Rich Ahrens: Not your everyday 1930s player
Oil City star stood 7-feet tall under hoop
He’s listed at anywhere from 6-10 to 7-feet tall while tipping the scales at 254 pounds. Whatever. He is, by far, the tallest player in Oil City High School’s history of relatively short basketball players.
Venango County boys teams haven’t had many really tall players over the years. Cranberry had a couple back in the 1960s and 1970s, but that was when it wasn’t that unusual – 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain had already played and dominated for Overbrook High School in Philadelphia and was by that time a star in the NBA. The 1930s was a different story.
Rich Ahrens was no Wilt Chamberlain, though. Ahrens played on the jayvees as a sophomore before cracking legendary coach Hud Wells’ lineup as a 19-year-old junior in 1935-36. But he was no scoring machine. Just as a for instance, normal-sized Butch Lauer led with 16-5 Oilers with 208 points.
Still, Ahrens was good enough to earn a basketball scholarship to Long Island University, where he played for Clair Bee, one of the top coaches of the day. Ahrens was at LIU for a year and a half, during which time the Blackbirds rolled to a 25-2 record in 1938 and went unbeaten in 1939.
Oil City had good but disappointing
seasons in both 1936 (16-5) and 1937 (17-2), coming up empty in their quest for a District 10 title.
A broken wrist probably prevented them for winning it all in 1936. After claiming their fifth section crown in six years, the Oilers took on Sharon on March 13, 1936, at Grove City College and jumped out to a 7-0 lead.
That’s when disaster struck.
Late in the second quarter, in a scramble for a rebound, Ahrens emerged with an injured wrist. Later it was learned the wrist was broken.
Wells was forced to take his big man out of the game, and Sharon not only began to control the boards, but was able to get more shots off
unhampered by the imposing Ahrens who could reach for the sky around the hoops.
With Ahrens seeing limited action, the Tigers outscored the Oilers in the middle quarters to take command before a comeback bid by the Oilers in the fourth fell short in the 36-25 loss. Sharon outscored the Oilers 16-7 in the second quarter when Ahrens went down.
Oddly, the Oilers accomplished all that they did despite losing four contributors – starting guards Harry Siegall and Ed Sibble along with Nate Schoch and Ernie Cartwright – at midterm because their eligibility ran out. Wells rated the speedy Siegall as one of his top five players in his 28 years as coach. Not only could he score, but he was an outstanding playmaker.
Oil City’s bid for a D-10 crown also fell short despite the 17-2 record in 1937. That second loss would come in the playoffs to Erie East, 38-26, a month before Ahrens’ 21st birthday. (Obviously eligibility requirements having to do with age were a lot different back in the day.)
Ahrens would go on to live an interesting life. Not only did he play basketball at LIU, but he was a star on the semi-pro level locally for many years – during which time he’d be known to have 22- and 33-point games – and quite an attraction.
Even before he played for OCHS, Ahrens would take his talents elsewhere. Reported The News-Herald in its Dec. 11, 1934, edition as Ahrens’ team, the Franklin Eagles, was about to take on the Sterling Oils of Emlenton:
“The antics of the seven-foot Ahrens, when teamed with his but slightly shorter teammate Floyd (Stinky) Davis, are worth the price of admission. Ahrens, by standing in his toes, can drop the ball from his finger tips into the basket at the regulation height without jumping.”
Basketball wasn’t his only game, though. Employed by the Oil City School District as a custodian, the affable Ahrens was an avid fisherman and a baseball player of note, even pitching in the Washington Senators farm system in the early 1940s.
Ahrens died on April 2, 1983, in the Oil City Hospital after an extended illness.
Larry Gent and Jack Biery -- two pre-World War II Franklin High School graduates once were starters for Penn State basketball teams.
Both led the old Section 2 league in scoring – Gent in 1939 with a then-record 14 points per game average and Biery in 1941 at 12.1.
Gent, a 5-11 sophomore forward for PSU, was a regular for coach John Lawther’s 1942 18-3 squad, which lost to Dartmouth in the first round of the Eastern regional of the NCAA tournament but upset Illinois in the consolation. Gent scored 21 in that game. The Nittany Lions were No. 10 in the final Dunkel Index.
