ON SATURDAY December 3rd at 5:30 pm, the final day of the 2016 Redwood Classic, the Anderson Valley basketball team of 1966, arguably the best Panther team ever, will be honored. The '66 team won the Classic — the oldest tournament in the Redwood Empire — that year, defeating Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa, among other large-enrollment schools.
WHEN'S THE LAST TIME you watched some good high school basketball? Mendocino County's oldest high school hoops tourney, Boonville's Redwood Classic, was played last week. On offer was an eclectic mix of skill levels, ranging from rural-primitive to state champ-quality, with such perennial excellencies as Cloverdale, Hoopa and Branson School of Marin typically drubbing overmatched outback quintets in the early rounds Wednesday and Thursday. But by Friday the overmatched teams are gone and the surviving teams, some from as far away as LA, are pretty well matched and feature any number of kids who will go on to play at the college level.
THIRTY YEARS AGO, the $40,000-a-year prep schools got run right out of the Boonville gym. "Take that, rich boys!" Then the private schools started passing out scholarships to kids who could handle the academic load and also play basketball, perhaps taking their cue from the Catholic schools who have scoured their catchment areas for athletic talent for many years now, leaving public schools at their athletic mercy. Of which neither the Catholic schools nor the fancy prep schools have none, running up lopsided wins for decades now over the undermanned public schools. The frenzied contests for prep sports titles are objectively crazy, but alumni steadily push their favorite sports to the limits of prep crazy.
HERE IN BOONVILLE at our Redwood Classic there are way too many mismatches as these high school private school powerhouses drive up from the city to beat Mendo teams by fifty points. Only Cloverdale is consistently competitive or, from the north, Hoopa, and one year Hoopa showed up with this huge German kid from Argentina, descended, perhaps, from one of the Boys From Brazil.
BRANSON SCHOOL, now a prep hoops powerhouse in the tough Marin County league, was once a sleepy girl's school tucked away among the impenetrable mansions of Ross. Julia Child is perhaps the school's most illustrious graduate, and up until the fraught 1960s, Branson was a secure place for the ruling class to stash their debutantes to keep them from unsuitable matches. Of course all that social precaution flew out the wide-open window of 1967 when the debs began flying off with guitar players on the Ya Ya Express. We all enjoyed the merry schadenfreude of a few years ago when Branson’s headmaster was discovered in a grungy Sacramento motel room with an impressive array of drugs and a girl young enough to be his granddaughter passed out on the bed. The scandal would have been nicely rounded off if she'd been a Branson Girl or, better yet, a Branson basketball player, but no such luck.
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THE 1966 ANDERSON VALLEY PANTHERS
Norman Clow identifies the 66’ers as he remembers them and their banner hoops year: Just to make it easier, first names are from the front row: Ron, Gary, Eugene, Dan, Charles, Larry; back row: Dave, Rick, Jerry, Dan, Tom. Dan Morabito, the only “non-local” in the bunch, i.e., no family in AV, had lived with the Faylors at Vista Ranch and later, our senior year, at Ashiku’s. He was from Brooklyn NY of all places, and spent a career as an EMT and then a surgical nurse in Kansas.
Head coach was John Walters, who left after that year due to his team losing two games. He found that entirely unacceptable and moved to Sonoma High School.
The second Point Arena game was a disaster. Steve Campbell spent the entire night hitting baseline jumpers from the corner, either that or finding someone getting behind the defenders under the basket for easy drop-ins. The last three games were at the Potter Valley tournament. AV probably could have beat Clear Lake, led by future Atlanta Falcon Len Gotshalk, who played basketball and football at SRJC before being named a Little All-American lineman at Humboldt State. But…fell behind early with turnovers and never could get caught up. Getting caught up, so to speak, with Gotshalk was also an on-going problem. I remember Tom’s dad, Bob Rawles, asking him after the game when the two of us were sitting out in the near-empty gym, "Well, son, would you care to explain exactly what happened out there in 10,000 carefully chosen words or else?” Son didn’t.
