1954-55: The Saints Get Some Glory

St. Augustine felt better about itself, assuaging some of the long-standing frustration from thwarted attempts to secure a league affiliation.

The small, independent Catholic entity that opened its doors in 1922 enjoyed an in-your-face season and earned the first playoff berth in school history.

The hard way.

With community honchos in support and shrewd politicking by principal John Aherne, the Saints eventually would gain membership in the City Prep League, but as freelancers they faced more daunting challenges than the snooty public schools that continued to deny them.

Teams in leagues would be eligible for the playoffs as long as they finished first or second in the standings.

The Saints, with no league and little margin for error, were given a finite number by the CIF:  Lose no more than six games and get to play in the extended season.

Coach John Finan’s squad came through with a 17-6 regular-season record, but there were some nervous moments along the way.  A 53-38 loss in January to the San Diego State freshmen could have torpedoed its chances..

Although no official announcement was reported in San Diego newspapers, the CIF apparently didn’t consider the loss to the Frosh an official game, since it was not against a high school team.

Cunningham, guarded by Grossmont’s Lowell Raper, led Saints and area shooters in scoring.

Finan’s freelancers also helped themselves with a 6-1 finish.

John Cunningham, a 6-foot, 4-inch, center who went to play for the University of San Francisco and become baseball coach at the University of San Diego, averaged 19 points a game, led the County with 474 points, and was the main man of the 18-7 season.

CARDINALS FAVORED

St. Augustine was a substantial underdog to Hoover, one of the City League big shots aligned against the Saints, in the opening playoff test, having lost to the Cardinals, 48-34 and 61-43, during the season.

Cunningham and teammates Charlie Smith and Hector Sanchez combined for 42 points and the Saints upset the Cardinals, 46-44, before a standing room crowd of 1,200 at Hoover.

(Perhaps most satisfying was a measure of redemption.  The Saints played Hoover in football amid some fanfare for the first time since 1934 and were destroyed the previous fall, 66-0).

Their breakthrough season ended in the second round on the road, 75-53, to the tall, 22-2 Alhambra Moors, who won the championship with ensuing victories of  55-53 over Baldwin Park, 52-48 over Los Angeles Mt. Carmel, and 46-35 over Burbank Burroughs.

SIZE? NOT TO WORRY

Coronado’s starting lineup averaged 5 feet, 9 inches, with one starter at 6 feet, but coach John Kovac’s speedy Islanders rushed to a 21-4 record and reached the Southern California Southern Group finals for small schools in the lower geographical half of the CIF.

Coronado’s swift Islanders (from left): Ernie Wright, Jon Crawford, Charlie Love, Roger Nix, coach John Kovac, Robin Dean, Herman Wright.

Coronado, enrollment 384 in four grades, dressed nine players on the first day of practice, according to coach John Kovac.

“When we started winning a few more turned out,” said Kovac.  “Now we have 13 (and the ability to scrimmage and simulate game conditions).”

The Islanders, who had some late-reporting football players after the team got to the Southern Group semifinals before a 23-14 loss to Brawley, raced to an 11-1 Avocado League record, losing only at Escondido, 64-63.

Coronado was beaten by future NFL quarterback Billy Kilmer and Azusa Citrus, 63-58, in the championship game at Point Loma High after knocking out San Jacinto, 43-38, Puente, 53-43, and Grossmont, 59-57.

Th Islanders also set a presumed County record for most points in one game.  They defeated Rancho del Campo, 103-31.

CAVEMEN SURPRISE

San Diego coach Merrill Douglas wouldn’t have been blamed if he didn’t expect a run from his team, which had lost three December games to Northern squads by an average score of 53-35.

But Douglas also was waiting for football players.

Art Powell ,Willie West, Pete Gumina, Eldridge Cooks, Alden Kimbrough, and Edward Heard were late arriving after going to the playoffs with coach Duane Maley’s gridders.

Huntington Beach player scrambles for ball as San Diego’s Bob Rees (left) and Don Leslie move in to contest.

With a full complement the Cavemen swept the City League with a 12-0 record and were 18-4 when they earned a first-round playoff bye.

San Diego opened with a 49-39 win at Riverside Poly and then faced 31-2 Huntington Beach at Hoover.

Only 400 or so fans showed for the Tuesday night game but were treated to a thriller.  The Cavers topped the favored Oilers, 55-53.

Art Powell, who would earn all-Southern California first team honors, scored 44 points in the two victories.

San Diego moved into the semifinal round three nights later at Long Beach City College against 24-6 Burbank Burroughs.

The Cavers led, 47-46, early in the fourth quarter but a flurry that included seven consecutive free throws helped the Indians ease to a 59-50 win.

The Cavers’ two best players, the 6-foot, 2-inch Powell and the 6-5 Bob Rees fouled out, Rees in the first minute of the fourth quarter and Powell a minute later the next night in

Helix’ Gael Barsotti (center) and Rudy Rudzinski affected novel horizontally striped socks as they pursued Mar Vista’s Dee Pollock.

the third place contest, a 52-48 loss to Mt. Carmel. The Cavers led for most of the game but were swept on the backboards in the final six minutes by the taller Crusaders.

