Some Things You Never Get Over.

I was fortunate enough to play high school basketball in the New Orleans area during the mid 1970’s. It was a special time because with the demise of integration the best players were able to compete against each other, and that made for some epic match ups.

The Catholic schools dominated the headlines.Brother Martin had Rick Robey, who played at Kentucky and for the Boston Celtics. Holy Cross had Carlos Zuniga who played for Tulane. Jesuit had Crystal Chris Jennings, who played for Nicholls State. De La Salle had Jordy Hultberg, who was compared to Pete Maravich,  he also played at LSU, and later Daryl Moreau, who set a national record for consecutive free throws and went on to play for Tulane. Hultberg’s teammates, Gary Lorio and Lee Blankenstein,  played for Tulane and Georgia Tech. The public schools had players too. L.B. Landry had Andre King and James Ray. Ray later played for the Denver Nuggets. East Jefferson had Jerome Reese, Albert Pryor, and Micah Blunt. Blunt also went to Tulane. However there was also outstanding basketball being played at smaller schools in the area and no school, large or small, had as illustrious a basketball history as the Isidore Newman Greenies.

Many of you reading this may recognize Newman as the alma mater of Peyton and Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, Jr. but the school is so much more. It was founded in 1903 to create educational opportunities for residents of the Jewish Orphans Home. Over time it evolved into one of the most prestigious college preparatory schools in the state of Louisiana, if not the whole country.

In the early 1960’s the school hired Ed”Skeets” Tuohy to become it’s basketball coach. Originally from Chicago, Coach Tuohy’s teams were imposing on defense and fundamentaliy sound on offense. District championships were fait accompli. In fact they seldom lost a district game. They competed for and won state championships, and anything less was short of the goal. Coach Tuohy also had a young family consisting of one daughter and three sons. Three extraordinary basketball playing sons, Ed, Sean, and Seamus. When a sudden illness took Coach Tuohy off the bench he was replaced by his assistant Billy Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had played at Jesuit and Tulane and he was fortunate to have Ed Tuohy Jr. and Sean Tuohy on his team.

In  1929 a group of families founded Metairie Park Country Day School just outside of Orleans Parish. Country Day also gained a reputation as an outstanding college preparatory school. Given that both institutions catered to upwardly mobile and successful families it was only natural that a rivalry developed. But it wasn’t much of one.

Country Day was smaller than Newman so they competed sporadically in athletics and with limited success. In fact Newman was so highly regarded in basketball that it was a regular participant in the New Orleans Catholic Youth Organization Tournament and was able to host it’s own tournament, the Newman Invitational, that attracted the best teams in the area as well. In 1976, Ed Touhy Jr.’s senior year, Newman was seemingly unbeatable. But in the early round of the playoffs the unthinkable happened. Newman lost!

Meanwhile just seven miles away the Country Day Cajuns were making a push through the playoffs. The year before they had sneaked into the post season when another team in their district had gotten disqualified. They were soundly routed in their opening game. The following year, behind 6’7″ center John Derenbecker, the team that had lost only one starter from the previous season had matured and was now marching to Alexandria, Louisiana and the Top 20 tournament. The Cajuns run finally ended in the state championship game. But under fiery coach Richard Jarrett that team had discovered that they could compete with anybody. And there was one team the Cajuns all wanted to play next year. That team was Newman! I can write with assurance about this because I was a starter on both the 1976 and 1977 Cajun basketball teams.

Now Newman had nothing to gain and everything to lose by playing us. They played every top program in the city and competed in a much more difficult district than us. We played higher classification schools as well but had to travel greater distances to find opponents. While Newman routinely made the playoffs and advanced to the Top 20, prior to the 1976 run Country Day’s only other Top 20 appearance was in 1966 and they were beaten badly in the opening game.

