Each year in March, 16 schools are vying for four divisional state basketball championships at Value City Arena in Columbus.
However, the Genoa community and Genoa Area High School might want to reflect back in time over 35 years ago when the tournament was played at fabled St. John Arena.
Head coach Dave Hitchen and his comrades, 6-10 Ron Hammye, 6-7 Mike Diekman, 6-7 Harlan Niehaus, 6-2 Jeff Shaneck, and 6-2 Jim Feckley had defeated Elyria Catholic in the Class AA regional final at Anderson Arena in Bowling Green and were headed for the big show in Columbus.
Hitchen was instrumental in developing the Genoa program as head coach for nine years. During that time, the Comets were 118-59, won four Suburban Lakes League championships and were regional qualifiers twice. Before he came on board, the Comets posted only one winning season in ten years.
“We kind of set the trend for Genoa basketball starting with the 1972-73 season. Since then we’ve had an awful lot of good kids. Since then we’ve made Genoa one of the area’s best basketball programs around,” Hitchen explained.
He added, “The part I played was trying to give the kids a system to play under, a philosophy to play under, and set the work ethic for these kids to do it.”
The 1972-73 season saw the Comets finish 18-0, the only undefeated regular season in school history, only to lose in the regional final. But the next year, with Hammye and his cronies, the Comets were on a 20-game winning streak and facing Columbus Bishop Hartley in the state semi-final.
The Comets had blistered through the season, setting records and creating a lot of noise in the community. In defeating Woodmore 120-74, a school single game scoring record was set. Genoa found winning easy. The Comets scored 90 points against Perrysburg, 95 against Oak Harbor, and 94 against Gibsonburg. The sectional tournament became an embarrassment for the Eastwood Eagles as they were destroyed by the Comets, 80-22.
“I often wonder today, with this team scoring 80 points, 90 points, 100 points, and that is with everybody playing. If they had the three-point rule back then, it’s just hard to say what would have happened,” Coach Hitchen said.
The Comets’ offense was potent and set a lot of school records still in existence at the end of the millennium. Jeff Shaneck’s 42 points against Gibsonburg is one.
This was a team that executed a transition game in a time when even most high schools and colleges were doing little running and little off the ball movement. Even with Hammye, who went on to play four years under a full scholarship at Bowling Green and was the most renowned of the bunch, any one of the starters often earned game scoring honors.
As the 1973-74 Comets made their way through the tournament trail, every win was by 16 points or more, except one. The Comets faced Rossford in the district semi-final, a rival since the days both teams were in the Northern Lakes League. In foul trouble in the third quarter, Hammye was on the bench. Diekman, hitting on eight straight free throws, was able to help preserve a 61-56 win over the Bulldogs.
The Comets were headed towards Columbus and the community and team was celebrating. It’s common for schools and communities like Genoa to rally behind a team headed to Columbus It happens every year.
Every home and store in the community was decorated. A local resident bought the team breakfast the morning the team left for Columbus. At school there was a big farewell and people lined the driveway as the team left.
And the citizens of rural Genoa Area School District had a gimmick. Hitchen described the mania, “Somewhere during the season a local newspaper came out about the ‘little’ farmers in Genoa. That kind of took off because the people in Genoa rallied behind that and would come to the ballgames in bib overalls and carrying red handkerchiefs. Every ballgame you would see red handkerchiefs waving around.
“On the way to the state tournament they were hanging handkerchiefs on antennas, out the windows, and one community member reported that truck drivers who saw this along the roadway, Route 23 to Columbus, were on the CB talking about it. They didn’t know what it was,” he added.
“It was one of the biggest happenings in town since I’ve been here. The idea originally was to back the team because somebody called us a bunch of farmers,” stated community resident Joe McLear.
But once on the floor of St. John Arena, the story ended. The Comets faced Columbus Bishop Hartley and froze. Losing badly, 77-45, the Comets shot under 30 percent from the floor, a team that averaged 50 percent during the season.
Hammye and Hitchen both believe they know what they would do differently. Hammye, who played professionally in Europe after leaving BGSU and did attempt to play in the NBA, said this, “I’m not so sure being in a hotel helped us get the rest we needed. You can second guess yourself anytime. We had the right game plan, we just didn’t execute.”
“You go to St. John Arena and you’re standing on the floor and they play the national anthem and in the middle they have the flag and St. John’s is pretty steep. When you’re looking up you see all those faces looking down on you, it was a different experience,” Hitchen said.
Nonetheless, the trip to Columbus helped start what has become a consistent, winning basketball program at Genoa.
“Just going to Columbus you’re one of the elite types of teams. It’s a dream for any coach, certainly, but when you start your goals at the beginning to have a good season and win the league, then you do what you can in the tournament. When you’ve gotten to the final four out of 700 schools, you’ve accomplished a lot,” Hitchen summarized.
(Reprinted and edited from a Suburban Press article published in 1999).