MANY IN PLAYOFFS

A total of seven San Diego-area teams gained the playoffs and occupied four of the 16 berths in the Southern Group competition.

Grossmont advanced to its semifinal test with Coronado by defeating Brawley, 48-44, and Ramona, 46-33.

Ramona faced Grossmont after a 48-32 win over Twentynine Palms.

Escondido, without leading scorer Don Willis, was rocked at Calexico, 70-38.

Mar Vista defeated Coachella, 46-43, and Calexico, 63-38, before being eliminated by Citrus, 66-46.

OVERTIME SOLUTION

When their teams were tied, 45-45, at the end of overtime, coaches Locke Olson of Grossmont and Don Smith of Lincoln agreed to play the second overtime in sudden death.

Grossmont’s Don Cole quickly scored a layup and Grossmont walked off with a 47-45 win.  The clubs were deadlocked, 43-43, at the end of regulation play.

WHERE’S HOME?

The lack of gymnasiums continued to hamstring City League scheduling.

Lincoln and Mission Bay would open their own facilities in 1955-56, but until then there would be odd venue matchups:

Lincoln played San Diego at Hoover.  Hoover played Kearny at Point Loma.  Kearny played Mission Bay at San Diego.

RANDOM

Football star John Adams also was starting forward on 17-7 Hoover basketballers.

–Six Escondido players fouled out and accounted for 30 of the 37 personal fouls assessed the Cougars in a 71-59 loss to Vista, which cashed 41 free throw attempts.

–Hoover, with 6-5 Bill Kupiec and 6-2 John Adams controlling the backboards, was able to survive a putrid field goal percentage,  20 of 75 shots for 26.6%, but led, 26-3, after one quarter and beat Kearny, 54-32.  The Komets were more putrid, 10×52 from the field for 19.2%.

–Chula Vista made 26 of 41 free throws attempts in a 44-30 win over Helix.  The host Highlanders held a 22-18 advantage from the field but were only 8 for 25 from the line.

–Frustration probably was the motivation when Sweetwater’s Allen Redman swapped punches with Grossmont’s Dick Cole.  Grossmont (8-2) sent Sweetwater to its ninth consecutive Metropolitan League loss, 37-28.

–Fallbrook trailed Escondido, 49-14, at the start of the fourth quarter…and went into a stall.  The Warriors did not score in the final eight minutes and lost, 59-14.

–Poor shooting  Point Loma, which finished 3-9 in the City League and 3-16 overall, hit 13 of 17 attempts from the floor for 76% and was 12 for 16 from the free-throw line, including two winning attempts by Frank Rogers, and upset La Jolla, 38-37.

–The score was tied on 8 occasions and the lead was exchanged 25 times as Coronado held on to defeat Grossmont, 59-57, in the semifinals.  On the same night, Mar Vista led Citrus, 25-24, at the half before bowing, 66-46.

JUMP SHOTS

Many  coaches did not like a new rule, which awarded a second free throw if the first was made, saying the legislation put too much emphasis on  the charity toss, according to Jim Trinkle of The San Diego Union…Brown Military’s 46-39 win over Army-Navy  ended the Warriors’ 22-game, Southern Prep League winning streak…Beverly Hills won the Kiwanis Tournament Unlimited Division, 53-33 over defending two-time titlist San Diego…Newhall Hart, behind future NFL quarterback Joe Kapp, won the Limited division, 50-46, over El Centro Central  after opening with a 104-33 win over Oceanside…the Normans got to the Unlimited final with a 39-37 win over Inglewood, which received a last minute technical foul for calling a sixth timeout..the fine led to a pivotal free throw for the winners…Inglewood Morningside’s John Arrillaga scored 39 points in an 82-52 win over Escondido and broke a Kiwanis record set the night before when the Saints’ John Cunningham scored 34 in a 77-64 win over Arrillaga’s Monarchs…Morningside went on to win one of the two Southern Section small schools championship by defeating Beverly Hills, 64-62, in the Northern Group final…Grossmont topped Chula Vista, 53-43, for the consolation championship in the post-Christmas Chino Tournament…Allen Good, former Hoover athlete, became coach at La Jolla after Don Hankins stepped down because of a health issue…five years before his brother attained similar honors at Mission Bay, La Jolla’s 6-1 center Jack Cravens would graduate with 8 varsity letters….

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2 Responses to 1954-55: The Saints Get Some Glory

  1. Roger Conlee says:

    Lack of a gym was a big problem at Helix in the 1950s. Sometimes we practiced at Grossmont and occasionally in an old WWII-era gym at Gillespie Field (now long demolished). But mostly we practiced outdoors on asphalt courts. Coach Bob Divine called us “the men of the macadam.” That gym at Gillespie Field had an inordinantly high ceiling, because Marines used to hang parachutes up there to dry.

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