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Forty years ago, Cocalico won it all
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Cocalico’s magical run to the 1977 State Class AA Boys Basketball Championship.
That team went 31-4 and won section, league and district titles before capturing the State crown on March 26 in Hershey.
This piece is the second in a two-part series as we will look back on that season and try to re-live some of the excitement and recapture the moment when the Eagles brought home the PIAA trophy.
Recently, Ephrata Review Sports Editor Todd Ruth sat down with some of the key members of that squad, including head coach Ed McIlmoyle, Phil Fassnacht, Joe Becker and Jerry Stoner, to discuss their incredible run.
Eagles’ run to a State title
“When we beat Reading, that kind of showed us we could be a real good team. We lost one game after that, which was to Warwick, and then won 17 straight.” – Ed McIlmoyle
By February 22, Cocalico was one of the hottest teams in the District, winning nine out of 10 games against solid competition, since their mid-season clash with Reading.
After beating Elizabethtown in Hershey Sports Arena to win the Lancaster-Lebanon League title, the Eagles next set their sights on Districts which they would open against a talented Reading Central Catholic club in the opening round at home in Denver.
Whether it was home cooking, talent, or a little bit of both, the Eagles rolled past the Cardinals, 77-58.
With Cocalico leading 14-12 after one, the Eagles out-scored RCC 23-10 in the second quarter and were in cruise control the rest of the way.
Four Eagles finished in double figures with guard Joe Becker and inside man Phil Fassnacht both leading the way with 18 points apiece. Mike Dinger added 17 and Pat Ross 12, and the Eagles advanced to the second round for a date against Conrad Weiser.
Stoner & Beamy Step In
Entering their game vs. Conrad Weiser played at Governor Mifflin Intermediate School, Cocalico knew it would be without the services of starter Vic DiMatteo, who was sick in bed with the flu.
Without one of their top rebounders, reserves Gary Beamesderfer and Jerry Stoner picked up the slack. The Eagles didn’t miss a beat, blowing open a tight game with an 18-6 third quarter en route to a convincing 71-53 win over the Scouts.
While Stoner and Beamesderfer provided some of the grunt work, it was Fassnacht who was tossing daggers as the big man made 13 of his 18 field goal attempts on his way to a game-high 28-point night.
Dinger and Ross also hit for double figures with 12 and 10 points respectively as Cocalico advanced to the District Quarterfinals.
A Friendly Debate
The 1977 squad is the only team in Cocalico history to win a State title, but were they the best in school history?
Some have argued that Cocalico’s 1974 team was even better. Like the ‘77 team, that squad, which was coached by legendary Spencer Henry, had a core of four stars in guard Carl Unruh, forwards Kevin Crouse and Mike Terwilliger, as well as center Pat Mowery.
That team won both a County and District title, and took a 30-0 record into the Eastern finals against Exeter, a team it handled in the District final just a few weeks earlier.
However, with all four of its stars playing with a flu bug, Cocalico’s dream of a perfect season ended as Exeter stunned the Eagles in a 45-32 decision.
While players from both Cocalico squads remain close to this day, Becker joked that there is no debate on which team was the best.
When a reporter mentioned that a player from the ‘74 team (former Cocalico teacher and Coach Jim Kreider) has mentioned to him on several occasions that his squad was better, Becker quickly chimed in.
“Did they show you their hardware?,” Becker asked. “They were the second best team. You would think Kreider would let that die but he keeps bringing it up.”
Fassnacht added, “Anyone can win Districts.”
Bottom line, one thing both can agree on is that these two teams will go down as two of the most talented (and decorated) in Cocalico boys basketball history.
Lancaster Catholic, Round Two
With the win over Conrad Weiser, the Eagles advanced to face Hanover in the Quarterfinals.
It was a character-building game, to say the least as Fassnacht was in foul trouble and Becker tweaked an ankle with the game tied at 51-51 early in the fourth.
However, that twosome returned down the stretch to spark a 9-0 Cocalico run. Ross added a big three-point play and Dinger canned four foul shots late and the Eagles survived a scare with a 66-57 victory.
