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Ceremony on Friday will pay tribute to the 1968 MAHS boys basketball team that won state title

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 1/31/18

You probably could take any varsity basketball and football team in Blue Raider history, and find members of that team who went on to accomplish significant achievements in later life.

But the …

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Ceremony on Friday will pay tribute to the 1968 MAHS boys basketball team that won state title

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You probably could take any varsity basketball and football team in Blue Raider history, and find members of that team who went on to accomplish significant achievements in later life.

But the legacy of the 1968 Class B state championship basketball team is extraordinary by any measurement.

The team lost only once all season and won the state championship game by 30 points. Victories by more than 50 and scoring totals of more than 90 points were commonplace. They even topped 100 a couple of times.

A number of those players as well as their coach, Casper Voithofer, will be honored Friday, Feb. 2, at halftime of the home varsity basketball game between Middletown and West Perry.

“It was like a gift from God,” Charles “Chip” Etter says today of that magical 1968 season. He was a starting power forward as a senior.

MAHS has only one other team state title in its history, the boys soccer team in 2001.

An amazing roster

Some of the players on the 1968 team excelled long after graduating from Middletown.

The most notable example is David Twardzik, a starting point guard on that 1968 team who went on to become a Division II All-American at Old Dominion University, and eventually a member of the Portland Trailblazers team that won the NBA championship in 1977, along with superstar center Bill Walton.

The Trailblazers retired Twardzik’s No. 13 jersey. After he finished playing, Twardzik began an NBA coaching and front office career with Portland, Indiana, Detroit, Charlotte, the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State, and Denver.

In 2003, he became director of player personnel for the Orlando Magic and was promoted to assistant general manager in 2005, a position he held until 2012.

In late 2013 Twardzik returned to Old Dominion to do color commentary for the Monarchs radio broadcasting team, the job he still holds today.

Twardzik told the Press & Journal he has home games to work on Thursday and Saturday nights, but he plans to be in the Middletown Area High School gym for the halftime festivities on Friday night.

Clifton Brown, a sophomore on that 1968 team who was brought up to the varsity late in the season, was better known for his prowess on the football field. He would become the first black quarterback to ever start for the University of Notre Dame.

He was drafted as a defensive back by the Philadelphia Eagles but did not make the team.

Brown studied criminology at Notre Dame and aspired to a career in the FBI or in some other branch of law enforcement. He died in December 2012.

Barry Ulsh, another member of the reserve team that backed up the starters in 1968, was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds. He never made it to the big club, but he spent several seasons playing in the minors.

Several other members of the 1968 team attained success both on the field and off.

Richard “Dick” Barnoski, another starter on the 1968 team, was a starter on the Dickinson College basketball team for three years. In 1973, they almost beat Georgetown and their new coach, John Thompson Jr., but the Hoyas beat the Red Devils at the buzzer.

Barnoski got an accounting degree and became a CPA at a big firm in Philadelphia. Four years later he said, “I gotta get back to God’s country” and moved back here to work for the Hershey Co. for 29 years.

Today Barnoski is a part-time consultant in the commodities business. He lives on Roosevelt Avenue, just down the street from the house he grew up in Middletown.

Etter went on to play basketball at Lebanon Valley College and was inducted into the college’s Hall of Fame. A history major, Etter taught world history at Lower Dauphin School District for 34 years and coached basketball for 13 years.

Ed Chubb, also a starter on the 1968 team, played basketball at Penn State University and was a captain of the team in the 1972-73 season.

John Scudder, another member of the second team that year, played fullback on the football team at Shippensburg University and went on to serve as high school principal at a number of schools in the Harrisburg area.

Ed Tennis, a starter who got hurt in the second game of the season — the Blue Raiders’ only loss that year, to Steelton-Highspire — played quarterback and defensive back for Virginia Tech. Tennis died from pancreatic cancer.

Harold Brown, who started on the 1968 team as a senior, played basketball at a junior college in California.

Owen Hannah, another member of the deep bench on that 1968 team, played basketball and baseball at California University of Pennsylvania. Brett Whittle, also a member of the second team, played football at the University of Detroit.

Charles Bowen, who along with Clifton Brown was brought up to the varsity late in the 1968 season, has made his own mark at Middletown Area School District. He was a driver’s education instructor, has been coach of the golf team for 30 years, and was head varsity basketball coach in the 2000s.

Building a foundation

As good as the 1968 team turned out to be, no one went into the season predicting the team would win a state championship, or come even close to doing anything like that.

Russ Trimmer had built a solid foundation for success as head coach, leading Middletown to five Capital Area Conference titles from 1961 to 1966. Then Trimmer got a job as the head basketball coach at Juniata College.

