Honoring the greats: Lions add to title listBy Rich Rhoades
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
1971 C-L LIONS CCL CHAMPS Ñ Kneeling, from left, are Rick Johnson, Randy Leadbetter, Rick Simpson, Bob Larson and Don Walters. Second row: Head coach Rich Stanczak, Randy Neill, Dave Neiswonger, Joe Klepfer, Bill Fink, Fred Fleming, Jack Raybuck, Bill Larson, Rich Caldwell and Marty Reynolds. (C-L Yearbook photo)
Clarion-Limestone Lions head coach Joe Ferguson tried his best to be nostalgic when talking about the school's last conference championship.
1971 indeed is a long time ago, like 41 years. That's when the Lions last won a conference title. Back then, it was called the Clarion County League.
Ferguson didn't score a point for the Rich Stanczak-coached Lions that year since he was a full-time junior varsity player as a sophomore. But he did remember what keyed that Lions team to a title in one of Western Pennsylvania's top small-school leagues at that time.
"The thing that sticks in my mind were the (Bob and Bill) Larson twins, Rich Caldwell was a tremendous leaper, guys like Rick Simpson and Randy Leadbetter, we had a really big team and inside presence. It was a nice blend of players, similar to what we have this year."
The Larsons, at 6-foot-3, were formidable as Bob led the county in scoring at 24.1 points while pulling down 13.5 rebounds per game and shooting 56.2 percent from the field. He was the second Lion to reach 1,000 career points and his 1,101 rank him fifth on the team's honor roll.
Leadbetter put in 16.7 points per game while Simpson, the team's point guard, scored 13.5 points per game. Caldwell was the fourth Lion to score in double figures at 10.3 points per game. Bill Larson came off the bench and scored 7.4 points per game. Joe Klepfer (6.2 ppg.) and Randy Neill (5.2 ppg.) were also key players on a team that scored a whopping 83.3 points per game during the regular season.
The Lions then played their home games on a much smaller court that was located where the current auditorium is.
"That was one of our biggest drawbacks, us playing on that small floor," Ferguson said. "It was a plus with a big team, but when we went to other schools, we weren't used to the big floor and that was a tough adjustment."
But the Lions prevailed in the rugged CCL with a 15-3 record. Perennial power Union dropped C-L twice, but couldn't contend. The Lions' other league loss came to second-place A-C Valley in their regular-season finale with the CCL title already secured.
In the playoffs back then, teams had to earn a spot rather than elect to go and by virtue of winning the CCL, the Lions opened with the Allegheny Mountain League's Brockway Rovers in the then-Class B playoffs.
Simpson led the way, scoring 21 points and helping pick up the slack for Bob Larson, who scored 16 points despite sitting out some minutes in foul trouble. Larson's putback and three-point play with 1:54 left in the game put the Lions up 61-54, but the Rovers got back to within 61-60 before Larson and Leadbetter each hit two free throws the rest of the way to set the final.
C-L's season would come to a screeching halt in the finals against North Tier League power Cameron County. Led by Bill Leonard's 27 points, the Red Raiders prevailed 84-57 and ended the Lions' season at 20-4. It was the second of four straight Class B titles for Cameron County.
Ten years earlier in 1961, the Lions won the CCL and went on to capture the team's lone District 9 title. Head coach Ed Metcalf's Lions finished 24-4 and stakes claim as the winningest season in team history.
That Lions squad was led by the team's all-time leading scorer Don Rhoades, who averaged over 20 points per game. Rhoades, then a junior, went on to finish with over 1,300 career points, a remarkable total for that era without the 3-point line and varsity rosters without freshmen.
The Lions had to beat Union in a league playoff tiebreaker game at Redbank Valley after the teams split their league games. C-L prevailed, 64-58, to advance to the district's Class C playoffs. In the semifinals at St. Marys, the Lions beat Victory Joint, 53-48, to get Sheffield in the finals. It took overtime, but the Lions outlasted the Wolverines, 63-61, to advance to the state playoffs.
The Lions met District 10 champion Commodore Perry and lost a 64-60 overtime heartbreaker.
C-L's first conference title came in 1955. The 19-3 Lions were led that year by all-conference players Bill Hileman, Stan Stahlman and Don Fink. Hileman led the team in scoring at 15.2 points per game.
The Lions' lone league loss in the eight-team circuit came to arch-rival Clarion, so a 13-1 league record. That got them into the District 9 Class B playoffs and Karns City in the championship game. The Gremlins sent the Lions home with a 64-49 win.
Two other C-L teams that did not win district titles won state playoff games.
In 1976, the Lions were edged by Moniteau for the Clarion County League title, but the Lions still went to the Class A playoffs and met DuBois Central Catholic and its all-state star Pat Felix.
In a game for the ages, the Lions, still under the tutelage of coach Stanczak, lost in overtime, 66-62. Felix scored 38 points, including the game-tying shot on a 20-footer just before the final buzzer to force OT.
C-L rebounded with a 63-62 win over Otto-Eldred in the consolation game to earn a trip to the expanded state playoff tournament. Center Steve Booth scored 24 points.
The Lions then won their first-ever state playoff game with a 52-46 in over District 6 champion Juniata Valley at Altoona as Booth and Jim Towse scored 19 and 12 points respectively. Then the Lions won again against District 5 champion at Altoona, 66-49, as Booth poured in 32 points and Mike Smith chipped in with 11 points.
Since the tournament format back then sent four teams to Hershey for the finals, the Lions needed one more win to earn a trip to Chocolatetown. That didn't happen as St. John Uniontown beat the Lions, 83-67. Towse and Booth and Stewart scored, 18, 17 and 15 points, but the Nesser brothers, Vince and Steve, of St. John proved to be too much too handle as they combined for 31 points. C-L's season ended at 21-6.
At Hershey in the semifinals, St. John would end DuBois Central Catholic's run at a title with a 76-68 decision. DCC would then win the consolation game over Weatherly of District 11, 52-49.
Booth's 609 points (22.5 ppg.) established a single-season record for the Lions.
Then in 2001-02, head coach Todd Smith's Lions also finished third in the district and won their state playoff opener against West Middlesex before falling to Monessen in the second round.
The Lions finished 23-6, ranking second on the team's single-season win honor roll. That team was led by seniors J.J. Ferguson and Dan Alderton, who both went over 1,000 career points that season. Ferguson's 1,275 points rank second while Alderton is sixth with 1,090 points.
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