RE: Junior Panther basketball, it was actually founded around 1960 by Bob Mathias, with the first coaches being Walter Tuttle, Bill Rynearson, Bob Rawles, and my dad. Paul ran it for years and really made it a great program. He was our Scoutmaster for a while, too. Always had time for kids.
RE: Ukiah games. Yes, we beat Ukiah in the 1981 Cloverdale tournament on a last-second lay-up or something, but they beat AV the next year in Boonville the next season (Jerry and Zack’s senior year) by a bigger score (after falling behind early and coming back strong in the second half). That was the end of the series.
Mr. Clow notes that he and Vern Peterman have got 20 years worth of Panther teams scanned and available on line, 1962-1979 plus three from the 1940s, more to come.
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I RECOGNIZE many of the 66’ers, the editor begins. There's a Pronsolino, Charlie Hiatt, Rick Cupples, Jerry Blattner, Gene 'Yewgene' Waggoner, Danny Huey, and maybe Tony Summit. I don't recognize the other guys in the photo, but I'm confident by tomorrow night someone will have identified every one of them.
I GOT TO KNOW those I do recognize in — pause while I gaze back through the mists of time — 1971-2 when my crew, newly arrived in Boonville, often played men's league's games against the Boonville boys. The very first time we played Boonville we worked them over by about twenty points. We had two former college basketball players, including my late brother Ken who started for three years at Cal Poly where he averaged 12-15 points a game as a small forward. All of our "hippies" had played in high school. (We weren't hippies but, as Valley newcomers, we got lumped in with the hairy beasts who were also freshly descended on Mendocino County.
OFF OUR FIRST contest with the Boonville boys, with us victorious, the Boonville guys promised next time they would have "Yewgene." We chuckled about that one for a week. "Look out, here comes Yewgene," we'd laugh.
NEXT GAME — we played Sunday afternoons in the high school gym — Yewgene indeed showed up. Looking at him you saw an unprepossessing dude of about 5'10" and not particularly athletic-looking. Catching a few warm-up glimpses of him, we figured "Yewgene" for a good player but nothing special.
THE GAME started with Yewgene immediately glassing one from about 25 feet at an oblique from the hoop. "He lucked that one," was our consensus but unspoken opinion. But Yewgene certainly didn't luck the next twenty or thirty shots he hit from every possible angle, and even from inside where we had some big guys we assumed could handle him. He was very quick, great passer, had a kangaroo-like vertical jump, played great defense. Yewgene and one other guy to in-bounds the ball to him probably would have beat us by themselves.
CHARLIE HIATT for Boonville was also a formidable outside shooter, and all of the Boonville guys were very good players. (I don't see LeRoy Perry in the photo but I remember men's league's games with him. Very good hoopster.) Yewgene was the difference, though. He was a college-level athlete who played, in fact, at Ol' Miss. We had some good athletes but none who could keep up with Yewgene.
IN THOSE YEARS, when we were all still young enough to get up and down the court and do something when we arrived, the men's leagues of Mendocino County were very strong, lots of good, even great basketball players. When Yewgene went head-to-head with the legendary Ukiah athlete, Kelvin Chapman, large crowds turned up to watch. My opinion? I'd say Yewgene had the edge over Chapman, but Chapman, who went on to play major league baseball with the Mets, is probably the best basketball player to ever come out of Ukiah, and certainly among the best ever from Mendocino County.
LAST YEAR'S PANTHERS — call them the 2016 team — were an excellent team, and a living testament to the coaching abilities of Luis Espinoza. But both the '66 team and the '81 team would have beat them, and beat them fairly easily. Coach E took a gang of excellent athletes and very good football players last season and made a basketball team out of them. But none of them could shoot. They made up for a lack of offense with full court defensive hustle and tenacity. For pure spectator value, however, last season's Boonville team was a delight to watch, the most fun team I've watched in all my years here. (Cesar Soto, Abraham Sanchez, Jared Johnston, and Erin Perez Alejandro Soto Will Lemons, Joshua Sanchez, Izac Parra, Tony Pardini, Gerardo Torales, Christopher Espinoza, Cristian Natareno, and Elvis Gaxiola.)
