“A long, long time ago,
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
that I could make those people dance
and maybe they’d be happy for a while …”
Don McLean’s lyrics echoed from a small radio over the low drone of the Nava-Hopi Tour bus engine as it labored out of Camp Verde toward the Mogollon Rim on the last stretch of a long journey back to Flagstaff.
It was fall 1972, and this was just one of many trips from Flagstaff down to the valley for the team that would eventually become the Arizona AA state basketball champions. Heads leaned against frozen bus windows, trying to stay warm and get a little bit of sleep on the way home. On the losing trips the ride seemed a lot longer. Fortunately, the team of 1972-73 only had five losses, four of them on the road, and over the course of the season notched 20 wins, victorious in 11 of their final 12 games.
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Winning a state championship in any sport requires team chemistry, experience and a little bit of luck -- but mostly it requires talent. The 1973 team was extraordinary in every facet of the game: rebounding, passing, pressure defense and, of course, scoring.
There’s a big difference between making it to the semifinals or even the finals versus actually winning a state championship. The Panther team of 1989 was 31-1, claiming second place all-time for single-season wins by an Arizona varsity basketball team, but even that team did not win a state championship.
The 1973 Panthers to a man all knew their roles on that team. This is their story.
Ray Tsingine, Steve Oakey, James Bryant, Kevin Wilson, Ruben Romero, and Gary Lively. Brent Call, J. B. Callado, Denny Nelson and Benny Flores. Mike Fabritz, Freddy Beetso, Ray Smith and of course, coach Stan Townsend and assistant coach Bob Blair.
Impactful players Blake Heap and Ward Tsingine were brought up from the JV team at the end of the regular season to deepen the bench for the varsity’s AA North and state tournaments. Dennis Wilcox, Mark Muesch and Ray Figueroa managed the team, with JV team manager Doug Smith joining for the state tournament.
I was there to document the beginning of that season as a 17-year-old sportswriter for the Arizona Daily Sun getting paid $5 per story. Team manager Dennis Wilcox took over the writing duties at the end of 1972 and kept managing the team as well, lending an insider’s perspective to the articles he wrote.
This was Flagstaff when the population was 25,000. Only 8,000 or so students attended Northern Arizona University. The only “social media” was hanging out at the Dairy Queen or the A&W. We had two radio stations in town: KAFF Country and 1000-watt-strong AM 690 KEOS, the station for rock and roll. Lamar Rieck (radio name “Carl Lamar” to this day), a senior from Coconino High Class of ‘73, would DJ at KAFF Country during the day and then hustle over to the KEOS radio studio to DJ the night shift, spinning vinyl of Merle Haggard and Led Zeppelin.
For a high school student, going to Oak Creek was a big getaway.
Townsend had only been a high school basketball head coach for five years when he and Blair entered the 1972-73 season. Though this AA state championship occurred very early in his long coaching career, Townsend’s youngest son, Mike, said that as he got older, his dad would talk about the experience of coaching that team being one of the great experiences of his life.
“Mister Townsend,” as non-team members called him, was a great all-around athlete himself. Fast, agile and extremely strong, Townsend always seemed to be chewing on something. His son Mike shared that if no gum was available Townsend would chew on a piece of athletic tape. He was tough minded but fair, and, according to his players, he pushed you to give 120% whether you were in the game or on the bench.
What may not have been apparent at the beginning of the season was the maturity of the returning players. Tsingine, Oakey, Bryant and Wilson were now seasoned veteran players in their senior year. They were tempered by their experience the previous season when the Panthers had been eliminated 69-63 in the state tournament semifinals by the AA Central Conference champion Safford High School team that finished the season undefeated (25-0) and would become the eventual 1972 Arizona AA state basketball champions. However, Coconino did earn its first state tournament win in 1972 against the Canyon del Oro Dorados.
There was some bad blood between the Dorados and the Panthers.
Back then, athletes did not devote themselves to only one sport as many do now. Half of the basketball team also played football. Injuries were common. Additionally, during the basketball season, sixth man Beetso and center Bryant missed games due to injury, and Tsingine played with the flu for four games. Coconino would lose three of five during that span.
