Before the consolidation of all Clinton County schools in the 1950s and 1960s, as many as 16 township schools dominated the winter basketball sports pages.
If you are a Clinton County native, about this time of the year, you were beginning to look ahead to the major county event of the year, the county basketball tournament.
I arrived in the county around 1956 and knew nothing about the frenzy that surrounded this until I saw the huge crowds gathering at the Wilmington College gym, Whittier Place. Lines formed in mid afternoon to see the tournament games.
But the tournament was fought all season long, in the barber shops, restaurants, churches, the county fair and wherever people gathered. Great rivalries existed, and the games played were fierce. Many outstanding players emerged year after year, and upsets were replayed in conversations long after the game ended.
How intense was county basketball back then? I coached the Sabina Junior High School team in 1959-60. That year the junior high tournament was played at Sabina. When I arrived at the school for the first series of tournament games, the line to the door in the gym was about 50 yards long. I thought, it is just a junior high game. But even at that stage, the basketball fever was sky high. And, by the way, my Sabina team won the tournament that year.
Kingman beat Blanchester, 27-20, in 1916 to win the very first Clinton County high school tournament. The crowds grew so large in the 1950s that the tournament was moved to Xenia field house. With consolidation closing in, the tournament came to a close in the early ’60s with Simon Kenton and Sabina playing some of the greatest basketball games ever seen in the county.
Phil Snow, who played on my junior high team, led a powerful Sabina team against Bobby and Butch Hooper on a just as strong Kenton team. The games went down to the final seconds before one or the other team scratched out a victory. If you are old enough to have seen one of these battles, you may have witnessed the best basketball to ever have been played in Clinton County.
Today I am just as sure players are playing just as hard. They are playing in gyms that were never dreamed of back in the county league days. Adams played in the Township Hall. Sabina played for years on the second floor of the city hall. New Vienna played in “the pit” where many fans struggled to secure a place looking in a window in all kinds of weather.
Most of the county gyms back then were not much bigger than the locker rooms of today. But the basketball games are still talked about by the generation that played and witnessed those battles.
My wife was a cheerleader for New Vienna in the late 1950s. When I bring up that era and the players who participated, I still see a sparkle in her eyes. It was certainly a different and very exciting time.
And if you were a fan, no amount of snow, wind, rain, or whatever would keep you away from that gym on game night. It was told that at the college gym during tournament games, several fans actually sat on the beams above the floor. Certainly a great time to have been alive.
Tony Lamke is a former coach. He has researched the history of Clinton County sports and writes a periodic column for the News Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.