COLUMN: Looking back with Ocean City’s 1955 state champs

By TOM WILLIAMS

Note: This column was originally written 15 years ago and appears here just as it was written then, even though some facts have changed. With the recent death of Frank Wickes it has new meaning. The column includes the comments of Wickes and another team member, Chick McDowell, who has also died since, plus Joe Kennedy and Phil Huber.

It was an era of Pop’s, the Boxwood and the Chatterbox. Ocean City had a bowling alley, a skating rink and pizza was pretty rare, not being served up on almost every corner.

For those who grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Ocean City, Joe Kennedy and Frank Wickes were legends. They were like Robin Roberts and Del Ennis, Chuck Bednarik and Paul Arizin. They were part of something that had never happened before.

Kennedy, Wickes, Chick McDowell, Phil Huber and the 1954-55 Ocean City High School boys basketball team won a state championship. It was the first for OCHS. Harry Hoff, Ted Ford, Nate Davis, Bernie Carter, Wayne Winner, Sam Foglio, George Loder, Mike Varano, Wayne Thompson, Tom Adams and Wayne Hudson were all part of the experience, an experience that captivated the entire community.

To those who have been around Raider sports the last two decades or so, that doesn’t seem like such a big deal. There have been 17 ultimate championships by the Raiders (counting South Jersey titles in football) during the last 21 years.

But in 1955, it was a brand new experience.

“We just played well together,” said Kennedy, who led the team in scoring (15.9 ppg), from the foul line (70.9 percent) and graduated with 798 career points, a new OCHS record. “(Coach) Dixie (Howell) only used six or seven players a game but the rest of the guys, the ones who didn’t play that much, really beat us up in practice. Our subs played us as tough as many of the teams we faced.”

Those Raiders were 21-1 and finished the season by winning 16 straight. They lost to Wildwood, 49-47, in January in sudden death. In that since discarded overtime format, the first team to score two points won the game.

They met Wildwood again and won by eight. The two teams finished tied for the Cape-Atlantic League title so they had a playoff game, won by the Raiders, 52-43.

The state Group One tournament started with a 73-44 win over Hammonton. Then, here came Wildwood for a fourth time.

“We were a balanced team,” said McDowell, a three-sport athlete who averaged 12.6 points per game, “but if there was one player who stood out a little from the rest of us it was Joe. He always seemed to make the clutch plays. He was the guy who made two free throws in the final seconds against Wildwood in our tournament game at Atlantic City High School that sent the game into overtime.”

“I remember that very well,” said Huber, a junior on the team who blossomed during the season from a junior varsity player into a starter in the state tournament. “It was tie and I fouled Wildwood’s George DelRossi with 11 seconds left. He made both shots to give them the lead. If Joe had missed one of those shots, I wanted to slip through the cracks in the floor.”

The pressure wasn’t over. The Raiders edged Riverside, 34-33, in the South Jersey final. After a comfortable win over Matawan in the state semifinal, Ocean City completed its march with a 58-56 overtime win over North Arlington in the state final in Elizabeth.

“North Arlington had two very good players,” remembered Wickes, who averaged 15.7 points a game and grabbed 387 rebounds that year, giving him 811 for his career – both still school records 50 years later. “But Dixie was good. He was very sound fundamentally and so were we. He was very positive, keeping us focused. When we won that game, it was bedlam.”

And the bedlam wasn’t over when they left the gym.

“I’ll never forget when the bus came into Somers Point on the way home from Elizabeth,” said McDowell. “At first, I thought there had been an accident. There were flashing lights, horns honking and cars everywhere. Then I realized they were there for us. They escorted us into Ocean City, put us in convertibles and drove us around town. We ended up back at the high school for a ceremony and threw Dixie into the pool. It was one of those memories that just sticks with you.”

This all happened just a few years after Dixie came to Ocean City and took over the program. “He was a great coach,” said Wickes, “but he also helped put together that great intramural program starting in fourth grade. We learned how to play and then, when the Somers Point guys came over, we had something.”

Kennedy, McDowell and Huber were living in Somers Point, which kept its students through the ninth grade, sending them to OCHS as sophomores.

“Bill Morrow, the chief of police, played a big role in promoting youth sports in Somers Point,” said Kennedy. “He helped get lots of leagues going and gave us plenty of opportunities. And Rev. Rinck was a big part, too. When he rebuilt the Grace Lutheran Church, he built a gym as part of it. They both had a lot to do with the success of the Somers Point athletes.”