Taking his place would be Casper Voithofer, a young social studies teacher who came to Middletown in 1965 along with his wife, Cathy, also a school teacher.

Voithofer, whose father was a coal miner with a seventh-grade education, had played basketball at California University of Pennsylvania.

Athletics was seen as a ticket out of the coal mining region, but Voithofer and his wife probably never would have come to Middletown if not for the closing of Olmsted Air Force Base.

Voithofer’s aunt lived in Middletown and was married to a man who was stationed at Olmsted. Like so many others, they were looking to be transferred to San Antonio or to other air force bases around the country in the wake of the decision to close Olmsted.

“He had about four or five years to go for retirement,” Voithofer said of his aunt’s husband during an interview with the Press & Journal on Friday, Jan. 26. “They didn’t know what to do with their house. They said there are a lot of openings out here, why don’t you get a teaching job? You can pay off the rent on our home. We are gonna be back in a few years.”

The district persuaded Voithofer to coach the junior varsity basketball team and when Trimmer moved on, Voithofer found himself head coach of the varsity program in 1967.

The team did well in Voithofer’s first year. Going into 1968, Voithofer was 25, not much older than the kids he was coaching.

“We thought we could compete for our league (the Capital Area Conference)” going into 1968, Voithofer said. “There was no question. Could we go beyond our league? Were we big enough? Were we talented enough?”

Those were the unknowns. Having come from western Pennsylvania, Voithofer knew how good the teams were out there. They dominated the state, and teams from the rest of Pennsylvania typically couldn’t beat the squads from the west.

Battle-tested

Trimmer had established a program of pressure defenses and fast break offenses that Voithofer continued, said Barnoski.

The team had veteran leadership going into 1968, with “Skeez” Twardzik and Brown having been starters on the varsity since 1966. Etter was beginning his second year as a starter.

“They were battle-tested, to say the least, going into 1968,” Barnoski said. The team also had a deep bench, made up of Ulsh, Tennis, Scudder, Whittle and Hannah.

The players on the team had been playing together for years, going back as far as the seventh grade under the tutelage of coach John Rowan.

Etter remembers he and the others from the 1968 squad enduring four-hour practices on Saturdays as seventh-graders under Rowan.

“He instilled in us the fundamentals,” Etter said of Rowan. By the time 1968 arrived “I think we would have been picked to win the league.”

An early loss

Whatever those expectations were, they took a hit on just the second game of the season, when the Blue Raiders lost to Steel-High 55-40.

“That sort of dashed our hopes that we would be anything special,” Barnoski said. The next day’s practice under Voithofer was “a tough one.”

Tennis got hurt in the game against Steel-High. The team needed some height, so Voithofer moved 6-foot-4 Chubb up to the varsity, along with Barnoski, who was known as a good shooter.

“We made some changes in our direction and in our starting line up and the way we were going to approach things,” Voithofer said. “Not away from our system, not away from what had been good for us for years. We just had to do some changes.”

The team started winning, and winning, and winning. From that 1-1 start, the team reeled off 17 straight regular season victories.

Other than a 14-point win over Hershey late in the season, the games weren’t close. The Blue Raiders typically won by 20, 30, even 50 or more points at times.

“Our identity was we defended and we ran,” Twardzik said. The team also had a chemistry that worked.

“We were an ego-less team,” he added. “Nobody felt like they had to score every game. We had a group of very unselfish guys who put the team success in front of their own.”

Etter gives much of the credit to Voithofer, whom he said was doing things that no other coach in the area was doing.

“Casper threw in a variety of presses,” he said. “We were really good at changing these presses and keeping teams off balance. They never knew what we were going to run.”

“We pressed full court and we fast-broke every possession that we got that was reasonably possible,” Voithofer said.

He described games that would start fairly even, maybe 8 to 8. The Blue Raiders would catch fire, and before you knew it they were up 23-8 and the other team’s coach was calling time out because that was the only way to slow Middletown down.

The crowd goes wild

Middletown had had a strong basketball and football tradition going back to the 1940s. The players who had been on those teams came out to all the games in 1968. They wanted to be a part of it.

“As the season progressed it wasn’t a question of what you were going to do on Tuesday and Friday,” Voithofer said. You went to the basketball games.

“If you didn’t get in the gym with a seat at 6 o’clock, which was before the JV game, you didn’t have a seat.”

The team and the crowd fed off each other.

“We couldn’t go fast enough for them,” Voithofer said of the home crowds. “Our kids got fueled by that.”

During one of the rare home games when it seemed as though the Blue Raiders were having a hard time getting going, the crowd stepped in to make it happen.

