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Forty years ago, Cocalico won it all, Eagles’ run to a State title
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.
This piece is the first 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.
The nation was celebrating its bicentennial during the summer of 1976. And it was during that time that Cocalico boys basketball coach Ed McIlmoyle, who was about to enter his third year, had a feeling that the upcoming high school basketball season could be pretty special.
“I remember saying to my wife over the summer, ‘I think we can be really good this year. We should do well,’” McIlmoyle said.
Little did he know, the 1976-77 team would go on to produce the most successful season in school history.
The seed was planted the year before when an all-junior Eagles’ team won 18 games. Heading into the ‘76-’77 season, Cocalico was rich in experience and talent with four senior starters returning to the mix.
Guards Mike Dinger and Becker formed the best back-court in the league, while Fassnacht, an offensive juggernaut with unlimited range, and rebounding machine Pat Ross, also a top defender, provided an equally imposing inside game.
Solidifying that starting group was junior Victor DiMatteo, another rebounding hawk who transferred in from New York.
Stoner, a “do-everything” sixth man, along with fellow reserves Gary Beamesderfer and Alan Weachter provided some talent off the bench.
“With the people we had coming back, I was just very fortunate that there was so much experience,” McIlmoyle said. “I think we were really well-balanced, especially with scoring and rebounding. We had four returning starters with Joe, Pat, Mike and Phil and they all were double figure scorers. Victor was a good rebounder and we had a good bench with Jerry, Alan and Gary. It was really a perfect mix.”
The Season Gets Underway
The Eagles actually got the season off to a slow start, losing their season opener at Wilson, which was one of the top teams in Berks County. The Bulldogs’ top player Mike Reedy scored 33 points in that game to offset Fassnacht’s 32, and Wilson out-scored Cocalico 21-17 in the fourth to earn a 67-61 non-league win.
Panic certainly didn’t set in. Cocalico then reeled off four-straight wins over Manheim Township (66-56), Cedar Crest (78-46), Governor Mifflin (74-56) and Conestoga Valley (60-44) before dropping a 64-50 decision to Lebanon, which had an up-and-coming sophomore named Sam Bowie, who dropped 20 points on Cocalico.
Sitting at 4-2, Cocalico opened Section One play at home against Columbia, where the Eagles turned in their biggest offensive output of the season in a 101-68 victory. Five Cocalico players finished in double figures, led by Fassnacht’s 27. Dinger added 15 while both Ross and Beamesderfer collected 14 each and Becker 10 in the romp.
Cocalico had a much tougher time of it in its next outing vs. top Section One contender Warwick. But the Eagles were able to get it done despite Fassnacht fouling out in a tight game down the stretch.
Becker made a key free throw in the final minute as the Eagles upped their record to 6-2 overall and 2-0 in section play with an exciting 54-52 win.
As a senior, Stoner didn’t mind being the guy to bring a spark off the bench. In fact, he learned to enjoy his role.
“It didn’t really bother me because we were a team,” he said. “Whatever coach told me, I would do. If a few guys got in foul trouble, I would be the big man. When the guards got in trouble, I’d play guard. We were a team, and I would do whatever I’d have to do from what coach said.”
In practice, according to Stoner, some nights the subs would play that well that they would beat the starters.
Becker chimed in, “Now he’s exaggerating…I don’t think that ever happened.”
But Fassnacht was quick to point out, “That second group, they were quite competitive.”
That good-natured ribbing provided by Becker was just one example of the closeness of this team, even after 40 years. Back then, they did everything together, on and off the court. And the guys felt that was a key component to the success they enjoyed.
“We hung out together all of the time,” Fassnacht said.
“That was a huge factor because of the chemistry we built,” Becker added. “You look at a guy like Jerry, being the sixth man, we never looked at it that way or cared about it. We all just ran around together and we were all just very close.”
Even if it meant getting into some trouble.
“They snuck out and went ice skating one time when they weren’t supposed to,” McIlmoyle said.
“Yeah, Fassnacht responded, “but we did it as a team.”
After a laugh, McIlmoyle added, “They were a good, close group…they really were. There were no cliques and everyone got along well.”
Catholic Wins a Tight One
Coming off that tight two-point win over Warwick, the 6-2 Eagles would face another tough opponent in Lancaster Catholic, a team that would factor into Cocalico’s success later in the season.
After a back-and-forth contest, the Crusaders held a four-point lead late before Dinger canned a jumper to bring the Eagles to within two, and then Fassnacht tied it with a pair of free throws in the final minute of regulation to send it into overtime.
