The battle cry “LH State in 68” still rings loud and clear to this day.
On March 23, 1968 the Mustangs downed Cheltenham at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena 63-56 in overtime to capture the PIAA Class A state championship in a contest that was first overtime game in state finals history.
“It’s special and when you look back you can’t believe that 40 years has gone by,” former LH point guard Dan Ross said. “It does seem like it wasn’t that long ago.”
Perhaps no school in the history of Pennsylvania basketball had the storybook beginning that Laurel Highlands enjoyed. In the first two years of existence the North Union – South Union merger posted a sparkling record of 50-3 with a WPIAL Title and a State Title.
“That was truly unbelievable the way we started out,” Ross marveled. “I think in our year sometimes they say it’s better to be lucky than good.
“I thought the 1967 team with Jon Kruper, Jeff Collier and Ray Yauger, Hobgood and Robinson – talent wise and experience wise they were much further along than our group. Buzzy Harrison, Tom Bogden and I were JV players in 1967 – none of us saw any varsity action. We were really inexperienced in 1968 – so we were kind of lucky.”
Uniontown had been “King of The Hill” in Fayette County basketball for many years and the upstart Mustangs posed a big threat to the Red Raiders. The seeds of a great rivalry were sown in 1967 during the first meeting between LH and Uniontown.
The Mustangs handed the Red Raiders their first home court setback in 88 games and tagged the Raiders with their first section loss in 59 games when the defeated Uniontown 83-73. A rivalry was born.
"The thing that really made that game amazing was the level of interest leading up to the game,” former Mustang Jim Hobgood marveled. “That was kind of the high school Super Bowl. For those people who have ever watched the movie "Hoosiers" and you watch that movie and you see the level of interest on the part of the community in the basketball team.
“I think that you have to go back to that 1967 season when we played Uniontown for the first time and obviously prior to that when North Union and South Union were separate and were not big enough to individually play in the same league as Uniontown.
“So I think there was a sense Uniontown was the big boy on the top of the hill and may have looked down a bit on the two schools that surrounded them and now they were together and challenging for that top position and we were lucky enough to go there and win."
The Red Raider-Mustang rivalry intensified in 1968 with the teams splitting two regular season games and setting up a playoff for the Section 7 title at the Pitt Field House. LH prevailed 74-46.
“In the playoff game Uniontown’s Billy Emmett didn’t play up to his capabilities,” LH guard Tom Bogden recalled. “I felt it when I was guarding him he just didn’t want to play and that was far from what he was able to do.
“But Buzzy Harrison really won the game for us – he was playing over the top and pushing us and talking to us – he really pushed us to the win.”
Laurel Highland’s 1968 title run was a bit of a surprise when you consider that the Mustangs lost three key players from the 1967 squad which had only suffered one loss.
"We certainly lacked experience," Hobgood said. "We had Buzzy Harrison and Danny Ross, Tom Bogden, Jim Rambo and Pete Tracy and basically we had much less experience. The one thing we had was Wil (Robinson) who to his credit - 1968 was his senior season and I think he was intent upon making sure that we enjoyed as much success if not more and that turned out to be the case.
"We lost two games in the regular season (Sharon and Uniontown) both one-point losses. We were 20 and 2 in the regular season and then made almost a miracle run in the playoffs."
LH was coached by Harold “Horse” Taylor and the players look back with fond memories of their coach.
“Coach Taylor was a disciplinarian,” Ross stated. “We always had the rule that if you missed a practice before a game – you wouldn’t start. Robinson had to go to his mother’s house in Pittsburgh and he missed the practice before the Charleroi Tournament and Coach Taylor true to his word didn’t start him. That was probably the only game Robinson didn’t start, but after the first minute he was in, but Coach Taylor made his point.”
“I remember the practices number one,” Bogden offered. “We went through all the plays and Coach Taylor made sure that you were ran them until you got then right. He would stop practice and say that’s not what he wants. He prepared and he prepared well.”
The Mustangs and their floor leader Wil Robinson were not going to be denied in ‘68’ after the great run they had in 1967.
“Robinson was determined in 1968,” Ross explained. “You could see it by the way he practiced and worked and he wouldn’t let you let down and it was to the point that he worked so hard – that you didn’t want to let him down.”