THE TOLMAN TEAMS of the early 1980s simply blew everyone away except for Cloverdale, a team Boonville played tough, a team that went on to win the state championship a couple of years later. (The blow-outs by the Tolman teams included Ukiah. Twice, and Ukiah would never play Boonville again.
THE PANTHER TEAM of '66 also probably blew out a lot of the Northcoast's large and small schools, but nobody but sadists enjoys sitting through blow-outs. Last year's Boonville squad seldom blew anyone out but were a joy to watch even when they did.
THE '66 team, like the '81 team, could put five guys on the floor who could shoot. And they were big and strong.
THE '81 TEAM of Tolman, Aron O'Brien, Jeff Burroughs, Brian Roberts, Richie Wellington, Zack Anderson, GP Price, Olie Erickson, and Dennis Kerwin, with Yewgene as coach, and they played like Yewgene — run and gun, little to no defense — would, I think, lose to the '66ers because the '66ers would probably shut them down defensively. The Panthers of 2015-16 would also give both the earlier teams trouble on defense.
A GAME between the Panthers of 1966 and the Panthers of 1981 would be interesting, but I think '66 would win because they were big, strong, tough kids. '81ers, except for Tolman, would have been out-toughed by the '66ers. The 2016 kids were tough and fast, but tough and fast doesn't put the ball through the ring.
I'M TRYING to think back, trying to remember the best players I've seen in the County, and I always come back to the Oropeza brothers of Point Arena. I saw them play a couple of games I thought were flawless. Those two guys were right up there with Yewgene and Kelvin Chapman.
Anderson Valley basketball historian, Clow, comments: Thinking back on your comment about the best players to come out of Mendoland, have to say the first that come to mind are, indeed, The Flying Oropeza Brothers. It often seemed like there were ten of them on the court, all with a basketball and all going in a different direction in a hurry. I knew Kelvin somewhat back in the 70’s through a friend/co-worker of mine at the bank in Cloverdale. The six of us (males and females) went to one of Boz Scaggs’ 1975 New Years concerts at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, complete with a 50-member symphonic orchestra backing up the Texas bluesman and his rock-solid band. He was quite a fun member to have in the traveling party, shall we say.
A name that might not come up too often, if at all, among the best Mendo players, is one from Ukiah, Jim Cobb, a black kid from Indianapolis, and you might guess where this is going, a conscript of Peoples’ Temple. His two sisters were part of the group that came to AVHS my senior year, 1967-68, but he stayed at Ukiah to play basketball and baseball as a senior himself and did quite well. Jim was a terrific guy who used to come over to our school once in a while, and helped stage two variety shows we had in the spring of 1968. He and several of the Peoples Temple students were great Moto-type singers, and for some reason Jones actually let them engage in their music and dance routines. His sister Ava, a year behind me, became a really close friend of mine that year. She had a great sense of humor and we just had a lot of fun. I saw her in Ukiah a handful of times after graduation and she always seemed thrilled to see a friend from AV, like it was a world she would love to go back, and small wonder why. Always a big hug and a kiss. Jones would have killed her right then and there had he been within spying distance. Wouldn’t have waited for Guyana.
Of course, at school here in Boonville there was an invisible but very obviously present “wall” the the Peoples Temple kids couldn’t cross socially, and it was clear to some of us they dreaded the ride back over the hill to Redwood Valley every day after classes. Jim, who became a dentist in the Bay Area, and Ava and other family members, had long since left the cult and were instrumental in getting the investigations into the Jonestown, and in fact Jim was there in Georgetown in 1978 when it all went down. He and several others had trekked near to the site, and hiked out over the hills in the dead of night after the attack at the airport. Several members of the Anderson Valley contingent died there, including two ladies from my class.
I’ve thought about this off and on for years, and keep going back and forth, but I think you’re right, that 66-67 team would likely have beat the 81-82 edition. We didn’t have a dominating Jerry Tolman, and didn’t have many really easy wins, but the team was more consistent and played more as a unit out of necessity and temperament. The league competition was pretty tough in the 60s. Defense was paramount, and it was a few years before The Boonville Disease had arisen. Unlike the 81-82 team, which had the second of three unbeaten league championships, however, 67-68 was a singular year. We came in second in league play the year before to unbeaten Potter Valley and second behind unbeaten Point Arena the following year. That one first place league tie with the Pirates was the best we could do. Yew-Gene was on the All-Tournament team at the first Rose City Tournament at Cardinal Newman.