Lawther formerly coached at Westminster and was a close friend of Jo Jo White, a Franklin High School teacher. White once told Joe Szafran, sports writer for the old Oil City Blizzard, that Gent, then known as “Mr. Basketball” in Franklin, was the best all-around player he ever coached. Szafran had that item in a 1943 column.
Meanwhile, Biery met Gent while playing for the CPT company team in Franklin and through him became interested in playing for Penn State, too. A Senatorial scholarship from Venango County sealed that deal. Gent and Biery were among the top six scorers for Penn State’s 15-4 team in 1943. Gent was No. 2 on the team with 138 points, and Biery, the first freshman ever to play for the Nittany Lions, tallied 110.
Biery even set a Rec Hall record with 22 points, first against Susquehanna and then matching that output against Carnegie Tech.
After returning to Penn State from military service in 1946, Biery became a scoring machine. He broke his Rec Hall record with 25 against Susquehanna, although teammate Nick Diettrick broke that mark later in the season.
Jack Biery (left) and Larry Gent were pre-World War II standouts for FHS who later started for Penn State.
But Biery led the Lions in scoring two straight seasons – he had 218 on the 10-8 team in 1947 and 260 for the 9-10 squad in 1948.
Biery told the Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at Penn State, that the two things he had the most difficulty with in playing college ball was Lawther’s sliding zone system and performing in front of large crowds at venues like Convention Hall in Philadelphia ad Madison Square Garden in New York.
“It was kind of awing the first time I ran out on the court in New York,” Biery said at the time. “It seemed like I could look straight up through the smoky haze and see a man lighting up a cigarette.”
Times have changed.
Marchibroda starred in hoops, too
Another Franklin basketball player to make his mark in the days of yesteryear was none other than Ted Marchibroda, who would go on to NFL fame as a quarterback and head coach.
He was so good that he was a first team All-State
Rocky Grove was 15-7 as it tried to defend its league and District 10 titles in 1948. From left: Dick Wagner, Charles Coughlin, James "Dirt" Porter, Earl Hood, Ron "Son" Buck, Paul Sampsell, Harry "Dutch" Shuffstall, Howard "Corky" Hunter and Carl Knoch. Vince Curran was coach. Team of nicknames.
selection by the Associated Press in 1949 as a 5-10, 165-pound senior guard. (Oil City junior Dutch Burch was second team that season and Rocky Grove’s Corky Hunter received an honorable mention. Burch would make first team in 1950).
Back in those days, sports writers who covered schools from Districts 9 and 10 picked an All-Northwestern Pennsylvania team, which you would think would be dominated by Erie, Meadville and Mercer County players. Nope. The 1949 first team consisted of Marchibroda, Burch, two guys from Warren and another from Bradford.
You didn’t see an Erie guy until the second team, one from Strong Vincent and the other from Cathedral Prep. The others were from Sharpsville and Kane along with Rocky Grove’s Hunter.
The next year, 1950, it was more the same. Burch and teammate Lou Kraft were on the first team and another Oiler, Jim Blaney, was third team along with Rocky Grove’s Bob McClimans. The only Erie players picked, from Vincent and Tech, were on the second team along with Meadville’s Orval Jenkins.
Former Franklin stars Gent, Biery played for Penn State
Oil City's Burch drafted by Pistons after starring for Pitt
As far as I know, nobody from Venango County has ever played in the NBA, but the late Clarence "Dutch" Burch was drafted by the Ft. Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons after averaging 15.4 ppg his senior year at Pitt in 1954. Burch, instead, decided to attend grad school at Pitt, and spent his adult life quietly coaching hoops at Division III Lycoming in Williamsport.
Burch was also Pitt's MVP in 1952 and 1954 and was captain his senior year. (His NBA draft status in 2012 at the time of his death at age 80 was "unrestricted free agent.")
Burch played for Oil City around the same time as Ted Marchibroda played football at Franklin (1948-50). In fact, they played against each other in both sports. Burch didn't join the 1,000 point ranks in high school when scores were in the 32-18 range, but he did make first team all-state. Burch set a single-season scoring record his junior year in 1949 when he was second team all-state. He scored 230 points and dished 94 assists, believed to be a school record at the time.
His senior year, Burch scored 361 points and handed out 137 assists in 20 games. He finished his career as Oil City's all-time leading scorer with 682 points.
