New book celebrates the Avon Grove basketball team that won a state championship in 1970
By Steven Hoffman
Forty-five years ago, the Avon Grove High School boys' basketball team made history by becoming the first team from Chester County to win a Pennsylvania State Championship in the sport. A new book by R. Scott Steele recalls that magical championship season and celebrates the accomplishments of the players and coaches on the team.
Steele began work on “Champions in Every Sense of the Word” in December of 2014, and finished the project in less than a year.
“I wanted to write this book because it's a great local sports story,” Steele explained during an interview in late November. “I also wanted to write it because this was a part of my high school experience. As an eighth-grader, I was walking the same school halls as the players on the team. I went to many of the games. It was time to put their story in print.”
Steele writes in the book's introduction that the basketball team's coach, Bill Miller, a health and physical education teacher, had a talented starting lineup for the 1969-1970 season, but those starters were supported by bench players who delivered at key moments throughout the season. The starting lineup included a front court of junior center Jerry DuVall and forwards Garry White and Barry White. The Whites, twin brothers, were both seniors that year. The back court was comprised of a pair of senior guards, Mike Ferron and Allen Boddy. When Miller looked to the bench, there were seniors Tom Lamborn, Fred Gebhart, and Austin Maxwell, and juniors Barry Frank, Ken Brown, and Bucky Brown.
Steele interviewed many people, including all five starters, as he was doing his research for the book. Four of the five starters still live locally, while Steele talked to Ferron, now a Texas resident, by telephone.
According to Steele, Coach Miller and the staff likely knew going into the 1969-1970 campaign that a special season was in the offing. The Whites were extremely good athletes, and there was talent and experience throughout the lineup. As an eighth-grader in a high school for students in seventh through twelfth grades, Steele remembers that there was a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the team.
“I remember that the games were packed from the very beginning of the season,” he explained. “The community was very supportive of the team. It was a really important local sports story.”
Steele was able to find box scores, statistics, and game recaps from local newspapers as he was doing his research, and included much of that information in the book. Information about some of the early-season games was difficult to find, Steele said, but as the season progressed and the Avon Grove team's reputation grew, so did the news coverage.
The basketball teams in the Southern Chester County League had always had a hard time competing against the larger schools in the state. One thing that made the 1969-1970 Avon Grove team special was that the players had grown up playing together on Avon Grove Recreation League squads and on basketball courts in the community. By the time the 1969-1970 season rolled around, they functioned like a well-oiled machine from the onset.
In non-league action against Springfield, Avon Grove thrilled the crowd with a 78-63 win in the home-opener. Ferron led the scoring with 21 points, and all five starters reached double-digits in points. As non-league action continued, they won by 42 points over Clifton Heights and by 48 points over a Solanco squad.
Miller, who started coaching at Avon Grove in 1959, accepted an invitation for his team to participate in a Christmas tournament, the Lititz Jaycees Seventh Annual Holiday Basketball Tournament, which took place over two days, Dec. 29 and Dec. 30, at Warwick High School. Avon Grove topped Warwick High School, 92-54, on day one, and then bested the Elizabethtown Bears, 81-59, to take home the tournament trophy. Garry White scored 24 points against Warwick, and added 16 rebounds in the win over Elizabethtown. He was named the MVP of the tournament. Avon Grove finished non-league play with an 8-0 record.
Avon Grove played Kennett on Jan. 6, 1970 to start the Southern Chester County League games. Garry White scored 31 points and Ferron added 24 points as the team topped Kennett, 103-58. Next came an 87-48 victory over Unionville. As the season progressed, Avon Grove continued to score double-digit victories each time out. By the time they concluded the regular season schedule with a 70-43 win over Oxford on Feb. 13, the team's record was 18-0. Through those 18 games, Avon Grove scored 1,474 points, an average of 82 points per game on the way to a Southern Chester County League Championship. Their opponents scored 886 points, an average of 49 points per game.
As the PIAA District 1 playoffs got underway, Avon Grove would play its next three games in the historic Palestra in Philadelphia, the scene of a 1,001 classic moments in the history of basketball. Playing on a bigger stage did not seem to phase Avon Grove at all as the team opened up the playoffs with a 68-44 win over Upper Perkiomen.
Next came a game against Darby Colwyn in front of more than 5,000 fans at the Palestra. Darby Colwyn opened the game with an 8-0 run. Avon Grove still trailed, 19-9, at the end of the first quarter, but they started to make up some of that ground in the second quarter. Avon Grove made some defensive adjustments to start the second half, and they were able to go on a 26-9 run. Frank played a key role in the comeback, contributing 12 points off the bench. Garry White led all scorers with 23 points, while Barry White added 16. DuVall scored 11 points. Avon Grove powered past Darby Colwyn, 74-61.
Next up was a contest against the Bulldogs of Nether Providence with the District 1 Class B title on the line. Avon Grove controlled the game right from the start, jumping out to an 18-8 lead after one quarter. Avon Grove continued to push hard in pursuit of the district crown. DuVall led all scorers with 17 points, and Boddy added 8 points as Avon Grove won, 70-56.
On March 10, 1970, Avon Grove met Camp Hill in a battle of the last two unbeaten teams in the PIAA championship race. Avon Grove trailed by three points after three quarters, but then Avon Grove's offense exploded for 28 points in the fourth quarter. The final score was 75-61, with Ferron leading the way with 21 points. Boddy added 19 points. The victory, Avon Grove's 22nd on the season, set up a clash with Shenandoah Valley in the Eastern Semifinals of the PIAA Tournament.
