By Tom Rowe
Just 161 days after the “Big Four” – Prime Ministers Georges Clemenceau (France), David Lloyd George (Great Britain), Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (Italy) and President Woodrow Wilson (United States) – spearheaded the acceptance and subsequent signing of the Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919) and only 28 years since Dr. James Naismith had invented the sport, the Norwich High School basketball team embarked on its two-year journey to immortality. Along that storied way, the Purple cagers compiled a record of 40-2-1, winning the New York State Interscholastic Championship Outside of New York City in 1920, while finishing runners-up a year later in 1921. For their efforts, these long-ago hardwood heroes are part of the fifth induction class of the Norwich High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Like the New York Yankees boasted the “Core Four” during their late-nineties success story, these two Tornado clubs were comprised of an “Iron Five” who saw most of the action. That handful was made up of Edwin “Buck” Burrows, Don O’Hara, Fred O’Hara, Harold “Clone” Ryan and Clarence “Jock” Taylor. Bill Sullivan, who captained the 1918-19 squad was the other main ingredient on the earlier team, while Lynn Halbert did likewise on the latter. Coach Frank Wassung, then in his fifth year at the NHS helm, opened the 1919-’20 campaign, but midway through the season Johnny Barsha assumed command and continued there through the following year.
Although Norwich had sported a creditable 13-5 record during the 1918-’19 campaign, Wassung must have been a little leery of the impending season as the Purple dropped three of its last four contests, two of which were to archrival Binghamton Central. But on opening night, Dec. 5, the Tornado delighted the crowd that packed the YMCA gym with a hard-fought 22-21 triumph over the Syracuse University Reserves, who made the final count closer than it was with three late baskets. The O’Hara brothers did the bulk of the scoring with 14 points between them, while Ryan added the other eight. Burrows, who had transferred to Norwich from a western New York prep school early in the 1918-’19 season, was splendid at his guard slot. As The Norwich Sun’s Perry Browne said, “Burrows played his usual good game, although not scoring any points, he played a wonderful floor game, breaking up play after play and getting the ball down to his forwards.”
With Ryan, who had scored 242 points for a 13.4 per game average the previous year, heating up the twines, Norwich easily outdistanced its next four opponents by a combined score of 172-52. In fact, the 6-foot-3 center, who poured in 32 points against Endicott, amassed 46 markers more than the Purple’s four foes with 98 points. Sporting an unblemished 5-0 log, Norwich hosted Binghamton on Jan. 30 before what Browne wrote was “the largest crowd that ever packed the YMCA gym.” Despite the huge fan base, the locals tasted defeat for the first time as Bingo, led by Van Atta’s 17 points, won out 21-15.
At this stage of the game, Johnny Barsha, a Syracuse University athlete of intercollegiate fame and captain of the Orange quintet during the past season, took the coaching reins from Wassung, who had assumed the duties of Superintendent of Norwich Schools earlier in the year. Barsha, an All-American who is presently ranked No. 65 among the all-time greatest SU players, had helped lead Syracuse to a 16-1 record during the 1917-18 season, when the Orange were voted national champions by the Helms Foundation. In fact, Syracuse won 23 straight games before suffering its first loss, a 17-16 nailbiter to the University of Pennsylvania. In that game, Penn charted only one field goal as Quaker forward George “Mike” Sweeney went 15-for-16 from the free throw line. Sweeney would later go on to lead Penn to the national title in 1920 when the Philadelphians beat the University of Chicago.
Four more lopsided triumphs followed that initial loss to Binghamton, so the stage was set for supremacy in the Southern Tier Basketball League when Norwich invaded the Parlor City on the night of March 5. Hundreds of Tornado faithful made the trip south – 400-plus by rail alone, and fans of both teams were treated to a classic. Tied at 20-20 after regulation play, Ryan put the Purple on top during the five-minute overtime, with a free throw for his 15th point of the evening but Van Atta, who also had 15 markers, followed suit. The rest is best left to the reporting of The Norwich Sun.