Although Newman was a small school not one of their basketball players competed in football. They played together all summer and their 1977 team had every starter back except for Ed Tuohy, who had graduated and had accepted a college scholarship to play basketball at Northwestern State.  We on the other hand had four key players on our football team, including our top two guards. We also only had two returning starters, although that was mitigated in part due to the fact that we had eight seniors on our team. After much negotiation, and what I am sure was some spirited behind the scenes politics, Newman agreed to play us. But it would be under difficult circumstances.

Newman set the game for early November. It would be their seventh game of the year and only our second, in part due to to football. To make matters worse our football team only had one loss and was heavily favored in it’s last two games. If they won as expected the football team would be in the playoffs and our basketball team would have to face the Newman juggernaut without our full roster. Finally we would have to play them at their gym, a hell hole known as Death Valley!

Living close to Newman’s campus I had attended many of their games and even played at their gym as an 8th grader when I was at De La Salle. When you walked in you saw the ceiling draped with pennants listing all their district championships. On the wall was a compilation of all the state championships. On the back wall painted in huge letters behind a basket was a sign that read Welcome To Death Valley! Home of the Newman Greenies!

The Newman players would file in wearing green blazers adorned with the Newman crest. Even the coaching staff wore those blazers. The team would sit in the stands with a cocky self assurance only consistent winning can muster, waiting patiently to adminster their brand of basketball on their next victim. Because of the intimacy and acoustics of the gym, the noise in there could be deafening. As such Newman almost never lost at home. Once we knew the game was on it was all both student bodies could talk about. Of course no one gave Country Day a chance. It wasn’t if we would lose to Newman, but by how much.

Of course I think I am fair in saying that those of us on the team had some doubts about our chances against Newman. After a lackluster scrimmage against De La Salle in the Tulane arena it became obvious that we were not the same ball club without our full roster. I never was one to root against my school in anything, but I must admit it wasn’t going to break my heart if we lost to Ridgewood in football.

Ridgewood was a private school in Metairie that was in our district. It was a good school but not considered to be on par with Newman, Country Day, or St. Martin’s academically or athletically. In recent years we had dominated them in almost everything. They were a baseball powerhouse, but other than that, fairly mediocre in other sports. Our football team had already beaten New Orleans Academy and the game after Ridgewood was against Crescent City Baptist, which was in no way capable of standing up to us in football. If we prevailed against Ridgewood the playoffs were pretty much a certainty.

When game day arrived we lined up at Metairie Playground to watch what was expected to be another massacre of the Ridgewood Golden Eagles. When Ridgewood took the field we were mildly amused that they had gotten new uniforms and were jumping around like fanatics.

The game started as expected. On the opening series quarteback Chris McMorris, who was slated to be our starting point guard, hit Timothy Bright, our starting shooting guard, with a 58 yard touchdown pass. However we misssed the extra point so we led 6-0. That missed extra point ended up being an omen. Country Day was a soccer powerhouse in those days and was one of the first football programs to employ soccer style kickers. In fact we often carried two kickers. We seldom missed field goals, let alone extra points.

The rest of the game was a slug fest. Neither team could score on the other. With time running out Ridgewood put together a scoring drive and  converted their extra point. With less than two minutes to go, they were now in the lead.

There would be no miracle finish. We ended up losing 7-6 and our chance to go to the playoffs. Selfishly two things came to mind. We would have our full team together when we faced Newman, and if we could lose to Ridgewood in football, then Newman could lose to us in basketball!

We had a little over a week to get ready for Newman. Practices were intense. We opened our season against Archbishop Shaw, a Catholic school on the West Bank of the Mississippi River. Prior to that game we had gone as a team to watch Newman rout Chalmette High. Now it was Newman’s turn to scout us. As I took the floor I looked in the stands and saw the Newman basketball team sitting together.

Unfortunately, against a Shaw team that was less than stellar, we played uninspired basketball.  Derenbecker was his usual dependable self, and I had a good game going six for six from the floor, but you could see that some of our players were still trying to get into basketball shape, and the team chemistry was not where it needed to be. We won by nine points but Newman was 7-0 and had won every game by double figures. Who could blame them if they were feeling over confident?