“If it looked like you weren’t really good that night, if things weren’t clicking, man (the crowds) would get up and start yelling and screaming,” Voithofer said. “All of a sudden, when we did make that surge to win a game, they would feel like they were a part of it — as if to say, ‘Hell, they weren’t doing too good until we started giving them hell.’ They were seeing this motor running, and they wanted to be in that motor.”

Despite the lopsided margins of victory, Voithofer wasn’t one to run up the score. By halftime or the third quarter, Middletown often had such a big lead that Voithofer would take the first team out and bring the second team in.

The problem was, the second team was almost as good as the starters, Etter said. Voithofer had instilled intense competition between the starters and the second team, and when the reserves got a chance to play, they gave it all they had.

After becoming a starter, Barnoski said he remembers going to school on days when he was “sick as a dog.”

“I would not miss a practice or a game because I did not want to lose my job,” he said. “Our second team would have beaten any first team in the league. They pushed us constantly.”

Middletown was for real

As the wins kept coming, the Blue Raiders knew they were good. They started seeing the articles in the local paper written by reporters who covered a lot of games, saying that Middletown was for real.

Voithofer didn’t talk about it, Twardzik said. A disciplinarian, he just kept working the team hard. To toughen up the team he made them run wind sprints and wouldn’t let them drink water, something Voithofer says he probably couldn’t get away with today.

‘’Yeah, they’re drinking water over at Hershey but you here you don’t need water,’” Voithofer remembers telling the team.

Years later Barnoski told him that the team would run downstairs and “drink like hell” but not let the coach know.

Still, Voithofer wondered if it would be good enough, given the opponents that he knew were looming in the west. And before that, the Blue Raiders had to get through districts.

Middletown’s second game in the district playoffs was against Eastern York. Before the game, the Eastern York coach was quoted in the local paper saying he “wasn’t much impressed” with Middletown, Etter remembers.

Middletown blew out Eastern York by 57 points, 108-51. As the Eastern York coach was forced to walk by the Blue Raiders’ fans in the stands, he was greeted with a chorus of “Are you impressed? Are you impressed? Are you impressed?” Etter said.

A future pro awaits

After defeating Conrad Weiser, Ephrata and Wissahickon, Middletown advanced to the eastern championship to face a Mansfield team featuring Tom McMillen, a 6-foot-10 inch center who in February 1970 would make the cover of Sports Illustrated as “the best high school player in America.”

But in 1968, McMillen and Mansfield weren’t enough for the Blue Raiders, who won by 12 points.

A Rhodes Scholar, McMillen went on to the University of Maryland and an 11-year career in the NBA, before serving as a member of the U.S. Congress for six years.

That left the state championship game to be played at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena against East Brady, a western powerhouse that featured the brother of Jim Kelly, who as a quarterback led the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

Voithofer had arranged for seven people he knew to scout East Brady. When they called and Voithofer told them Middletown had beaten Mansfield by 12, his team of scouts told Voithofer that the Blue Raiders would beat East Brady by 30 — an unheard of margin of victory for a team from the east over a team from the west.

The Blue Raiders fans traveled well, of course, with about 300 buses making the journey from Middletown to Pittsburgh for the big game on March 22, 1968.

The game started ominously, to say the least. Twardzik got into early foul trouble and had to be taken out.

“I’m sure there were some people who said, ‘Well, we got a shot at them now,’” Voithofer said.

But the rest of the team stepped up in a big way. Harold Brown probably had his best game ever, scoring 21 points.

Also, “we had some subs who came in and just played super and didn’t miss a beat,” Voithofer said. “It wasn’t until later on that we realized that we had actually begun to pull away when Twardzik was sitting on the bench, but it was because we practiced that way all the time. Our subs knew that the competition was great and that when they got in there they better perform.”

The final score was Middletown 78, East Brady 48 — just like the scouts called it for Voithofer.

Barnoski scored 14, Ulsh registered 13, and Twardzik and Etter both had 12 points.

A parade through town

The game was on a Friday. The team didn’t return until Saturday afternoon.

On the way home about a half hour outside of Middletown, the team bus got word — how Voithofer isn’t sure because this was long before cellphones — that the Middletown police and firetrucks would meet them right off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, to escort the team bus on a parade through the town.

“Who orchestrated that, I don’t know,” Voithofer said.

The parade went through town and hit the neighborhoods where the players were from.

People were out on their porches “in any kind of clothing” Voithofer recalls, laughing. Banners and signs were everywhere. People were yelling and screaming in a wild celebration.

The parade ended at the high school gym, which was set up with a public address system so that all the players and all the coaches could have their say speaking to the crowd, if they wanted to.

