring ace, Jim Swanner, to five points. Swanner had scored 34 against Yeadon in the opening round.
In his post-game coverage of the title contest sports editor John Bunardzya of The Charleroi Mail praised Boda for "covering Swanner like a tent" as the Cougars limited Altoona to only 20 shots from the floor.
By virtue of its championship in the eighth annual Johnstown tournament, Charleroi added its name to a list of invitational title teams that included Reading, 1949; Johnstown Catholic, 1950; Farrell, 1951; Johnstown, 1951 and '53; Philadelphia Overbrook, 1954, and Chester, 1955.
Charleroi enhanced its reputation as a tournament team later in 1958 by winning the Farrell Lions Club event on Dec. 30.
The Cougars stopped Farrell, 66-56, in the opening round a night earlier to earn a spot in the title game against Youngstown (Ohio) Chaney, a 59-33 winner over Midland.
Chacko scored 28 points against Farrell as the Cougars set a new tournament team shooting percentage mark of 44.7, eclipsing the 43.5 percent established by Philadelphia Overbrook in 1954.
"We had a hot hand against a very good Farrell team," Chacko recalled.
Someone told Chacko midway through the fourth quarter that he was closing in on Chamberlain's single-game record of 32 points.
"I was stunned and humbled by that thought," he said. "I mean, we're talking about Wilt Chamberlain and I really didn't think I belonged in the same class as him. I felt 28 points was enough and the record belonged to (Chamberlain). Beating Farrell on their home floor was cause enough to celebrate."
Coulter and Thiry scored 11 points each and were backed by Artis, 9; Mickey Bitsko, 5, and Ed Zippay, 2. Leroy Pinton (21) and Willie Somerset (18) looked best for the host Steelers.
Pennline emphasized that while Chacko topped all scorers, the victory was "definitely a team effort." He lauded Bitsko for "terrific work under the boards;" Artis for being "alert and tricky bringing the ball up" and Coulter, Thiry, Zippay and Rader for "doing their part."
Thiry set a hot pace with 23 points in the championship game as the Cougars edged Chaney, 50-46.
"Al was the key to the whole thing," Pennline said. "He came through in the clutch and did another fine job under the boards. He deserves all the credit in the world."
Thiry, a 6-6 junior center, took over the scoring onus because Chacko's playing time was limited by four personal fouls. He also grabbed 11 rebounds.
Pennline also cited Rader for "a great job" in the absence of Coulter, who suffered a concussion in the Farrell Game. Rader had six points, Artis seven, Bitsko two and Chacko, who was the tournament MVP, 12.
- Farrell avenged the Lions Club Tournament loss to Charleroi by defeating the Cougars 70-47 in the WPIAL Class A championship game Wednesday, March 11, 1959 at the Pitt Field House. Somerset's 20 points topped all scorers in leading the Steelers to the title. Thiry had 15 and Chacko 12 for Charleroi, which finished the season at 24-3. Farrell added to its laurels by defeating Chester 76-66 to capture the state Class A crown before more than 9,000 fans on March 21 at the Penn Palestra in Philadelphia.
- Chacko was selected to the first team on the United Press International All-State team that also included Matt Szykowsky, Pittsburgh North Catholic; Joe Maldrey, Aliquippa; Granny Lash, Chester, and Bill Yelsh, Tamaqua. Thiry, Donora's Bill Law, Monongahela's Bob Johnson, and Monessen's Bill Makinen were Honorable Mention choices. Payne, in 1958, and Dick Schwendeman, in 1952, were Charleroi's previous first team All-Staters. Chacko also was chosen to play in the prestigious Prep Basketball World Series sponsored by the Wigman Wisemen on June 3-4-5 in Hutchinson, Kansas. Payne participated in the Prep Classic the previous year.
- As another highlight of his senior campaign at Charleroi, Chack set a new school and Section 5-A single game scoring record when he propelled 50 points through the hoop in an 82-35 win over Bellmar on Tuesday, January 27, 1959 at the CHS gym. He hit 12 field goals and sank 26 of 32 free throws in the foul-infested game. Officials Adam Malecki and Bill Dresmich called a total of 48 personal fouls against the Cougars and and Hurricanes. Charleroi made 36 of 48 free throws and Bellmar 19 of 35. Chacko's 50 points eclipsed the previous CHS mark of 49 set by Payne in 1958 against Brownsville. Fred Uhlman previously held the record with 45 against Waynesburg in 1947. The original CHS standard was set in 1916 by John Lutes when he scored 30 - an almost unheard feat in those days - against Coraopolis, and that mark was matched in 1918 by John "Dutch" Wagner against Monongahela. Chacko's section record held up until February 22, 1969, the night Ray Cassol of Elizabeth Forward scored 53 in a 93-81 win over Thomas Jefferson.
- Speaking of scoring records, Bobby Biscoe of Bentleyville established a WPIAL Class B playoff mark when he scored 35 against Belle Vernon in a 61-28 preliminary round victory at the Donora High School gym. Biscoe's output was topped on March 11, 1955 by Don Hennon of Wampum, who tallied 36 points as the Indians defeated Bethlehem Joint 78-63 in the WPIAL Class B title game. Biscoe was the first WPIAL player to go over 500 points in one season when he hit 512 in 1943-44.
- Hightower (Kansas), who died in 2002, Chappell (Wake Forest) and Hazzard (UCLA) became college stars and also enjoyed long careers in the NBA and ABA. Hazzard, a 6-2 backcourt standout, was chosen as College Player of the Year in 1964 and was a member of the United States gold medal championship team in the 1964 Olympics at Tokyo that year. He was head coach of the UCLA men's basketball team from 1984-1988.