Editor’s note — Among a variety of items from the former Marshall school on display at the Highland County Historical Society Pioneer Day in August was this account, written several years ago by late Marshall resident Bob Patton, about Marshall High School’s 1928 state championship boys basketball team. It tells the story of the only state championship team in Highland County history.
Visit the Marshall community any day and the prowess of some of Marshall High School’s unbeatable basketball teams of days gone by is certain to be brought to your attention.
This tranquil community has undergone many changes in recent years, but the perpetual pride in the exploits of its high school hoopsters still endures.
Quite naturally, the most talked about Marshall team is the great 1928 squad which captured the only state basketball championship in Highland County sports history. In fact, no other high school in this particular section of Ohio can boast of ever bringing home the championship trophy from Columbus.
Secrets abound about this legendary group of athletes who developed their game to near perfection. Some, like the stories of the fabulous Waterloo Wonders, have been stretched slightly out of proportion. But a great deal of research indicates that many of the stories do have some basis in fact.
It is, for example, a fact that in 1928 Marshall High School did not even have a gymnasium. All inside practices (when weather permitted the team practiced on outside courts) and home games were held at the Armory in Hillsboro. This facility was shared with Hillsboro High School which also lacked a gymnasium of its own. The Hillsboro boys practiced on Mondays and Wednesdays, while Marshall practiced on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Rumors have persisted throughout the intervening years that Marshall lads were often called upon to run the eight miles to Hillsboro to practice, while venerable coach Noah “Snag” Emery followed leisurely in his automobile.
Emery was indeed a remarkable coach. A stern taskmaster, he demanded (and usually got) perfect execution from his players. He was a great student of the game and always insisted on his players being in perfect physical condition. Disciplinarian though he was, he nonetheless had excellent rapport with his players, and never let an opportunity go by to publicly praise his young men, who performed so tirelessly under his direction.
A fact that is often overlooked is that Emery had led the Marshall team to the state tournament the year before in 1927. That fine squad, led by star forwards Edgar “Sporty” Post and Kenneth Dick, two of the most talented basketball players in the southern half of the state, advanced to the semifinals before being ousted by Kent State (High School), who went on to win the state championship.
Area hoop fans knew that the Red Flashes would be powerful again in 1928. Of the leading players on the 1927 team only Dick had been lost to graduation. But a controversy arose at the beginning of the 1928 season over Post’s age. Some old school records indicated that he was over the age limit, while his parents (and the attending physician at his birth) insisted that he was not. Nevertheless, the State Athletic Commission eventually ruled the star athlete ineligible for the 1928 season.
But towering center Lowell Smith was returning from the 1927 squad, as was little Joe Vanzant, a fine outside shooter, and as slick a ball handling and passing guard as area fans had ever seen. Vanzant was also a sterling defensive player who could more often than not take on the opponent’s best offensive player and hold him in check. Joining him at guard was little Lloyd Chestnut. Never a prolific scorer, Chestnut was lightning fast, a good ball handler and a skilled defensive player. It is said that he often had the opposing guards “talking to themselves” in frustration.
The forwards were Olin “Snipe” Brooks and Hubert McCoy. Brooks was a fine shooter. In today’s terminology he would be described as a “pure shooter”, demonstrating perfect form and finesse. McCoy was a rugged physical player who loved the head-to-head combat under the boards.
The sixth man was Kenneth Bumgarner, nicknamed “The Prophet”, for his uncanny knack of predicting the outcomes of the games in the 1928 district tournament (he often predicted the margin of victory as well). Bumgarner saw a great deal of action and always performed flawlessly when called upon. He was singled out for praise by Coach Emery after the state tournament. Emery told reporters that “Bumgarner was as important to this team as any of the starters.” He coached some of the excellent Marshall High School teams of the 1940s.
The Red Flashes were a notoriously slow starting team. More often than not they were bringing up the rear at the conclusion of the first quarter of play. They frequently still trailed their opponent at halftime. But their third and fourth quarter comebacks were legendary and they would usually be far ahead in the score when the final gun sounded.
