The Richland High boys basketball team has the chance to join an elite club this weekend.
The Bombers head to the Class 4A state tournament seeking the school’s first state title since the 1978-79 team won it all, defeating rival Pasco High.
“I’m really excited for the kids,” said Bob Kennedy, who was all-state that year. “It’s been 35 years and it is about time Richland brings one back.”
The 1979 team has some similarities to the 2014 team.
Both were high-scoring, breaking the 100-point mark twice in ‘79 and twice this season.
Both featured long winning streaks, as this version is undefeated and ‘79 lost its first game and won the final 26.
And both teams were overlooked heading into the state tournament. The ‘79 team was thought to be too short to matchup with Foss of Tacoma and not athletic enough for Garfield of Seattle. This squad was picked as the No. 5 likeliest to win a title by the Tacoma News-Tribune.
From there, though, the similarities end, as the 1979 team is considered the best in Richland High history and one of the best in state history.
“It’d be pretty tough to compare any team to our team because of our depth,” said Brian Kissinger, a backup guard in 1979. “We had a lot of guys that could play and would’ve started at other schools in the Big Nine.”
They also were loaded with players who went on to play in college.
Brian Kellerman played at the University of Idaho, Kennedy play at Seattle University, Mark Hoke played at the University of Idaho, Dennis Soldat played football at the University of Washington, Steve Chalcraft was set to play at Montana before getting injured, Larry Davis played baseball at Washington State, Kissinger played at Eastern Oregon, Peter Erie played baseball at Gonzaga, and Jeff Phillips played at Western Baptist.
It was a star-studded group, which is part of the reason they were so dominant.
“The thing that made the 79 state championship team special, was they could play at any tempo,” said Phil Neill, the coach of that team and for 17 years at Richland High. “If you want to slow it down, we play at that speed. Or we could play up tempo. That was what made that team very special.”
The Bombers could run the court with the best of them, and often ran teams into submission. They didn’t necessarily utilize a full-court press, but they did create a lot of turnovers and thanks to their big men underneath and the shooting ability of their guards, they could score points in a hurry.
“Everybody on the court ran,” said Chalcraft, the starting point guard, who lives in Kennewick. “We were very unselfish. I think our best attribute was our team defense. It was tough on other teams. If we would’ve had the 3-point line, oh my God.”
The team had been playing together since they were youngsters, often meeting up in the summer to play at the courts at Barth Park.Playing basketball for Richland High was a bit like playing football for Permian in Odessa, Texas. It was what every little boy dreamed of.
“Richland basketball at the time was everything, growing up as a kid,” said Kellerman, who was all-state in 1979. “You grow up in the backyard and that is what you want to do. I think it was the culmination of everything we all put tons of time into.”
In the 1970s, Richland High was dominant. The Bombers won the state title in 1972, were second in 1973, 1974 and 1977, and took fourth in 1975 and 1978.
The 1978 team was upset in overtime by Shadle Park in the first round of state and featured nine players that would play on the 1979 team.
“That experience we got our junior year, it was very disappointing, it was a bitter pill,” Kennedy said. “That was really hard. I didn’t leave my room for a week after we lost.
“It really took a toll on all of us. We were determined. We had nothing other than a championship (on our minds) that year.”
The Bombers came into the season ranked No. 1 in the state and promptly lost their opener to the John Stockton-led Gonzaga Prep Bullpups.
“We were too big, we weren’t ready,” Chalcraft said. “We got our heads on right and we got stronger and stronger and stronger. That was the best thing for us to get beat like that.”
After that 59-56 loss, the Bombers didn’t score less than 58 points in a game the rest of the season.
They had an overtime win against Central Valley in the third game of the year, and then were rarely challenged.
They throttled Walla Walla 112-39 and followed it up by hammering Wenatchee 100-62. They scored at least 90 points five times and at least 70 in all three state tournament games.
“I think it was a combination of personalities and it all came together,” said Kennedy, who now lives in Kamuela, Hawaii. “Every person on that team mattered. From the starting five all the way down through the bench. Everyone played a role, and of course the coaching staff. I give a lot of credit to Mr. (Jim) Castleberry and Ron Smithwick in the junior high program.”
After wrapping up a perfect league season, the Bombers destroyed Walla Walla (71-27), Eisenhower (84-54) and beat Pasco (61-57) in the district tournament. They then avenged their previous season loss to Shadle Park (91-80) to advance to the state tournament in Seattle.
“Sometimes we’d just pass it around just so we could work on stuff,” said Davis, who lives in Renton. “We could roll with six or seven or eight guys from the bench pretty easily. The caliber of talent throughout the league was extremely tough. Everybody had their players.”
That continued at state, as they ran into a Foss team that featured 7-foot Rob Burns. The Bombers gave up 18 points and 12 rebounds to Burns, but it wasn’t enough as Richland ran 2-3 zone for the first time, confusing Foss in the 70-60 victory.
The next night, Richland topped No. 2 Garfield, as Kennedy poured in 28 points in the 74-61 victory.
Finally, the Bombers capped their dream season with a 72-59 win over arch-rival Pasco.
It wrapped up Richland High’s third state basketball title and still resonates with the players today.
“The farther you get away from something, the more you appreciate it,” said Kellerman, who was drafted into the NBA and lives in Mount Vernon. “It is nice that it meant a lot to a lot of people.
“From the standpoint of Richland and what Bomber basketball was and is and meant to so many people, that was pretty neat to be apart of that.”
In four days, the 2014 team is hoping to have a better understanding of what Kellerman is talking about.