74-75 tigers.jpg

The 1974-1975 Northwestern Tigers were, front row, left to right, Mark Miller, Randy Crowe, Kerry Keaffaber, Jeff Critchley, Pete Hahn and Craig Sutherland. Second row, assistant coach Gerald Hood, Steve Sewell, Tony Fleming, Rick Crawford, Tom Oren, John Fenn, Brian Hudson and coach Steve David.

Twenty five to eight.

In another era, say, 15 presidential administrations ago, such a final score in high school basketball wouldn’t have raised a single eyebrow or concern much less a cheering section’s collective ire.

During the waning stages of the 1974-1975 season, it did.

The Northwestern Tigers were undefeated, rarely challenged and one of the primary topics of sports conversation in and around Howard County when they made the 45-mile drive to Northfield to face the Norsemen in what was certain to be another hostile road test.

Led by no-nonsense coach Steve David, the Tigers were favored to leave Wabash with their 14th consecutive ‘W’, but the Norsemen, winners of only one of their first 11 games that season, planned make it interesting, if not overly competitive.

On paper, the game looked like a complete mismatch. Northfield coach Bob Denari, sensing this, chose to have his starters run their version of North Carolina’s vaunted four-corners offense as a method of ensuring his team stay as close to the Tigers as possible.

Chris Denari, the longtime television play-by-play announcer for the Indiana Pacers, was an eighth-grader in the Northfield school system at the time. He remembers his late father’s desire to win being the root of the slowdown approach as Bob Denari wasn’t known for gimmicky offenses or defenses.

“I was on the bench, and probably keeping stats, but there weren’t a lot of stats to keep that night,” said Chris Denari. “My dad was somebody who wanted to win, and he figured his only chance was to hold the ball. He saw the size Northwestern had, and how good they were.

“It takes a lot of guts to do that. You’re trying to get your fan base to believe in what you’re trying to do.”

In time, Northfield discovered very important factors regarding the Tigers:

The visiting team featured excellent defenders and ball-handlers in senior guards Craig Sutherland and Randy Crowe. Moreover, every player on the floor wearing royal blue uniforms (purple wasn’t a uniform color option in those days), including starting forward Rick Crawford, junior sharpshooter Steve Sewell and 6-foot-7 senior post Tom Oren, understood his role.

With the pace of the game slowed to a virtual standstill, David never felt the need to bring in any of his main substitutes (juniors Brian “Beaver” Hudson, John Fenn, Pete Hahn and Tony Fleming).

David, now 77, retired and living in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, with his wife, Carly, admires Bob Denari’s courage to game plan the way he did.

“I wasn’t angry they held the ball, but, looking back, the score was 9-4 at halftime and 11-4 after three periods,” said David. “I thought it was a great strategy, but we had good guards and were an excellent free throw shooting team.

“That was quite a game. I was really impressed with how our kids handled it.”

David turned the tables on the Norsemen in the second half, telling Tigers players at intermission they would win the third-quarter tip and then hold the ball themselves. The very Northwestern fans howling their disapproval early were now celebrating.

Northfield’s, not so much.

The poised Tigers put the game away the final eight minutes with its full-court pressure and free throw accuracy.

Sutherland and Crowe scored nine and eight points, respectively, to lead Northwestern. Defensively, the Tigers limited the Norsemen to an icy 3-of-18 shooting display from the floor. Northfield played 10 different players to Northwestern’s five.

Nearly a half-century later, the 25-8 game incites everything from smiles to eye-rolls from those who were there. David admits he actually thought about implementing Bob Denari’s slowdown tactics later that season when the Tigers, still unbeaten and ranked in the state’s top 20, faced Kokomo in the sectional championship game inside a frenzied Memorial Gym.

Not wanting to tinker with what had worked to that point, David played the Tim James- and Tico Brown-led Kats straight-up, losing, 68-56.

Bob Denari coached two seasons at Northfield before moving on to take the same position at Westfield High School. He passed away in September 2017 at the age of 84.

A year after the slowdown game, the programs played at Northwestern when coach Denari looked down his bench to call in one of his subs. The player, according to Chris, was eating popcorn that he had apparently purchased at one of the NHS concession stands earlier that evening.

Slowdown tactics. A player making a food run during a game.

The Northwestern-Northfield series wasn’t around long, as geography and conference affiliations took the programs different directions.

If nothing else, it was memorable.

Mike Beas may be reached by email at mtbeas62@yahoo.com.

React to this story:


Trending Video

Recommended for you