In OT, Catholic held a slight 58-56 lead late but Cocalico had one last shot to tie it. Fassnacht rebounded a missed Crusader free throw and quickly found Becker heading upcourt. His shot from the corner, though, went in and out and Catholic pulled out the two-point win.
But just like at the beginning of the season after the loss to Wilson, the Eagles righted the ship.
They won five-straight games, all by double figures, and were rolling at 11-3 heading into a mid-season non-conference showdown at home vs. mighty Reading High, one of the top teams in the State.
But the Red Knights didn’t have an answer for Cocalico, which according to an article in The Ephrata Review, “established themselves as the kingpin of Class AA schools in Lancaster County” with an impressive 54-44 victory.
While Cocalico gave up some size, the Eagles outrebounded Reading 22-20, including 16 at the defensive end, to limit the Red Knights’ second-chance opportunities.
Offensively, Dinger led the Eagles with 19 points while Fassnacht and Ross had 14 and 13 points respectively in Cocalico’s signature win (up until that point) of the season.
“I think that game really helped our confidence,” McIlmoyle said. “It proved if we could play the best that we could, we’d be in every game.”
“That was the game that put us on the map,” Becker added.
Cocalico won two more games to extend its winning streak to eight games with decisive victories over Lampeter-Strasburg and Columbia. Those final wins also clinched the first-half title for the Eagles (in those days, the section was split into first and second half champions).
A 65-56 loss to Warwick in the next game in late January would give the Warriors the inside edge to the second-half title.
Brian Brewer hit for 27 points and Gary Rynier added 19 for the Warriors, who may have gained the edge when Ross left the game with an ankle injury. Dinger did score 20 but the rest of the team couldn’t get on track.
That loss would serve as a monumental point to the Cocalico season as it turned out to be the last time the Eagles would taste defeat in 1977.
Junior High Success Carries Through
All of the men pointed to their earlier years where they enjoyed a ton of success through middle school on into high school.
“You can go way back into middle school with coaches Denny Howe and Larry McComsey,” Stoner said. “We started playing then and we had a traveling team. How many years did we go undefeated? And now you move on to the bigger leagues.”
Added Becker, “We were good the whole way up through…we were expected to win.”
The experience this group gained in their junior season, they said, also was key to their success.
“The junior year was big because we all played and did pretty well…that was really important,” Becker said.
Fassnacht added, “We did real well our junior year too but we took it on the chin a couple times. Dallastown whooped our butts and Hempfield put it to us. But just playing as much as we all did and doing pretty well really set us up well for when we were seniors.”
Following the loss to Warwick, the Eagles ran off three-straight wins over Manheim Central (87-65), Ephrata (78-51) and L-S (93-51). However, it wasn’t enough to overtake Warwick for the second half title in Section One.
However, the two would meet at Lancaster Catholic in a one-game playoff for the section crown. And this one was all Cocalico as the Eagles placed four players in double figures as they cruised to a 63-45 win and the section title.
Becker and Dinger led the way with 15 points apiece while Fassnacht added 12 and Ross 10 in the clincher. Brewer did score 19 to lead the Warriors but Ross, who missed part of the last meeting with the bum ankle, collected 10 rebounds and held Rynier to just six points.
With the win, Cocalico advanced to the L-L League semifinals where they would face a Hempfield team that was favored to beat the Eagles.
“All of the coaches picked Hempfield except (Warwick Coach) Dave Althouse, who thought we had a good chance,” McIlmoyle said.
Turns out, the Eagles made Althouse look pretty smart as they blew out the Black Knights, 68-47 in the game played at Lancaster Catholic.
Ross was the story in this game as he scored a game-high 24 points on offense, and defensively, shut down Hempfield’s leading scorer Andy Huffman, who was held to just four points without a field goal.
Fassnacht chipped in with 14 points as Cocalico advanced to face E-town at Hersheypark Arena for the L-L League crown.
Cocalico definitely didn’t bring its “A game” to the title contest vs. the Bears, but it didn’t matter as the Eagles scored a 56-49 victory and claimed the program’s second league title in five years.
Fassnacht and Dinger both scored 18 points each while Becker added 16 in the seven-point victory.
“Actually I think the two games we played prior to that championship game were bigger games,” Becker said. “We played Warwick and Hempfield to get to the league championship while E-town got a bye out of Section Three. We beat Warwick and Hempfield both pretty handily but we actually didn’t play as well in the county final game, if I remember correctly.”
“That was one of our poorer games,” he said. “We played well enough to win but it wasn’t one of our better games.”
In next week’s conclusion of this series, we’ll chronicle Cocalico’s run through the District and State playoffs, culminating with a parade through Denver and a trip to Disney World.