“They were scrappy,” Becker remembered. “They were a real scrappy team. They hustled and were a good defensive team. They battled us.”
That win lifted Cocalico into the District semifinal opposite Lancaster Catholic, which handed them one of their four losses during the regular season.
This time in a game played at Hershey, Cocalico was ready, and with the score tied 24-24 at the half, the Eagles responded down the stretch, out-scoring the Crusaders 31-22 in the second half to punch their ticket to the title game with a hard-fought 55-46 victory.
Ross had a big night, leading all scorers with 20 points. Dinger and Fassnacht added 12 for Cocalico, which would go on to face top-seeded York Catholic in the finals back in Hershey.
Riding an 11-game winning streak at this point, Cocalico was cranking on all cylinders in the early going against the Fighting Irish.
The Eagles made 10 of their first 12 shots to jump out to a 20-14 first-quarter lead.
And they were only getting started.
Cocalico continued to make nearly everything and out-scored the Irish 14-4 in the second quarter to open up a 34-18 half-time cushion.
The end was apparent for the Irish as the Eagles increased their lead to 42-22 after three quarters of play. And although York Catholic did make a late push, the Eagles cruised to the championship with a 62-41 victory.
For the game, Cocalico made 30 out of 44 attempts from the field as Fassnacht led the charge with 22 points while Becker and Ross each had 14 and Dinger 12 in the win.
“(Winning Districts) was one of our major goals,” McIlmoyle said. “We were playing well. We said back then, even after the York Catholic game, the way we played was one of the best games we played all year, shootingwise, defensive-wise…because they were really good. They had the edge. They were picked to beat us…but we just shot the lights out.”
Added Fassnacht, “I think that gave us a lot of confidence moving forward, beating them the way we did. We shot unbelievably…everybody did.”
On to States
After Knocking off Bishop Hafey, 66-52, behind a big 44-point, second-half surge, the Eagles advanced to face Pottsgrove in the second round of the State Tournament at Reading’s Geigle Complex.
“I remember they had a big, strong dude,” Becker said of Pottsgrove.
McIlmoyle added, “They were tough inside. That was pretty close.”
But Fassnacht scored a game-high 22 points and pulled down a big rebound late before DiMatteo iced it with a putback with two minutes to go as the Eagles moved on to the Quarterfinals with a 52-42 win.
Cocalico would face Lakeland in the Quarters in a familiar place, Reading’s Geigle complex, which had become sort of a “home away from home” for the Eagles.
“Yeah, we had the advantage there,” McIlmoyle said. “It definitely helped. Our fan support was unbelievable. Where ever we would have played our fans would have packed the gym.”
Against Lakeland, Fassnacht had it going in a big way, scoring 22 first-half points on his way to a game-high 31. Lakeland, which is located north of Scranton, hung tough for awhile but the Eagles punched their tickets into the “Final Four” with a 73-60 decision.
In those days, the semifinals and finals were both played in Hershey, similar to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.
In the Eastern Finals, they would meet a very familiar opponent in Lancaster Catholic for the chance to play in the State finals.
Despite facing a Lancaster County team, by this point, everyone seemed to be catching “Eagle Fever.”
“I remember going up to Hershey, up 322, there were signs…Go Eagles…We had a lot of support from everybody,” McImoyle said.
Stoner added, “Even in Campbelltown you would see people had big banners out for us.”
A Game to Remember
The two teams had met twice that season with each winning one game. This one would be the “rubber match,” and it sure did live up to its billing.
“That was a tough game,” Fassnacht said.
It was nip and tuck the entire way, but Cocalico held a 41-37 lead with 2:51 when the Eagles went to its “four corners” offense. But a Catholic steal and lay-up cut the lead to two with 2:18 left on the clock.
After Ross made a bucket with 1:49 to go, he fouled out at the 1:17 mark. Catholic hit the first, missed the second but got the rebound. The Crusaders’ Mike Mitten was fouled and made both free throws to cut the Cocalico lead to one at 45-44 with 39 ticks left.