When it was finally time to face the Greenies tensions were high. The tiny Newman gym was packed to the point where people were having to stand in corners to be able to see the game. Given that it was a contest being supported by student bodies that were used to writing college essays, instead of signs exhorting one team to beat  the other you had a solitary card board poster that stated “Enough has been said” Below it was a long dissertation that I had neither the time nor inclination to read, but it’s title drove the point home. It was time to put up or shut up!

We took the floor wearing our road royal blue uniforms trimmed in red with Cajuns stitched across the front. The home team was in it’s white uniforms trimmed in green. In bold letters on the front of their jerseys was NEWMAN.

During warm ups I felt like my feet were not even touching the floor. I was not one who possessed great jumping skills but that night I felt like I was going to literally leap out of the gym. By the time we were set for the opening tip I was twitching.

I looked at the Greenies. At center was Rich DeCamp. He was 6’3″ with long arms and he was left handed, making him even harder to defend. He had become Newman’s go to guy and leading scorer. At one forward was 6’2″ David Pointer. Pointer was a four year starter and as an 8th grader was considered one of the best basketball players in the city. At the other forward was Clark Hinrichs. A reed thin 6’2″, Hinrichs was fundamentally sound and considered a defensive stopper. At one guard was Billy Gardner. A solid ball handler and defender he was also a good shooter and a Junior Olympian. At point was Sean Tuohy. Tuohy was already regarded as one of the best, if not the best, point guard in the city. He was a little over 6’0″ tall and could do anything he wanted with a basketball. Although not known for his scoring he could put up points if he had to.

We had a now 6’8″ John Derenbecker at center. A first team all state selection as a junior he was our undisputed leader and captain. At one forward was junior Billy Shepherd. Shepherd was sleek and smooth with a soft jump shot. I manned the other forward spot. I was 6’2″ and was more of a banger, preferring to mix it up close to the goal. At guards we had 6’1″ Tim Bright, a shooter with tremendous range, and at point we had Chris McMorris. McMorris had played against Tuohy for years in various leagues. He was probably one of the few guards in the city who could hang with Sean. We also had the extremely athletic 6’1″ Joey Agular who started several games for us as a guard and forward.

In times of great focus you can slow things down. The opening half was like that for me. We were all over Newman and were scoring at will. John was unstoppable. The whole team was in a zone as it relates to shooting. On my second basket I was given a pass on a dead run. I took a step and leapt to the basket. In mid air I saw Gardner moving in to take a charge. I contorted my body away from his and released the ball as I went out of bounds, attempting to kiss it off the glass. I could tell by the sound of the crowd that the shot had went in and in addition the referee had whistled Gardner for a blocking foul. On defense we knew where Tuohy was going with the ball, but still couldn’t stop him. Never the less we opened up to a double digit lead and went into the half leading by 9 points.

In the second half the Newman five settled down. Both teams scored 15 points and our lead remained at 9 points as we entered the fourth quarter. It was now boiling down to Newman’s two best players, DeCamp and Tuohy, against our stalwart, Derenbecker.

In the 4th quarter the football curse began to hit us as fatigue was setting in. We had two players foul out and Newman’s guards were causing turnovers. Newman executed the run and jump to perfection. One guard would force the ball handler to the sideline. He would release as his teammate came and sealed. At that point the first guard would reach around and bat the ball to his teammate who would in turn pass it back for an easy lay up, or they would just trap and cause that ball handler to pick up his dribble on the sideline. Either way a turn over usually resulted. In addition the Newman crowd was starting to get into the game. Seeing the change in momentum our coach called a time out.

This was a difficult time and our coach made a decison that was risky. He decided to go into a delay with Derenbecker on the point. We were now going to milk the clock and in essence try not to lose instead of trying to win.

