March 14, 2012

The March 1962 storm and OCHS basketball

Sports Columnist

Last week, while those of us in sports were focused on the adventures of the Ocean City High School basketball teams in the NJSIAA Tournament, The Gazette did a terrific job of looking back on the March 1962 storm that hit the Atlantic Coast so fiercely during that week 50 years ago.

There is one more story to be told about that storm and its impact. It involved Dixie Howell’s basketball team – in particular, senior guard Dave Farina.

The 1961-62 OCHS basketball team (there were no girls teams back then) entered the Group 2 Tournament with a 17-3 record and a 14-game winning streak. They had won their final regular season game over Hammonton, 115-51. The team had lost in December to Bishop Eustace and to Mainland then, in their first January game, to Holy Spirit.

Those Raiders started the Group 2 Tournament by beating Williamstown, 61-54, and then outscored Deptford, 71-55. That brought them face-to-face with Salem, the defending champion.

The leading scorer on the Ocean City team was Jerry Fadden, the team captain and the younger brother of Mike Fadden, whose 48 points in one game was then the OCHS record. Jerry averaged 17.1 points a game in 1961-62. Junior Charlie Baker added 15.2, Farina got 10.2, Ron Newcomer 8.7 and sophomore point guard John Cranston 6.4. John Burch, Dan Money and Bob Townsend contributed off the bench.

The Raiders had their hands full with Salem, a team that was bigger and quicker. They would be quite an obstacle. But another, even more frightening, obstacle was to appear.

“I have very vivid memories of that storm, as you might imagine,” said Cranston. “The funny thing is, I had little awareness it was going to be bad. I went to bed, the storm hit, I woke up, took a shower and dressed for school. I went out on the front porch, which was about three steps up from the street (near 4th and Asbury) and was about to step down when I noticed water sloshing over the porch deck. No school that day.

“Of course, the first thing I thought of was how we were going to practice. We were in the State Tournament and were going to be playing Salem. Salem was a powerhouse, won the year before and boasted a great player named Jerry Dickerson. Practice time was critical if we were going to have a chance.”

Fadden had a similar experience.

“My first recollection was walking out of the house we had on the lagoon at Snug Harbor to go to school that day,” he said. “Remember, there was no warning of the storm. Lo and behold, there was the lagoon. Only it was the yard – front and back and all around. So, I had to walk through water to get out and then walked to see how my car was doing (you know, teenagers and their cars). The road was so crowned towards the curb that the water was up to the top of the front wheels. Now, that was scary. It was to get worse.

“Undeterred and thinking a storm is very cool, Jack Hollingshead, Bryan Sherby and I decided to walk down to the Boardwalk at 11th Street in water up to our knees and watch the ocean. This was cool until a wave seemed to come out of nowhere, like a big, huge, open hand, and just grab a whole strip of the boardwalk and all the boardwalk for about 40 feet disappeared along with the store on that corner - 11th and the Boardwalk. It was now literally 11th and the ocean. We decided to beat a tactical retreat, scared out of our wits (assuming we had wits to go there to start with).”

Once the excitement and fear subsided, these guys started to focus on basketball. They hadn’t been able to practice for days and the NJSIAA postponed the game a day, hoping they could eventually play.

“Dixie actually got us in the gym for a few minutes,” said Cranston, “and they cleared a small space around one of the baskets. It was an evacuation center. We shot a few foul shots but were quickly thrown out. I have this vague memory that a loose ball whacked a kid in the head. We then went down to St. Augustine School to use their tiny gym where we did a walk-though of our offense and some shooting drills, but were unable to practice against opposition. That one practice was it. And Dave Farina could not make any of that because of all the horrible stuff going on in Sea Isle.”

“We had no real practice during that period,” Fadden said. “We hardly had a gym. Charlie Baker, for one, was out rowing around in a boat for several days trying to help people and make it safe. He had a lot of fun trying to shoot a basketball later. Dave Farina? We didn’t even know if Dave was alive. And my hands were pretty torn up from helping with mooring lines on some of the boats. The tournament people were kind enough to delay our game to at least see if we could show up.”

Finally, the Raiders had to head out to play Salem with virtually no preparation.

“When we left for the game,” Cranston said, “I recall we had to wait near a field in Upper Township because Dave was being brought by helicopter to meet the bus. It was Dave’s stories that finally penetrated my skull and I finally recognized how horrible the whole thing was.”

“Wump, wump, wump – all of a sudden a helicopter was landing on this field, 50 feet from our bus," said Fadden. "Truthfully very scary. Wump, wump, wump – why a helicopter near the bus? And then we saw - it was Dave Farina. Dixie had somehow arranged to have Dave helicoptered out of Sea Isle to play with his team. Man, were there some wet eyes for that reunion. But, the game – Dave fouled out, I fouled out, John Cranston could hardly stand up at the end, none of us could do much of anything even closely resembling basketball.”

The Raiders lost to Salem, 64-46.

“I’d like to say we would have won if we had had a chance to practice as usual,” Cranston said, “but I strongly doubt it. Pretty sure it would have been a better game, though. Salem was a great team and went on to win their group championship for the second year in a row.” Cranston would lead OCHS to a state championship two years later.

That helicopter ride is described from the other side in a special piece by Dave Farina. OCHS grad and popular author Joe LaRosa wrote a great book about the March 1962 storm called Our Perfect Storm, which is still available in shops in Sea Isle City.

The young men on Ocean City’s 1961-62 basketball team struggled to get their lives back to normal when that storm hit five decades ago. They were the best in the Cape-Atlantic League. But they couldn’t beat Mother Nature.

Read more of Tom Williams' columns