Callado, Wilson, Call and Lively all had to play bigger roles trying to protect the Panthers’ standing in the AA North while Agua Fria, Winslow and Kingman were collectively breathing down Coconino’s neck in pursuit of the regular-season title. Forward Oakey (AA North Tournament First Team captain) and guard Smith from Blair’s JV squad plugged the gaps during the middle of the season.
Oakey, who averaged 14 points per game throughout the season, broke loose in the first games versus Snowflake and Winslow (both Coconino wins), scoring 25 points in each game and setting a new single-game school record versus Snowflake with 31 rebounds. Insistence from Bryant had convinced a reluctant Smith to join the varsity team. Smith rose to the occasion.
When Tsingine’s flu broke, his first game at full speed was versus Coolidge at the Panther gymnasium on Feb. 2. It was a rout. Over the first 11 games of the season, he averaged 15 points per game; in the remaining eight games, he averaged 20 per game. During the AA North tournament and the AA state tournament, Tsingine scored 24 points per game. When the heat got turned up, Ray was the burner.
The 1973 AA State Basketball Championship Tournament
March 2 -- CHS vs Flowing Wells 72-69 (W)
“You guys picked the worst time to play your worst game. You’re 20 points down. You seniors, this is your last chance. You guys need to get together and figure it out.”
This was the halftime “pep talk” Townsend gave to his Panthers basketball team that was trailing by 20 points that night in Phoenix. Townsend had nothing more to say and left the locker room. That’s when Blair let loose with every colorful expletive he could bring to mind to try to inspire his players to play their best. Blair had an uncanny ability to make a player feel loved and inspired while he was swearing at them.
Coconino’s bread and butter all season was their rebounding prowess and their ability to trap the opposing guards in the back court to force turnovers leading to easy layups. The truth is that in 1973, the Panthers were scary good.
Scouting opposing teams from outside your conference wasn’t really done in 1973.
“We know next to nothing about Flowing Wells,” confided Townsend. The Caballeros were closer to Coconino’s size and liked to run a fast-break style offense, as well as pressing in the back court on defense, just like his Panthers.
Coconino knew the disappointment of losing the previous year to Safford after leading the entire game, then watching the Bulldogs go on to easily win the state title. In their minds that was their championship stolen from them in cruel fashion.
This couldn’t happen again.
In the first half that night against Flowing Wells, nothing was dropping for Coconino. However, the second half, as it had been so many times that season, was all Coconino as the Panthers clawed their way back into the game by closing the gap at the end of the third quarter, trailing by only 11 due to aggressive rebounding and the hot hands of Tsingine and Oakey. Bryant and Oakey together scored 15 in the final period, and Tsingine’s layup late in the fourth quarter put Coconino up for the first time 68-66. The Caballeros would knot things up at 68 on their next possession with less than a minute to play.
When life imitates art, the real-life situation reminds us of something we have witnessed in a movie or some other form of media. When Bryant walked to the foul line with the game tied 68-68 for a 1-and-1 opportunity with only 10 seconds left on the game clock, the Gene Hackman movie “Hoosiers” was still 13 years in the future, but just the same, every small-town school in America was behind Bryant when he calmly sank both shots to put the cap on a second-half run that must have seemed impossible to all those in attendance.
The Panthers had come from way behind to win 72-69 and punch their ticket to the AA state title game versus the tallest team in Arizona, Tucson’s No. 1 AA South Canyon del Oro Dorados. Against Flowing Wells, Tsingine led all scorers with 20 points, followed by Oakey with 19 and Bryant with 15. Smith netted 11, Callado four and Kevin Wilson two.
In a twist of fate in the game against Flowing Wells, Bryant was on the floor that night with his first cousin Lance Bryant, who was dressed out in a Caballeros uniform. At one point in the game Lance was at the foul line for Flowing Wells getting ready to shoot a couple free throws when James walked by his cousin on the way to his spot on the key under the basket and said, “You’re going to miss” -- which Lance indeed did. They broke the mold when they made James.
Life imitates art.
Coconino was about to inform Canyon del Oro that Arizona’s “favorite son” Alice Cooper had it right when he sang “School’s Out.”
The 1973 AA State Championship Game
March 3 -- CHS vs Canyon del Oro 74-68 (W)
There is no way to understate the pressure of any contest where a championship is at stake. It’s the culmination of months or years of effort, dedication, winning, losing. It either confirms or invalidates the work done to get to that championship game, leaving the winner elated and the loser dejected.