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Redwood Classic: It’s Showtime in Boonville
by Eric Wittmershaus
Boonville, November 2001 — When you grow up in a small town, you get used to traveling to the rest of the world’s activities. Car trips to relatives’ houses or youth sports events can feel like an epic journey.
For students at Anderson Valley High, the annual Redwood Classic basketball tournament flips the script, bringing in 15 small-school teams from as far away as Tulelake in Siskiyou County to compete in what the school bills as “the biggest little basketball tournament in the world.”
The Redwood Classic, which Anderson Valley has held every year since 1954, got under way Wednesday with four games featuring North Coast schools. First-round action continued Thursday with schools from more distant locales.
Longtime Anderson Valley athletic director Robert Pinoli, who puts together the tournament with help from his students, said the Panthers relish their role as host of one of the nonleague season’s biggest tournaments.
“The kids love it because they get to see so many kids from different places … especially when we had a few teams from out of state,” he said.
Started in 1958 as a showcase for Anderson Valley’s new gymnasium, the Redwood Classic has, in years past, brought in schools from as far away as South Carolina. Every school this year is a returnee from last season’s tournament.
“We have a waiting list of schools that would like to be in our tournament,” Pinoli said.
The Redwood Classic is a huge event in Boonville. Until about 2005, residents of the town even helped house the teams that came from far away.
These days, “everybody stays in motels in Ukiah,” Pinoli said. “We used to house everyone from all the teams, but it got harder.”
Scorekeeper Debbi Sanchez attended the first Redwood Classic in 1958.
“I watched them build this gym,” she said between games Wednesday. “It was built when I was 3 years old.”
Sanchez started to keep score when her oldest son played basketball in elementary school, and became the Panthers’ scorekeeper when he got older. She said she would keep score for “pretty much all” of this year’s games.
“I don’t do those two early morning ones on Friday or Saturday,” she said.
Her earliest memories of the tournament are of “this gymnasium being packed.”
The love from students and community extends to the Redwood Classic’s robust, 102-page program, which features ads from local businesses, a bracket, profiles of every team and a thorough tournament history. The program includes career record holders, each year’s all-tournament teams and a synopsis of each Redwood Classic.
Student editors Garrett Mezzanatto and Kristen Andersen, both seniors, have worked hard to ensure that an out-of-towner could stop at the high school, spend $10 on a ticket and program and, with a couple minutes of reading, have plenty of context to appreciate the game in front of them.
Mezzanatto would have been playing in the Redwood Classic himself, but turned his focus to helping organize the tournament after sustaining a devastating knee injury during football season. Freshmen Mayte Guerrero and Marisol Jimenez handled advertising and sales and served as “trainees” for next year, Pinoli said. Guerrero designed the program’s cover.
The students’ can-do spirit is reflected in the substantial support the Redwood Classic receives, as shown by the many sponsorship banners hanging in the festively decorated gym, as well as in the 22 pages of advertisements inside the program. Businesses ranging from the Anderson Valley Advertiser newspaper to Sheep Dung Properties, which rents cottages to out-of-towners, chip in to support the tournament.
“We get a lot of community support, a lot of sponsorships that help put this thing on,” Pinoli said.
Pinoli said that Pinewood and Stuart Hall came into the tournament as the leading contenders. Pinewood, from Los Altos Hills, features three seniors who are 6-foot-4 or taller as it looks to defend its title from last year. (Branson, from the Marin County town of Ross, won 10 of the previous 11 tournaments.)
The host Panthers dropped their opening game, 75-22, to Marin Academy late Wednesday night. Pinoli said the program is seeking to bounce back from losing two of its big men. Mezzanatto is out because of his injury, and Anderson Valley lost another student who transferred.
“We’re pretty small, but … they will just not give up,” Pinoli said of the Panthers, who went on a 16-0 run to earn a come-from-behind win over Calistoga earlier this season.