Fassnacht was fouled with 14 seconds left and hit one of two free throws to put the Eagles’ lead at two, but Catholic’s Joe Mirocke tied it at the buzzer with a shot from the corner to send it into overtime tied at 46-46.
Catholic then took a 49-48 lead with 1:14 remaining in OT, but Becker was sent to the line at the other end. He made the first foul shot to tie it, missed the second but Fassnacht came up with the big offensive board.
With the score still knotted at 49-49, Cocalico held for the last shot.
Ironically Stoner, who replaced Ross when he fouled out, got the ball with three seconds left and put up the potential game-winning shot. The shot looked good the whole way before agonizingly rimming out.
“You don’t know how close Jerry was to being the hero right at the buzzer,” Becker said.
Fassnacht added, “It was right there but it didn’t go.”
But, as fate would have it, a little luck was on Cocalico’s side that day.
After Stoner’s miss, Catholic grabbed the rebound and immediately called time out. But on the ensuing inbounds pass, the Crusaders inexplicably threw it away, and Cocalico had another opportunity with three seconds to go.
And the Eagles took advantage.
Becker inbounded to Fassnacht, who immediately put a shot up. The shot was errant, but Catholic was whistled for a foul.
After Fassnacht missed the first one, what was going through his mind as he stepped to the line for the second?
“I was going to make it, no doubt,” he said.
He did just that, sinking the biggest shot in Cocalico history and giving the Eagles a one-point lead (50-49) with one tick remaining. Becker added a technical foul shot when the Crusaders called a timeout they didn’t have, and the Eagles were on their way to the State finals with an emotionally draining 51-49 overtime win.
“That Lancaster Catholic game was physically demanding,” Stoner said. “That was a tough game. I remember the sweat was just pouring off of us. That was a very physical game.”
The Final Game
With the Catholic game behind them, Cocalico faced Mercer in the State Finals in the afternoon of Saturday, March 25.
Like in the District championship game vs. York Catholic, Cocalico came out sizzling against Mercer.
The Eagles jumped out to a quick 17-9 lead after one and increased the advantage to 12 (35-23) at the half.
Mercer tried to press the Eagles, but it was to no avail as a 22-12 third-quarter Cocalico run ballooned the lead to 22 points and put it out of reach.
“They played man-to-man press, same as York Catholic, and it seemed like we played well against those teams,” Becker said. “The press never bothered us. We handled the press and they got frustrated and played to our advantage.”
The Eagles made 31 of their 51 shots attempted, as Fassnacht tallied a game-high 25 points while Ross chipped in with 18 and Becker 16 as Cocalico reached the pinnacle in Pennsylvania high school basketball with a 75-59 victory and the championship.
“You think back and say, ‘oh man, we did that,’” McIlmoyle said. “But we did do it. These guys just really enjoyed it. We were really a close-knit group of players and just enjoyed each game and tried to win just as many as we could.”
In the end, the Eagles, who were the first Lancaster County team to win a State title in boys basketball, closed out their historic season at 31-4.
‘We’re going To Disney World’
Following the win, Cocalico boarded a bus and drove the 45 minutes back to Denver where they received a “Hero’s Welcome.”
“We came back and they had a huge parade, and the town went crazy,” McIlmoyle said. “The support was unbelievable.”
“It was a Saturday afternoon game, so we got back around 5 p.m. and boy, the place was packed,” Becker added.
The parade wound through the delirious streets of Denver and back to the school. Street signs were temporarily given names such as “Fassnacht Drive” and “Becker Avenue,” in honor of the team. And while on the parade route, fans contributed money for what would fund a trip to Disneyworld.
“There were guys walking with five-gallon buckets,” Fassnacht said. “People were throwing money in there. It was nuts.”
Enough money was raised to send the entire team to Florida, and the team was able to enjoy one last moment together as a group.
“That was really a fun trip,” McIlmoyle said. “It was a great way to finish it off.”
It certainly was, especially for a group of young men who remain as close today as they were when they put Cocalico on the map and cut down those nets in Hershey on that historic day 40 years ago.