Canyon del Oro had given everything to be in the Coliseum that night. After a close win over Kingman in the semis, the CDO faithful had every reason to hope for and expect that their physically taller Dorados would bring home a state championship trophy. This was going to be their year. But that’s why they play the game ... .
“The mark of a true champion is if they can come back to a victory,” Townsend later remarked.
Townsend’s Panthers had come from behind time after time during the 1972-73 season, causing the head coach to chew more gum and athletic tape than ever in the state championship game.
Down by 12 points early in the second quarter it was beginning to look like a replay of the Flowing Wells contest the day before. Despite the game-long, relentless barrage of “trash talking” Panther center Bryant directed toward CDO center Brian Jung, he was imposing on the glass along with his counterpart Marshall Edwards, and they would lead the Dorados with 32 and 13 points respectively. Coconino guard Callado entered the game in the second quarter to spark the Panthers with six critical points, cutting the deficit to 35-30 at the half.
In the stands the Coconino faithful were on their feet throughout most of the second half as the Panthers opened an 11-point lead at the end of the third quarter. Guard and team co-captain Wilson took control of the running game in the third quarter, dishing out several assists as he led the Panther offense to outscore the Dorados 27-10 in that period, putting them back on their heels.
Tsingine was dominant in the fourth after both front-line big men Oakey and Bryant fouled out in the middle of that stanza, leaving the Panthers vulnerable against the much taller Dorados. CDO cut the Panther lead to three points on a few occasions late in the game, but Tsingine would answer with baskets to hold Coconino’s slim advantage.
In the last few minutes of the game both Tsingine and reserve forward Freddie Beetso also fouled out. Townsend went deep to his bench to save the championship with his three tallest starters and sixth man Beetso helplessly watching from the sidelines. Anyone who is a fan of the game of basketball knows that two minutes at the end of a game is an eternity. In those final fateful minutes, a David & Goliath scenario had Wilson, Callado, Smith, Call and Lively matching the significantly taller Dorados rebound-for-rebound to close out the championship that had eluded them the prior year.
Though CDO outscored the Panthers by five in the final quarter, it wasn’t enough to deny Coconino the state championship trophy. The smaller Panthers had held off the Dorados to win it all, 74-68. The improbable Golden Season was complete.
After the championship game, the honors rolled out for three Coconino players. Tsingine was voted captain of the All-Tournament First Team and nine days later would be chosen as the second recipient of the KTAR Radio-Television Arizona Prep Basketball Player of the Year. Both Oakey and Smith had been selected to the All-Tournament Second Team. Both Oakey and Tsingine represented Coconino on a postseason North All-Stars team.
These accolades were well deserved, but they also reflect the contributions made by the rest of the players on that Panther team whose rebounds, assists, steals and forced turnovers made it possible for those three players to get personal recognition. Statistics other than “points scored” and “personal fouls” have been lost to history.
In the end, it was the heroics of three guards, all under 6 feet tall, and two players who came off the bench in the closing minutes who held off a CDO team that must have thought they had the game in the bag watching Oakey, Bryant, Tsingine and Beetso foul out and head to the bench with plenty of time left on the clock.
The iconic photo at the end of the game shows the bench filled with Coconino’s starting players erupting in celebration at the final buzzer. They were the Arizona AA state champs.
The Coconino Panthers have never won another.
On Feb. 1, 2023, the current Coconino basketball team will face their crosstown rival Flagstaff Eagles in the Panthers' gymnasium where it all happened. The remaining members of the 1973 team and their families will be recognized at halftime with a banner being raised to commemorate their state title from 50 years ago. Getting the “assist” at this game will be a few extra pounds and a lot more grey hair. The entire city of Flagstaff and the Coconino class of ’73 is invited to attend.
Neil Young at the end of 1972 didn’t know it, but he framed this anniversary perfectly for everyone connected to that team when he sang, “Keeps me searchin’ for a heart of gold, and I’m gettin’ old.”
Mike Pavon will offer a hardback cover book to purchase for those who would like to have a keepsake of this 1973 basketball season. The book will contain a 16,000-word version of this article, including photos, a breakdown of every game of the 1973 Coconino Panther basketball season, game and individual player statistics and individual biographies of all 15 players, plus the coaches and team managers. To contact him: email@example.com or call (520) 631-3179.