Few people are aware that Marshall did not win the Highland County Tournament in 1928. The Red Flashes had split two hard fought games with bitter rival Leesburg during the season. When they got together for the third time, in the county tournament at Greenfield, area fans expected a battle-royal. They were not the least bit disappointed. It was a furious battle but when the smoke cleared, the Leesburg team had emerged victorious by a score of 25-20. Each county, however, sent two teams to the district tournament in Athens, so both Marshall and Leesburg packed their bags for the long trek to Athens and the 1928 Southeastern District Tournament.
Twenty-four teams were entered in the district tournament, and a large crowd was on hand Friday morning, March 9, 1928, when Marshall took the court against Hollister High School. The locals, representing one of the smallest high schools in the state, were attempting to accomplish a feat that had never been accomplished before, winning the Southeastern District Class B Tournament two years in a row. The Red Flashes would have to win five consecutive games at Athens to achieve their goal.
The Marshall lads quickly disposed of their first round opponent 28-21. But the Leesburg team saw its tournament hopes extinguished by Hemlock, as a Hemlock forward dropped on a last second shot to edge the Leesburgers 24-23.
The Red Flashes trounced Hemlock (27-14), Glouster (24-16) and Laurelville (19-13), to earn the right to meet the heralded Pomeroy team in the championship matchup.
In 1928, it was not uncommon for a team in the district or state tournament to play two (possibly even three) games in one day. The Marshall boys were understandably quite exhausted when game time finally arrived for the district championship contest. But Emery was a shrewd coach.
The Hillsboro News-Herald (March 15, 1928) reported that after gaining an early lead, the Marshall team went into a very deliberate game, almost a stall, thereby affording its tired players a brief opportunity to rest weary muscles. Each time Pomeroy would spread their defense to combat the semi-stall, McCoy, Brooks or Vanzant would slip inside for an easy basket.
When the game finally ended Coach Emery and his boys had captured another district crown (Marshall 27, Pomeroy 21) and the stage was set for a second attempt at bringing the big state championship trophy back to Highland County.
Olin Brooks and Lowell Smith were rewarded for their outstanding play by being named to the district All-Tournament team. Joe Vanzant was left off the team — a fact that rankled many Highland County rooters.
The following Friday, March 16, the Red Flashes took the floor in the big Fairgrounds Coliseum in Columbus. Hubert McCoy is said to have commented, when he first entered the huge structure, “Wow! Wouldn’t this place hold a hell of a lot of hay?” A goodly number of very vocal Highland County fans were on hand as the Marshall lads got ready to battle for the coveted class B state championship.
Their first round opponent in the 16-team meet was Castalia Margaretta of Erie County. The locals started slowly and trailed at the end of the first quarter. But they hit their stride in their second stanza, and were never headed, as they downed the Castalia squad 26-21. Smith led the Marshall attack with 10 points, while Brooks and McCoy chipped in with 8 each.
Next came the powerful Marysville team. Marysville had been the pre-tournament choice of most Columbus area journalists to take the title. But the Marshall boys were not impressed. They got off to their customary slow start and trailed the tall Marysville squad by a halftime score of 11-9. Coach Emery would later refer to Marysville as “the best team we have ever played.”
But the Red Flashes had not come this far only to go home empty handed. The News-Herald reported that the Marshall team “played the finest basketball they have ever showed” in the second half. A large contingent of stunned Marysville fans watched in horror as the Marshallites held their fine team to only two points in the entire second half, to win going away, 21-13. Smith, with 8 points, and Vanzant with 6, showed the way for Marshall. This big win propelled the Red Flashes into the championship game on Saturday night. The opposition would be Manchester of neighboring Adams County.
The Marshall squad had become the “Cinderella” team of the tournament, and after Marysville fell by the wayside, hundreds of Columbus area fans adopted the boys from Highland County, who had come to the big city wearing their big overalls and warmup jackets and won the hearts of the fans with their own special brand of basketball.
In the championship game the Red Flashes jumped out to an early lead and were never headed. They held a 12-6 lead at halftime, and still led by five big points with less than a minute remaining in the game when one of the Manchester guards connected on a long shot to cut the final margin to three (Marshall 20, Manchester 17).
The News-Herald reported that “the Marshall fans went wild with joy, and made plenty of noise.”
