By Rob Kiser
Call Sports Editor
It was a different time in Piqua.
Fifty years ago, a basketball season that had been in the making for some time at Piqua Catholic was about to provide a wonderful diversion to a City, who like the country, was dealing with JFK assignation and about to become part of the Vietnam War —and provide a season on the local level that packed the entertainment value of the recent “Beatles” invasion.”
Late in 1963, coach Bob Denari and his squad was about to begin a season that wouldn’t end until the Cavaliers had advanced to the state tournament — the only team in the school’s history that would accomplish that feat.
And while it may have come as a surprise to those outside the program, the Cavaliers and their coach knew what the possibilities were.
“Coach Denari knew he was taking over a pretty talent group of guys,” Piqua Catholic guard Dick Caulfield said. “We had won the City title in sixth grade and won the CYO title. We had been playing together for a number of years.”
Guard Mike Jacomet put it even more clearly.
“We had been playing together since probably the fourth grade and it was time for us to finally do something,” he said.
Denari didn’t deny he made it clear what he expected from the squad heading into the season.
“I told the guys before the season to set their goals high,” Denari said. “They had been playing together for a long time and we knew we had a pretty good team.”
And the regular season showed the promise of what lied ahead, with the Cavaliers going 15-3.
The only losses were to Dayton Meadowdale, Sidney Holy Angels and Celina ICHS.
The Cavaliers were led by three future D-I basketball players.
The late John “Red” Debrosse would have to be considered a driving force on the team.
The 5-10 guard, who along with 6-foot-5 center Dave “Pony” Bornhorst, would go on to play for the Citadel.
In an era well before the 3-point shot, DeBrosse scored a school record 1,454 points and averaged 23.2 points per game.
Hayes, who was 6-3 and known as a walking pogo stick because of his jumping ability, stood 6-3 and recorded a school record with 24 rebounds in one game.
But, a bump in the road came during the season when Denari received a letter from the OHSAA saying Piqua Catholic and Sidney Holy Angels would not be participating in postseason play.
“We had always played in the exempt tournament with Bradford, Covington and Holy Angels and two teams moved on to the district tournament,” Denari said. “All of a sudden we (Piqua Catholic and Holy Angels) get a letter from the OHSAA saying we are not in the tournament. I sent them a letter to ask what was going on.”
They were given three options, one of which Denari was not going to let happen.
“So, they gave us three choices,” Denari said. “We could flip a coin, play best of three or play one game and the winner would move on. I got with the Holy Angels coach Joe Benatta and said we don’t want this decided by a flip of a coin.
So, we rented out the Covington gym.
We probably played them 15 times in our four years, it was a huge rivalry.”
And they all knew they were in for a battle — having split the two games with Holy Angels during the season.
“I think that (the team’s closeness) did help us (in the tough games),” Caulfield said. “We had to play Sidney Holy Angels just to get in the tournament and they were our biggest rivals. They were really good that year too.”
So, arguably two of the top teams played an elimination game just to get into the tournament and it went right to the wire, with Piqua Catholic winning 56-55.
“Holy Angels was our big rival and hadn’t been us once that year,” Jacomet said. “That was a tough game and we were able to win by two points and move on.”
It all came down to a play by Hayes with Piqua Catholic trailing 55-54.
“I still remember the score was tied and that guy (pointing at Jim Hayes) took the ball in and dunked in to win a game,” Denari said during a recent team reunion.
Hayes will never forget that moment either.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Hayes said. “I was standing at the foul line and a guy from Sidney Holy Angels was right behind me. Someone had intercepted the ball and threw it to me. I made a move to the basket and went for the shot.
“The guy from Holy Angels came within inches of blocking the shot. It was really close. He may have even gotten a finger on it. Anyway, it went in and there was about 20 seconds to go and Holy Angels came down and missed and we moved on.
“They were a really good team. We were the two best teams. I have always thought about how they must have felt — because they had a really good team.”
He also remembers how much DeBrosse savored that victory.
“I think the rivalry meant more to John (DeBrosse) than anybody,” Hayes said. “I think he enjoyed beating them in a close game more. He came up to me after the game and said, Jim how did you do that. And I told him it was close, they almost blocked it. He was so happy after that game.”
And while all the tournament wins that followed were big, the most memorable may be the regional semifinal against Columbus University school.
“The Columbus University win was probably even bigger than I remember it being at the time,” Jacomet said. “They had won 22 in a row. They were ranked first in the state. They were big and athletic.”
And were intimidating — even in warmups.
“They came out and had seven guys dunking the ball in warmups,” Jacomet said. “We only had one guy that could dunk. Coach told us, don’t watch them warming up. We could have been intimidated, but we weren’t.”
Piqua Catholic won 62-58 and followed it with a 60-50 win over Lockland in the regional final to earn the trip to Columbus.
“I remember it seemed like everyone was at the square in town after we won the regional final,” Jacomet said. “And all the telegrams coach received when we were in Columbus, that was amazing.”
The Cavalier faced Celina ICHS, a team that had beat them 84-57 during the season.
The results were similar again, this time by a 64-36 score to end the season at 21-4.
“Of course, things didn’t go to well for us in Columbus,” Denari said. “But, I would say 21-4 and the state semifinals is a pretty good accomplishment. Nobody expected us (to make it to Columbus). It was that way the whole tournament.”
Except for the coach and 12 guys that mattered — which led to the March when all of Piqua was a Cavalier fan.