Voithofer said he thinks the place was filled, but he really can’t remember. He was “oblivious.”

“We’re talking 29 games, a lot of stress, a lot of pressure one-game-at-a-time atmosphere. You lose one, you’re out. You’re going home. You’re one of the good teams this year but not good enough,” he said. “I said a few things, probably thanks for all the support, I probably took the trophy and said ‘this is for you.’”

“I can remember my wife saying, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Go home and sleep. I’m tired of the crowds I’m tired of the stress I’m tired of the goal and the anticipation and the marching toward that goal. I don’t have anything left. I gave it all.”

Memories for a lifetime

One of the memories that sticks out for Twardzik is that road trip to Pittsburgh to play in the championship. A Middletown native whose father worked at the Olmsted base, Twardzik said it was probably the first time he ever stayed in a hotel.

Sometime before the championship game, the Blue Raiders went to see a game played by the Pittsburgh Pipers, who were part of the American Basketball Association. Twardzik played with the Virginia Squires in the old ABA before joining Walton and the Trailblazers in the NBA in 1976.

“Seeing a pro game and then winning the state championship— just the whole experience was unbelievable,” he said.

The media attention from winning the state championship catapulted the Blue Raider players to celebrity status throughout the region.

“Everybody knew you,” Barnoski said. “After a couple of years it sort of wore off, but we always had that in our resume. We did what no one else had done in Middletown — played on a championship team.”

For Voithofer, winning the 1968 state championship “provided opportunities that I had probably never thought of before.”

Going from someone who was reluctant to become a coach in the first place, Voithofer all of a sudden had the reputation of being “brilliant,” he told the Press & Journal.

“I got a chance to speak at clinics, people calling me and asking me about things, coaching wise, how did you do this or how did you do that. I loved to share it.”

Winning the championship of course meant that expectations were all the higher for the Blue Raiders going into the 1969 season, when Barnoski was a senior. Middletown was ranked number one in the state.

The team had a good year, finishing 23-2, but lost in the first round of the playoffs to Susquehannock, 63-61.

“It was devastating,” Barnoski said.

Voithofer to Penn State

The very next day, Voithofer got a call from Penn State. They wanted to see Chubb play again and sign him to a four-year scholarship. After Voithofer told him that Middletown had lost and its season was over, Penn State offered him an assistant coaching job at University Park.

“That probably changed my life,” Voithofer said. Had the call come later, he probably would have been over the loss and would have stayed at Middletown.

Instead, he went to Penn State. He credits the 1968 state championship experience — and his wife, Cathy — with giving him “the guts” to get his graduate degree while coaching at Penn State.

His life could have turned out much differently. While at Penn State he had opportunities to move up the college coaching ladder at other schools like the University of Washington and Tulane.

That could have taken Voithofer on a path that could have eventually landed him a coaching job at a place like Duke, or North Carolina, or the NBA — all likely stemming from what happened in Pittsburgh on a March night in 1968.

Who knows.

Each time, Voithofer ended up staying at Penn State, after having a heart-to-heart talk with Cathy.

“She’d say, ‘Where is the University of Washington?’ I’d say ‘Seattle.’ She said, ‘Who do you know in Seattle?’ I said, ‘No one.’ She said, ‘If we went out there as a family and they fired you, what do we do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ She said ‘All of our family is in Pennsylvania — so we don’t see them at Christmastime, we don’t see them at Thanksgiving anymore? Are you kidding me?”

Voithofer coached men’s basketball in Puerto Rico three different times; in 1970, 1973 and in 1980. The league ran over the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Four years after leaving Middletown, the head varsity basketball coaching job opened up again. Voithofer came back, after four stress-filled years at University Park. He also was head coach of the varsity baseball team from 1974 to 1980.

After becoming assistant principal in 1980, he limited himself to being head varsity baseball coach, a position he held for another year or two.

He later was principal of Dauphin County Vocational-Technical School. He then became principal at Middletown Area High School, and served in that role for close to 11 years until he decided to retire at age 55.

“I thought there’s more to life than all these things. There’s more to life than coaching, more to life than being a principal,” Voithofer said. “People would say, ‘You were on a pedestal with basketball.’ I never thought of it that way. I thought the kids had played well and I was the recipient of a lot of glory.

“Yeah we put those things in, but the kids did those things. I could have told those same things to less talented kids and we never would have achieved what we achieved.”

After retiring, Voithofer worked part-time for the school district raising money from alumni to support scholarships for deserving students, regardless of whether they were involved in basketball or any other sport.

“That was a way for me to give back to the community,” he said.

Today at 75, Voithofer remains active with the Blue and Gold Club. He and Cathy live in Lower Swatara Township.