Basketball team

Former Manistee County basketball team recalls historic run to state finals

COPEMISH – On March 22, 1952, a Manistee County basketball team, the Copemish Cyclones, competed in the Class D final for the first time in 19 years.

No, they didn’t hoist the trophy inside Jenison Field House, the arena in which Michigan State University played before the Breslin Center.

Instead, Fowler beat the Cyclones, 55-20, giving Copemish their second loss of the season.

On occasion, however, sport doesn’t revolve around results, and as ’52 Cyclones member Ben Blaho recalls, their team was born accidentally.

“Back when I was in fourth grade on the playground, we were playing fifth grade kids,” Blaho explained. “We had a pretty good group of boys, and a few times we beat the fifth graders. And then there would be a fight because we had a fifth graders guy who was very good, and he didn’t like to lose… so the superintendent got us all together and assigned a varsity player to each team to straighten us up while training us.

“That’s how it started.”

From there, Blaho, alongside Chuck Bigelow, the only other surviving player on the 52 team, and the rest of his classmates, started playing together, combining the 7th and 8th grade students.

According to Blaho, now 86, Copemish didn’t lose a single game until his freshman year (sophomore season), remaining undefeated in each of the previous three years, crediting head coach Wilfred Fish for their achievements.

However, it was not easy.

Fish expected each of the Cyclones to develop a strong work ethic; basketball was to become their life, and he did.

“The community had a lot of farms, and that’s what we were – farm kids,” said Blaho. “The game was not what it is today. We didn’t have any practice rooms; our practice room was the farm. But we did.”

In addition, the preparation was different because depending on the school, the panel was either wood or metal, never glass, which changed the way Copemish attacked the basket.

“By ’52 or ’53 we had switched to metal, and they were smaller,” Blaho said of Copemish High. “Some of the others in the area were still using wood – and I think they react to your shots differently, especially if you are using it to help yourself.”

Yet it never interrupted the Cyclones’ ability to dominate the region’s competition and provide the community with many victories.

“There was a church we went to after the games; we would go down and ring the bell when we won, ”said Blaho. “This is what the people of Copemish expected, they wanted to hear that bell ring, and it was always a good thing.”

Still, Blaho and his teammates wouldn’t have repeatedly rung the bell without Fish’s constant teachings.

“We learned some tough lessons,” he said. “But we learned them at an age young enough that by the time we entered the county we were good.”

But what made them successful is knowing and accepting their role.

Overall, Merle Smith, John Rodgers, Gordon Norbeck, Mickey Finan, Patrick Egan, Edgar Morris, Edward Suchy, Jerome Jakubik, Tom Scarbrough, Herbert Milks, Larry McGinity (team leader), who attended the ceremony At Benzie Central Friday night, Bigelow and Blaho each brought unique skills to Copemish.

“Finan was the shooter for this team; if we could give him the ball and give him two seconds to shoot, we would have two points no matter where he was on the floor,” said Blaho. “In 1952 he broke the county record with 56 points, but Jakubik was our best dribbler, and the other players did their part.”

The Cyclones’ race to the state title match was more than wins and losses; this took their program to new heights.

In turn, the county enjoyed a regular season with one loss, four back-to-back district titles, back-to-back regional championships and a trip to East Lansing to face the Eagles.

Certainly, for Blaho, their best asset was not a player.

“We weren’t a very big team, but we were fast and well trained,” said Blaho. “We probably had the best coach back then; we just didn’t know it. He (Fish) could analyze the opposition in two minutes. He would always ask us for a time-out after two minutes, and he would change all around and say, ‘OK, those are their weak points’, and every time the other team called for a time out, they would change strategy, just to keep them out.

“He was a calm type of leader, he never screamed, but I can tell you he was tough. We knew what he expected and we did it.”

There wasn’t a game that Fish couldn’t collapse with, nor a team that Copemish couldn’t hang on with, as he helped the Cyclones beat Central Lake (66-36), Mio-AuSable ( 46-44), Kingsley (61-39), Mass (51-50) and Spring Arbor (60-42).

Then came the final against Fowler.

“The most important thing I remember when I played at Jenison Field House were the glass panels,” Bigelow said. “They had more glass in their back panels than most people had in their windows… it was confusing to us.”

It took about a quarter and a half for Copemish to get used to the new baskets. But by then the game was over.

“The coach told us not to worry about a thing; the ground is bigger than what we were used to, but he said it was OK,” said Blaho. “He told us the baskets were still up there as usual, and basically he calmed us down. He said, ‘Don’t get too excited. “We knew we were good, fast and we could score, but we just weren’t good enough against Fowler.”

Blaho continued, “But for me that’s okay. Talking about this stuff again is very exciting; it makes me passionate about basketball, and it makes me pretty proud of our accomplishments and that I was one of them. “