Against Shenandoah Valley, Avon Grove jumped out to a 10-point lead, 23-13, at the end of the first quarter, and never looked back. Avon Grove won 78-61.
The team was one step closer to a state championship, but standing in the way was a powerhouse Mansfield squad from Tioga County that was led by Tom McMillen, a six-foot-eleven center who was averaging 47 points per game. Mansfield was the defending state champions, and McMillen had broken numerous state scoring records. In February of 1970, he had even been featured in a cover story in Sports Illustrated under the banner headline, “Best High School Player in America.”
Steele explained that basketball observers at that time lamented the fact that the upstart Avon Grove team's dream season was destined to come to a nightmarish end against Mansfield on Tuesday, March 17, 1970.
Avon Grove scored the first four points of the game on baskets by Boddy and Ferron. But soon, McMillen was dominating the game. He scored 17 of his team's 21 points in the first quarter. In the second quarter, McMillen matched his effort and, incredibly, scored 17 more points, giving him 34 points at the break as Mansfield stormed out to a 48-33 lead. Steele noted in his book that the Mansfield team was so certain of the victory that they only went into the locker room for a minute to discuss second-half strategies. Getting the ball in McMillen's hands was working just fine so far.
Miller, however, was hard at work discussing changes to the game plan with the Avon Grove squad.
“All the players remembered him using a magnetic board with these green and red moving pieces to illustrate what he was talking about,” Steele explained.
To start the second half, Miller directed Garry White to keep himself between McMillen and the basket. Barry White, Tom Lamborn, and Ken Brown were all assigned the duty of taking turns supporting Garry White in the effort to guard the center. The Mansfield guards suddenly weren't able to get the ball to McMillen. The halftime adjustments paid almost immediate dividends when Ferron knocked down three straight jump shuts to slice into Manfield's lead. In less than three minutes, Avon Grove cut the lead in half.
“The first couple of minutes of the second half are really memorable,” Steele explained. “When you started to see that the Whites were going to be able to contain McMillen, as a fan, you really remember that moment.”
McMillen only scored twice in the third quarter, and Avon Grove trailed by just six as the game moved to the fourth quarter.
Avon Grove continued its surge. DuVall tied the game from the free throw line with 4:36 to play. A jump shot by Ferron gave Avon Grove its first lead of the game with about four minutes to play. Mansfield got hurt by two crucial traveling calls in the final moments of the game. McMillen finished with 40 points, but just six of them came in the final two quarters as Avon Grove staged an amazing comeback for a 66-63 win.
In the state championship game on March 20, 1970, Avon Grove took on the Mohawk High School squad from Lawrence County at the Hershey Farm Show Arena. The Mohawk team was an extremely fast one, and Miller realized that his team couldn't rely on man-to-man defense. They switched to a zone defense and in the third quarter Avon Grove went on a 14-2 run. Avon Grove held a 51-39 lead at the end of three quarters, and even though Mohawk made a brief push early in the fourth quarter, Avon Grove closed out the victory, 73-50. Avon Grove's record stood at 25-0. They were the state champions.
When the team got back to the area, there was a two-mile long parade of fire trucks and cars waiting to greet them at the intersection of Route 30 and Route 41 for the victorious ride back to the high school.
Had the Avon Grove team not won the state championship that year, it would have still been a remarkable season. Including the playoffs, Avon Grove averaged 79 points per game, while holding opponents to just 51 points. Steele noted that this was at a time when there was no three-point play from the field, and no shot clock—so points were earned the old-fashioned way, one basket at a time. Winning the state title was a fitting conclusion to a dream season.
“To be the first team in Chester County to win a state championship in basketball was really a special milestone for the team and for the Avon Grove community” Steele explained.
The players earned numerous accolades as a result of their performances during the memorable season.
Garry White was named as a first-team all-state player. Ferron earned fourth-team all-state honors. Several of the players on the team went on to play at the collegiate level.
Steele said that as he was doing the research for the book, he was impressed by how much information had been collected about the team. The Chester County Historical Society was a good source for stories that appeared in the newspaper about the team, but Steele also relied on material from West Grove residents or other Avon Grove High School students from that era. Chuck Freese had a clip file of newspaper articles. Thomas Newill, a retired teacher from Avon Grove, had a three-inch thick binder filled with clippings about the team. Paula DuVall Lucas had photos and other materials. Jerry DuVall had some game tapes that Steele was able to have converted into DVDs so that he could actually see the team in action.
The accomplishments of the state championship team still live on. The 25-0 record is still the best in school history. In November, the Avon Grove team was inducted into the Chester County Sports Hall of Fame.
The most memorable part of the writing project for Steele was talking to the players about their memories and being able to write about their accomplishments. The 1969-1970 team embodies so much of what people love about sports. Steele said that the players all told him that they won that year because they had played as a team. None of them will forget what they accomplished together—and neither will those people who were there to see it.
“You see their interactions, and they still have a lot of respect for each other,” said Steele. “You really feel that to this day.”
R. Scott Steele will be signing copies of his book, “Champions in Every Sense of the Word,” at the West Grove Fire Company's meeting room in West Grove on Saturday, Dec. 12 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and at Rooted in New London on Sunday, Dec. 13 from 1 to 3 p.m.