Kennedy, McDowell and Huber were able to watch John Bruno’s team play this season in the new high school gym.

“I saw them play Mainland,” said Kennedy. “We would have gone to Mainland if we’d come along about seven years later. I was impressed with the kid from Mainland, the one with green shoes (Bill Care), but Ocean City still managed to win the game. It was strange and a little sad to see the empty lot across the street. Our school was a memorable building. But it just got old and they needed a new one.”

“Phil and I came and saw them play Hammonton,” said McDowell, whose niece, Muffin McDowell, teaches math at OCHS. “I remember the little point guard (Phil Schaffer) Ocean City had. He was unusually good, the way he moved the ball. Their new gym is nice. But I liked the old one better. For anybody who went to the old high school, its tough to see nothing there.”

“It’s a gorgeous school,” said Huber, who lives in Ocean City now. “And we really loved that they played Sweet Georgia Brown again this season. That song meant a lot to all of us and its great to see it as part of the experiences of these young kids.”

Wickes didn’t get to a game this year but he was part of a tour of the new school given to the Class of 1955 by ex-superintendent Donald Dearborn during a recent reunion. “Those two gyms were great,” he said. “I really like the school, it’s first rate. But I missed our old gym. That’s where we did everything. They gave us a piece of the old gym floor and I was glad to see the arch is still there, sitting all alone across the street.”

“It’s great to see the progress,” said Huber, “but we were lucky to grow up when we did. Everybody knew everybody in Ocean City. We had the Youth Center and life was much more simple.”

When they graduated, Kennedy was the No. 1 career scorer in OCHS history and Wickes (698) was No. 2. A few years later, Mike Fadden outscored them. And a few years after that, Ken Leary became the first 1,000-point scorer. Now, Kennedy is No. 18 and Wickes No. 30.

These men who made history 50 years ago have gone many different ways. Ford is in Washington, D.C. where he works in the diplomatic area. Hoff is in sales in Philadelphia. Davis is an attorney and former president of the Egg Harbor Township Board of Education. Winner is retired. Foglio is in real estate and many have handed him money in his part-time job as a Longport bridge toll collector. Loder worked in animal control for Upper Township. Varano is a Ph.D. and associate professor at Villanova. Thompson, a longtime Ocean City business man who went on to set a new school single-game scoring record his senior year, died within the past few years. Adams is a retired doctor living right across the street from Carey Stadium. Hudson is in sales in Florida.

Huber joined Thompson in their senior year to form one of the league’s top one-two punches. He served in the Army for two years and was about to accept a scholarship to Wesley Junior College. But a friend, Ray Spurlock, convinced him to attend barber college. He still works at his own shop in Somers Point.

McDowell was drafted into the Army and served in Germany. He eventually ended up at Trenton State College, where he played two years of football. He moved to Arizona and worked in the health industry as a public information officer before moving to Washington D.C. to work in the office of Senator Paul Fannin. Later he was an officer with the Cordis Corporation in Miami for 21 years until it was acquired by Johnson & Johnson. He now lives in both Miami and Asheville, North Carolina.

Kennedy, a longtime Ocean City lifeguard, played basketball at LaSalle. He went to the Villanova Law School for one year before joining the Navy for the GI Bill. He ended up serving 31 years, rising to the rank of Captain. He served in Viet Nam, Guam, Hawaii and all over the United States, including the Pentagon, where he testified before a Senate committee. Married to the former Lynne Cornwell, who graduated from OCHS four years after him, they have three children and seven grandchildren.

Wickes played basketball at the University of Delaware and later did a little coaching. But he was musically inclined, making the all-state band and chorus while at OCHS. He credits band director Paul Weil and vocal music director Helen Derrick for much of his development. And his mother, who was the organist at Holy Trinity Church and got him and his brother into the choir. He received his master’s degree from Michigan, directed high school bands to national awards and became band director at the University of Florida. He moved to LSU in 1980, where he is still director of bands, and has been named National Bandmaster of the Year and president of a number of band-related organizations. One of his three sons is a high school basketball coach in Virginia.

These guys all made significant contributions to society. They have gone all over the country, even the world. But, no matter what else they have accomplished, back in Ocean City they will always be the 1955 State Champs.

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