Both Bob Hartz (390 points) and Howdy Rose (366) broke Burch's single-season scoring record in 1956. No Oiler has ever scored 500 points in a season; Mike Emick apparently has come the closest with 494 in 1971.
Dutch Burch goes flying to the hoop for the Oilers. (Photo contributed by Bill Hadley.)
On-again, off-again saga of girls hoops
While perusing the Internet last spring (2020), I found a couple of interesting items in columns written by the late Jack Mays, the former News-Herald sports editor.
The first: former Derrick correspondent June Caldwell told him that Cranberry won both the boys and girls District 10 basketball championships in 1938. I thought: They had a District 10 basketball tournament for girls in 1938? I was skeptical.
So, for the first time ever, I ventured over to the Berry Bush – the Cranberry High School yearbook, 1938 edition.
Berries’ first juggernaut
There were nice write-ups on both teams, and the one on the boys reported they did win the District 10 title (Class B). But nothing about a D-10 championship was said about the girls – although they did have a 16-0 record after trouncing Youngsville, 43-4, in their final game – a tournament contest played at Franklin.
The team was coached by a “Miss McHenry” – no first name given – an art and home economics teacher. She was in her first and only year of coaching and was in charge of quite the juggernaut. The Berries claimed the UAVL (Upper Allegheny Valley League) title and outscored their opponents, 671-244.
The team was led by forward Emily Burgi, who scored – and get this – 321 points! In 1938! What’s more, the Berries fielded a player named Norma Vogelaar who stood 6-3! And she was just a sophomore.
The Cranberry girls continued to do pretty well, but in 1940, a blurb in the yearbook said, “…due to the school’s being Class A in scholastics, there is an uncertainty as to whether there will be a girls team next year.”
I don’t know what that means, but there was no girls basketball team listed in the 1941 Berry Bush.
And so it went with the on-again, off-again state of girls hoops through most of the 20th century, or until the 1970s when its roots took hold.
Franklin’s Little Tractor that could
That leads me to a second item Mays once had in a column. Franklin had a girls team in 1926-27 nicknamed the “Little Tractor” that was unbeaten and invited to pay in a national high school tournament in Wichita, Kansas. The Little Tractor, coached by Zelma Rude, outscored foes 562-132, but was beaten by Oklahoma in the tourney. Franklin dropped girls basketball in the 1930s. It reappeared again in 1953 and then was dropped in 1957 before resurfacing for good in 1974, Mays wrote.
Katie Koontz: All-American
That’s the time when Oil City’s teams led by Jodi Gault, Peg McDougal, Melinda Hale, Roxie Dale and Trish Erickson among others were dominating locally. It was at that time that I received a letter from a former resident extoling the 1955 First Seneca Tartans, an Oil City girls basketball team not associated with the high school.
The star was Katie Koontz, an OCHS cheerleader, who was named to an All-American team picked by the Central States Basketball Association.
Koontz, described by The Derrick as “pretty, young” also exceled in tennis (junior champion) and swimming.
The 1939 Cranberry Berries.
Top row (from left): Laura Clark, Winifred Shunk, Elaine Kiser, Mary Daugherty, Eva Jane Cook, Kathleen McCloskey, Georgia Sutley and Ruth Frank
Middle row: Miss Harter, Rita Smith, Jean Sadler, 6-3 Norma Vogelaar, Mary Allen, Imogene Craig, Jane Leicht and Jeanne Hughes
Bottom row: Peggy Hennessy and Jeanne Stewart
The Tartans beat St. Benedict, the Pittsburgh Catholic Class A champ, 54-49, in the city’s Department of Parks tournament semifinals for their 71st straight victory over a three-year period. Koontz netted 29 and Margie Danzer added 19. First Seneca went on to win the event as Koontz and Sis Mooney were named to the all-tournament team.
Earlier in the season, the Tartans walloped the Warren YWCA “six,” 105-27, behind Danzer’s 31 and 28 by Koontz. Mary Burchanowski added 19 and Mary Walentoski 10.
The team was coached by Bob Bidwell.
Back to the Berry boys
Getting back to Cranberry, its boys teams won consecutive D-10 titles and multiple league championships through the early 1940s, mostly under the coaching of Howard Smith. Willie Hricsina scored a school record 179 points for the 1938 Berries. Jack Stack broke that record with 252 points in 1941; he bettered his own mark with 343 in 1942.