From the sports editor: Senators still haunted by ‘72 loss

“We were just stunned,” said Gary Traynor, now a 62-year-old Rehoboth Beach resident. “I remember watching the ball go through (the net) and thinking, ‘I can’t believe it.’” Delaware.gov

DOVER — The history books say Dover High has never won an official state title in boys’ basketball.

But they’re wrong.

For one delirious, ecstatic moment, in March, 1972, the Senators were the state champions.

Dover’s players ran onto the Delaware Field House court to celebrate after beating Wilmington for the crown that day.

The Delaware State News later ran a photo of Senators’ coach Denis O’Brien shaking hands with assistant Tom Nevins as the game ended. Players John Whitting and Richard Curl, along with principal Pat Lynn, can be seen celebrating behind them.

But that’s where Dover’s dream ended and the nightmare began.

What happened next still haunts the Senators’ players and fans 47 years later.

And it’s why this year’s unbeaten Dover squad will still be trying to put the proud program’s first state championship banner on the wall when it plays in the state Final Four tonight in Newark.

It all goes back to the closing seconds of the ‘72 championship game.

The Senators were clinging to a 56-55 lead when Wilmington missed a long-range shot. Dover’s Gary Traynor came up with the ball and fired a pass to teammate Tye Shultz, who was open at midcourt.

Shultz drove in for an insurance basket, the contest was over and the Senators’ celebration was on. But, the next thing the players remember, the referees were clearing the court.

Referee Lou Moser, a Hall-of-Fame official who would later work an NCAA championship game, had called Shultz for traveling.

After a delay of several minutes while order was restored, three seconds were put back on the clock and Wilmington inbounded the ball from midcourt.

Those three seconds are also etched in Dover’s collective memory. The Red Devils’ Ron Johnson took the inbounds pass and fired it to teammate Nate Evans in the corner.

Evans put up a 20-footer, the final horn sounded and the ball swished through the net. Wilmington had won 56-55.

Now it was the Red Devils who celebrated on the court.

“We were just stunned,” said Traynor, now a 62-year-old Rehoboth Beach resident. “I remember watching the ball go through (the net) and thinking, ‘I can’t believe it.’”

“My first reaction after the ball went in was to cry,” Shultz was quoted in the Wilmington Morning News after the game. “I think everybody just stood there for a minute and cried.”

Whether or not Shultz actually traveled may simply be left to the memories of the people who were there. Dover didn’t have any video footage of the play because its film ran out a few minutes earlier.

Henry Zecher, the State News reporter that day, described Shultz as “racing ahead of his red-shirted defender” and making a “leaping catch” of the pass.

“It was not a flagrant foul,” Zecher concluded, “but the official was very alert in seeing it.”

Shultz, who was Dover’s leading scorer with 21 points in the title game, never had any doubt that it was a bad call.

“I couldn’t believe he made that traveling call,” Shultz told the Morning News in ‘72. “The play before, Evans took three steps and he didn’t call a thing. I think it was very bad judgement on his part.

“As I was walking out, people I didn’t know came up and said I never walked. I still can’t believe it.”

“What can you say?” O’Brien said in the newspaper story.”In their minds and hearts, they know they won.”

Almost five decades haven’t done anything to change the Senators’ minds, of course. They still feel like something was taken away from them unfairly.

“Ever since that day, I wished I’d just thrown the ball up in the air and the clock would have run out,” said Traynor.

“The problem with the call, first of all, was it was an uncontested layup as the clock is running out. And he calls traveling?

“To be honest with you, I didn’t have a good look at what Tye did,” Traynor added. “I’ve always felt terrible for Tye. And then putting time back on the clock. … It was just a crazy call.”

Jim Solomon

“He didn’t travel,” said Jim Solomon, who was a junior on the ‘72 squad. “I think we would have had a difficult time getting out of there if we had won that game.”

The situation was tense to begin with. There were police dogs on hand in the Field House after Wilmington’s semifinal game with Howard the day before had to be stopped early because of trouble with fans.

Clearly, it was a difficult moment for the Senators to swallow.

“Not to take anything away from Wilmington,” O’Brien was later quoted in the State News. “They were prepared for it and got that perfect shot at the end. You read about things like that in the newspapers and see it on television but then it happens to you, or rather against you, and it hits you hard.”

“It was the longest three seconds,” said Solomon. “That was a tough, tough loss.”

The fact that Dover is 0-3 in state championship games since that ‘72 loss hasn’t done anything to lessen the Senators’ frustration with the outcome.

The 63-year-old Solomon, who’s won 15 team state titles as Dover’s track & field coach, hasn’t attended a basketball state championship game since ‘72.

He says a state crown for the Senators would help heal the old wound. Solomon has talked to the current players about what happened 47 years ago.

“Just a little bit,” he said. “I think they’re too far removed from that. I just encourage them. They have a real good shot.

“Hopefully Coach (Stephen) Wilson and his group can break the ice and bring the first title.”

Traynor is an associate justice of the Delaware Supreme Court. He said, when he was working in Wilmington, people would remember him as the kid who threw the pass in the ‘72 state finals.

“I was actually thinking about it the other day,” said Traynor. “I was reading about the season Dover is having this year. It just brings that memory back.

“I hope they can pull it off this year,” Traynor added. “It would be great.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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