Now putting the ball into the hands of your best player is generally not a bad idea but in this case it proved to be a tall order for John. For one thing we had not practiced the four corners very much prior to this game, and had never run it with our center as the point of attack. Secondly we had  John way out above the top of the key being guarded by DeCamp,a smaller and quicker player. This negated the five inch height advantage John enjoyed. I remember DeCamp looking defiantly at John in his defensive stance, legs bent, hands spread wide, almost grinning. I made things worse by trying to force the ball into John twice when he tried to post up, resulting in turnovers both times. Of course on each and every turnover we committed either Tuohy or DeCamp made us pay. By stalling it also took our other players out of the flow, as we all felt that John was the only player who should attempt to score from that point on.

With very little time remaining Newman took the lead and ended up winning by 5 points. The final was 67-62 and Newman had outscored us 24-10 in the 4th quarter. Tuohy and DeCamp accounted for 67% of Newman’s points scoring 24 and 21 points each. Derenbecker led us with 26 points followed by me with 12.  I sat on the bench recalling a basket I had made that had been waved off for traveling and my two turnovers late in the game. I was sick and heartbroken. I also had severe muscle cramps in both of my calves.

Afterwards in the locker room we could hear Newman coach Billy Fitzgerald screaming and using colorful language exhorting his team on their effort. Over and over he said they were the best team in the state. They would , to the best of their ability, prove him right.

We went into a bit of a funk after that game but eventually righted ourselves. We finished the year 29-6 and won Country Day’s first ever state championship. Newman went 32-1, and other than two epic games with neighborhood rival De La Salle that they split with each game being decided by a last second shot, Newman had no trouble winning yet another state championship for their storied program. The New Orleans area scored a trifecta when Archbishop Rummel of Metairie won the state 4A championship by upsetting  a 41-0 DeRidder team that featured Mike Sanders, who would later play for UCLA and the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 3A Redemptorist of Baton Rouge would prevail, led by Howard Carter, who would later star at LSU and play for the Denver Nuggets.

Both DeCamp and Tuohy made all-state with DeCamp being named player of the year. Tuohy would lead Newman to another state title his senior year before heading to Ole Miss where he led the Southeasten Conference in assists three years in a row. Now a successful businessman in Memphis, many of you know him as the legal guardian of Michael Oher from the Blind Side. That book was authored by Michael Lewis, who also attended Newman.

Derenbecker was named first team all state in our classification as well as player of the year. He accepted a basketball scholarship to attend Centenary College.In that I was also accepted at Centenary it allowed me to follow John’s collegiate career for at least two years. After his sophomore year, in which he started and served as captain, he transferred to Vanderbilt, where he was also elected captain. He is now an attorney. His son, along with the son of another Country Day teammate and Centenary alumnus named Trip Ludwig, led Country Day to a state championship in 2009. Both Matt Derenbecker and Eddie Ludwig later played  basketball together at LSU.

Newman no longer plays in Death Valley, which is now known as the Tuohy Gym. They play in the spacious and modern Cotonio Palaestra. And fortunes have reversed themselves in the 21st Century. Country Day now has the upper hand , having won two additional  state championships along with numerous Top 28 appearances. The two schools now play routinely as they are in the same district,and while the rivalry is still fierce the stakes are not nearly as high.

While 40 years have passed I still think of that game and what might have been. If I had made one more shot and had one less turnover. If we had used that time out to regroup and keep attacking rather than stall and try not to lose. If we had not lost two key players to foul trouble. But Newman demonstrated character, poise, and determination. They deserved to win that night. But some things you just never get over.

About Merrill Wautlet

I am a finance professional and volunteer coach. I have also served in a leadership role for numerous non-profit and civic organizations. For a complete profile feel free to check me out on Linkedin.
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3 Responses to Some Things You Never Get Over.

  1. M.C.,

    Awesome article. Just now read it and it brought back great memories. Loved the plug on “shooter with tremendous range.” Thanks and track me down when you’re in NO next time.


  2. Vance G. Reynoir says:

    Merrill, I just left the funeral for one of our teammates on the 1976 team, and this walk down memory lane helps bring back vivid memories of a great time in all of our lives.

    Rest well Nick Guy!


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