From the sports editor: ‘75 Vikings were best all time

Jerry Kobasa had really just started coaching boys’ basketball.

In 1975, the future Hall of Famer was a 25-year-old junior varsity coach at Smyrna High.

But Kobasa knew a good basketball team when he saw one.

And, like most basketball fans in Delaware, he was blown away by Cape Henlopen High’s 1974-75 squad.

“I just remember being in awe of that team,” said Kobasa. “They were loaded.

“Everybody wanted to see Cape. I remember playing Cape at Cape. At that time they played in the old Milton gym. And there would lines of hundreds of people waiting to get in to see this team play.”

More than five decades later, the 1974-75 Cape Henlopen squad is still the best downstate boys’ basketball team he’s ever seen. And everybody who responded to our informal poll agrees that the Vikings should be considered the best downstate boys’ hoop squad of all time.

With coach Ralph Baird on the bench, Cape went 25-0, winning the first of back-to-back state championships. The Vikings dumped Salesianum, 83-48, in the state finals.

That 39-point margin is still the largest in a Delaware boys’ state title game.

Mark Sills, president of the Delaware Afro American Hall of Fame, cast his vote for Cape.

So did Chuck Durante, a long-time follower of high school basketball in the state, who was a sportswriter for the Delaware State News in the 1970s.

Durante points out that, between 1971-81, Henlopen Conference teams won five state titles with five more downstate squads taking runnerup. He calls it the “golden age” of downstate hoops.

“Each champion — Cape Henlopen, Indian River and Milford, as well as Dover’s two finalists — had its own personality and strengths,” said Durante. “Yet, it’s widely considered that Cape’s 1975 team was the best of the group, and perhaps the most talented in the state’s history.”

Not surprisingly, Cape is remembered as being so good because it had talent across the board.

Purnell Ayers was the state’s player of the decade, Durante recalled, Jimmy Allen was an 1,785-point scorer at New Haven in college and John Bishop broke Sam Jones’ scoring record at North Carolina Central. Allen was later taken in the fifth round of the NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics.

“I saw Bishop do some things on the court that I just still marvel at,” said Kobasa.

Of the Vikings’ other two starters, Ronson Burton was considered a force under the basket while Carlton “Snoop” Allen was later the leading scorer in Region 19 as a junior-college standout.

And, Durante points out, the reserves on that squad, Thurman Batson, Emory Sumlin and Johnny Allen, “were good enough to join Ayers and Bishop on a second championship team in 1976.”

Of course, Baird was the coach who took all that talent and kept it pointed in the right direction all season.

“He knew as much as anyone I’ve ever met in my life,” said Kobasa. “Ralph was the orchestrator of that team.”

“Coach Ralph Baird had the basketball savvy and human wisdom to turn the players’ passionate love of the game into unbeatable court sense,” is the way Durante remembers it.

Sitting room only

How crowded did it get at Cape Henlopen’s basketball games in 1974-75?

Well, when Smyrna was playing in the old Milton gym that season, Kobasa had big man, Dwayne Sudler, on the JV squad.

“I looked down the bench and he’s sitting on the floor,” Kobasa recalled with a laugh. “And I’m like, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ He said, ‘Well, the fans told me I had to move.’

“He’s stuck on the floor and the fans were sitting at the end of our bench. I had to get security to kind of move them. That team was just so popular.”

Odds & ends

• The Delaware running community lost a long-time coach and well-respected mentor when Lou Nicoletti passed away on Thursday after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 70.

Nicoletti coached cross country and track & field at Sussex Tech High in the mid-1990s. He earned several Coach of the Year honors during his career.

• This coming week we’ll be recognizing a senior downstate girls’ lacrosse player in the State News. You can nominate someone at this link:—Girls-Lacrosse/gallery/.