The two finalists, Marshall and Manchester, each had two players named to the All-State Tournament team. Lowell Smith and Joe Vanzant of Marshall, and Owen Tucker and John “Toad” Kemmeter of Manchester.
All of Highland County joined in the celebration when the triumphant band of weary high school athletes returned to the Southern Ohio hills with the coveted silver cup, which signified the best class B basketball team in the state. According to the March 22, 1928 News-Herald, “there are over 1,000 teams in class B, in Ohio. It is really some accomplishment to be the best team in 1,000, and that is what the Marshall lads proved to be in the competition.”
The local boys had been the class of the 24 teams in the district tournament in Athens. They had been the class of the 16 teams in the state tournament in Columbus; indeed, they were the class of the whole state of Ohio.
On Monday night, March 26, the Hillsboro Businessmen’s Association honored the team and its coach at its monthly dinner meeting. Mr. L.C. Boles, basketball coach at Wooster College, was speaker of the evening.
On Friday, April 6, several hundred people attended a testimonial banquet for the members of the team, given by the men and women of the Marshall community. Following a fine chicken dinner, Captain Lowell Smith was called upon to introduce all the members of the team. As each boy arose he was given thundering applause. Thurman “Dusty” Miller, who grew up near Marshall, gave one of his most eloquent speeches. The program lasted well into the night.
A total of $117 had been raised through donations from the local citizenry and was presented to Coach “Snag” Emery in appreciation of the outstanding coaching and leadership. In 1928, this may have been the equivalent of a month’s pay.
Emery was a humble man, who discounted his own contribution to the effort, instead heaping the praise on the young men who had sacrificed so much for this dream, and had seen their efforts pay off so handsomely.
Kroger Babb, sportswriter of the Wilmington News-Journal, wrote a column in March of 1928, in which he praised the Marshall coach: “At one time this past winter, I was privileged to referee a game for Marshall. Snag’s only comments before the game were, “We’ve never seen you call a game, but, whatever your style, it will be satisfactory with my boys and me. Just be sure that the other team is perfectly satisfied. Don’t permit any rough stuff, and throw them out if they swear.”
A little known fact, even among Marshall’s faithful, is that the 1929 edition of the Red Flashes, who were not expected by anyone to exhibit the power of their famous predecessors, came amazingly close to pulling off the impossible.
The tiny Highland County school had graduated two first team All-Staters. How could they overcome such a loss? But without Smith and Vanzant in the lineup, Chestnut and Brooks became more dominant players and Bumgarner’s play became even more steady and spectacular. Big John Clymer moved into the Marshall School District and took up some of the slack left by the loss of Smith. The Flashes were off and rolling again.
They swept to the Highland County Tournament championship at Greenfield and reeled off three consecutive impressive wins at Athens before being sidelined by Pomeroy in the semi-final round. Pomeroy went on to win the tournament, and with it, the coveted trip to the state tournament.
Had the Marshall boys been able to get past Pomeroy they very likely would have won an unbelievable third straight district title. But this time it was not to be.
The phenomenal successes of the 1927, 1928 and 1929 Red Flashes quickly inspired the Marshall community to begin construction of a new gymnasium. The Marshall High School Gymnasium was completed in 1931. Small by today’s standards, it was in its day the finest facility in the area. If a gymnasium could talk, this one would have some wonderful stories to tell. It has seen many a hard fought game, many a county championship and a few district champions. It has seen many a fight, a few real brawls — and precious few losing teams. Even in the”off years” Marshall teams were always next to impossible to beat at home.
It has now been nearly 60 years since the glorious era. Coach “Snag” Emery has departed this earth, as have star players Lloyd Chestnut, Hubert McCoy, Joe Vanzant and Lowell Smith. Olin Brooks is still living in Florida. Kenneth Bumgarner still resides in the Marshall community. A few of the backup players still live in various sections of Ohio.
The 1928 State Tournament has been played over at least a thousand times by the older folks of the stoic community, sitting around a pot-bellied stove at Kelley’s Store in Marshall. But many of them are gone now, as is the store. One has the feeling that those of us who were born too late to actually recall those exciting days have missed out on a great experience. Halley’s Comet has returned. But the Red Flashes are gone forever.
Bob Patton, a 1952 Marshall High School graduate and longtime educator, passed away June 24, 2017.