“When we were in trouble we always looked to Robinson. He was the leader,” Bogden said.
But don’t get the impression the Mustangs were a one man gang – a lot of players stepped up during the campaign.
“I knew if Robinson wasn’t having a good game,” Bogden said. “I knew Hobgood would take over and that’s what happened and if it wasn’t Hobgood then Harrison would step up. If Robinson was off one of the other two, Hobgood or Harrison would step up.”
During there run through the WPIAL playoffs the Mustangs defeated Jeanette 88-50, Duquesne 67-55, and downed Donora for the WPIAL title 74-53.
“There were many contributing factors to our success,” Ross opined “Obviously Robinson and Hobgood, but a true unsung hero was Wayne Woods. He came up big especially during the Donora game in the WPIAL playoffs.
“It was one of those real physical contests and Coach Taylor needed someone to match their physicality. He inserted Woody and that really changed the game for us. Woody was a true enforcer.”
The Mustangs suffered a big blow when Bogden broke his ankle in the win over Donora.
I was hurt the first quarter,” Bogden remembered. “For me personally it was real tough – I really wanted to play, but I had confidence that Danny Ross would do a great job and he did.”
“During the season I had started most of the time,” Ross recalled. “Toward the end of the season I played very poorly against Southmoreland and Uniontown – I was young and I was really feeling the pressure.
“Coach Taylor thought it was best that I come off the bench and that would settle me down. After the second Uniontown game he put Bogden in my spot. It worked out and I was a little more comfortable. When Bogden went down I felt very bad, but I was ready to play.”
In PIAA play LH downed Johnstown 80-62 and dispatched Allegheny in the Western Region Final 71-66. That setup the championship game against unbeaten Cheltenham at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. The Mustangs beat the easterners in overtime 63-56.
Mustang scoring ace Wil Robinson tied the then state title contest individual scoring record in the game with 31 points, including five in the extra session.
Simmie Hill of Midland had scored 31 in Midland's march to the 1965 state championship over Steelton-Highspire.
Robinson was known as a great offensive player, but it was a defensive play in the state championship game against Cheltenham that helped preserve the LH victory. The score tied at 52 and Cheltenham was in possession with 50 seconds left in regulation time.
Cheltenham worked the clock down to 19 seconds and threw the ball into the low post to star player Craig Littlepage who went up with a shot and Robinson blocked it against the backboard. The play resulted in a jump ball that LH controlled and went for the last shot and missed. The Mustangs then prevailed in overtime.
“I pinned it on the backboard,” Robinson explained. “I was up in the key and I had to come down. I was over on the other side and came across because I wasn’t guarding Littlepage. I saw him going in for the lay-up so I came over and pinned his shot.
“It was something I knew I had to do and I just went up as high as I could go and pinned it. He had no idea that I was coming from somewhere else because he was wide open.”
"I think the game turned our way when Robby blocked (Craig) Littlepage's shot under the Cheltenham basket with a few seconds to go." Taylor told the media after the game.
Cheltenham had led briefly in the first and third periods but never by more than three points. Suddenly they started to widen the gap and with only four minutes left were seven ahead and trying to get the momentum going their way.
But almost as mysteriously as it began Cheltenham cooled off. That lead melted away under the relentless comeback by the Mustangs.
"I'm real proud of these boys; they're all real good kids. They never gave up,” Taylor said after the game. “In years past they may have given up when we were seven points behind with about five minutes left, But not with these kids. I didn't give up, I had the feeling they could come back and they did."
Harrison added a bit of humor after the championship game reminding his teammates “We get to ride the fire truck on Monday night,” referring to the planned victory parade.
Several heroes stepped up for the Mustangs including some scoring from an unlikely source – senior guard Jim Rambo.
“During the overtime period it was all Rambo,” Ross remembered “I think he wound up with a total of eight big points in the game.”
The memories of a championship and great teammates haven’t dimmed over the years.
“I enjoyed traveling on the bus with the team,” Bogden recalled fondly. “That’s what I remember and I enjoyed – having fun with the guys. We were loose and we had tape recorders and the music going. That was the real fun part.
“I haven’t seen some of the guys in 30 plus years,” Bogden explained. “I want to see the guys and rehash things – not only basketball but other things. See what’s going on in everybody’s life. It’s nice to come back and reminisce. It may never happen again.”