This March will mark 45 years since Cocalico won the PIAA Class 2A boys basketball championship. At the time, the Eagles were the first boys basketball program from Lancaster County to win a state championship.
We were recently reminded of this group after the passing of Phil Fassnacht, who died Oct. 22 at age 62.
A 6-4 senior center in the 1976-77 season, Fassnacht averaged 19 points and led Cocalico in rebounding en route to the Lancaster-Lebanon League Section One, L-L tournament, District 3-2A and state 2A crowns.
Before we proceed with the 1977 team, though, we should mention the building up of the Eagles program to reach this point.
Ten years prior, in 1967, Spencer Henry was hired as the Cocalico coach. He’s credited with laying the foundation for what was to come. In 1974, Henry steered the Eagles to the District Three title (by topping Exeter) and 30-0 record, reaching the state semifinals. It’s there the group got the flu, were wiped out, and lost to Exeter, 45-38. Henry soon resigned with a career 122-39 lifetime record, and Ed McIlmoyle, who has been by Henry’s side the whole way, took over as the Cocalico head coach.
Three years later, with McIlmoyle as head coach and Fassnacht as the star, the Eagles were uber-talented as a whole. Along with Fassnacht, Cocalico’s all-league selections included 5-10 senior guard Mike Dinger (15.5 points per game), 6-2 senior forward Pat Ross (15 ppg), 5-9 senior shooting guard and team’s best defender Joe Becker (13.5 ppg).
Here’s an excerpt from the LNP archives on the Eagles’ run to gold that season…
Cocalico suffered a 64-50 loss on Dec. 14 against a Lebanon team led by Sam Bowie. ...Fassnacht scored 30 points in a 93-51 win over Lampeter-Strasburg on Feb. 11. ...Cocalico beat Elizabethtown, 56-49, in an L-L League tournament championship game played inside Hersheypark Arena. ...Cocalico beat Lancaster Catholic in the district semifinals, 55-46. ...Eagles reached the district semifinals for the second time in four seasons. ...Fassnacht scored a season-high 31 points in a state quarterfinal win over Lakeland, 72-60. ...Cocalico again beats Lancaster Catholic, this time in the state semifinals, 51-49, with free-throws from Fassnacht with one second left proving to be the game-winners. ...Fassnacht scored 22 in the state title win over Mercer, 73-49.
One of those state playoff wins came when a team manager forgot to bring the players’ sneakers, and Eagles hoopsters instead borrowed sneakers from fans, as recounted in a 2004 story by the late former LNP sports editor Dennis Fisher.
Below are some recollections from players on that team, from interviews conducted with LNP|LancasterOnline in October when talking about the life of Fassnacht.
Pat Ross: “Back then we ran around. We ran and pressed. We did things like that. Honestly, there was no 3-point line but Becker, Dinger, Phil, occasionally me, we had four guys who could shoot from the perimeter. A lot of them could have been 3-point shots. We still worked the ball inside. Phil was an excellent shooter, with a quick release. ...he scored a thousand in high school and a thousand in college. That was without a 3-point line.”
Joe Becker: “We had great team chemistry. When you got on a roll, things seem to fall into place. Our friendship off the court had a lot to do with that. We knew what the other guy was going to be doing or thinking. Right spot, right time. That comes with playing together all those years.”
Ross: “Phil was such a central role in the friendships we had. We played ‘dunk ball’ at the Dingers. …up in the barn. There was maybe a seven-foot basket. Everybody could dunk. …Tremendous camaraderie. We still do things together as a group.”
Becker: “Pat was the ring-leader in our 40th anniversary celebration. We have since started a yearly rendezvous at a local spot. We reminisce, tell stories, like old people do. We do that every March, as close as we can to the anniversary of state championship.”
By the way, there’s still some friendly ribbing all these years later on which Cocalico team was better: the 1974 version or the 1977 version.
Becker: “We throw it out to a couple of those guys, mainly to rub salt in their wound.”
Ross: “Phil was the one who’d always get in the argument. Joe and the other guys would throw the fuel on the fire. But the bottom line was, Phil would always say, ‘Well, we won it.’”
Cocalico is now one of three boys basketball programs in Lancaster County to have won a state title (Columbia won in 1987, Lancaster Catholic won in 2003). L-L League member Annville-Cleona won it in 1999. Those squads are in the rotation to be highlighted at some point this season.
Have a memorable story to share that reflects the history of L-L League boys basketball? Email firstname.lastname@example.org