The Spirit of 76!

Tonight I listened to my alma mater, Metairie Park Country Day School, claim it’s sixth state championship in boys basketball. The game was played in Lake Charles approximately forty years from the date the school won it’s first state championship, also in Lake Charles. The year was 1977 and I was a starter on that historic team.

Those six titles are accompanied by four state runner up trophies and several state semi-final appearances. Four of those titles, and three of those second place finishes, have come in this century. Head coach Mike McGuire,who just completed his 19th season at Country Day, has built a powerhouse at the storied campus in Old Metairie located just outside of the New Orleans city limits. Under McGuire’s leadership the Cajuns have won titles in 2009,2013,2014, and 2017 while finishing second in 2007, 2008, and 2010. Since 2007 the Cajuns have played for the big prize an astounding seven times and Coach McGuire has done it without compromising the schools academic standing. This is best illustrated  by the fact that this year’s best player for the Country Day Cajuns, Romin Williams, will be playing college basketball next year at Emory University, which is a premier scholastic institution in Atlanta, Georgia.

Like all great programs there has to be a beginning. Country Day made it’s first state tournament appearance in 1966. That team was soundly defeated in the semi finals 88-58 by the Florien Black Cats. In the early 1970’s a man from Decatur, Illinois was hired to coach boys basketball and be the school’s athletic director. A marine, Richard Jarrett was hard nosed and exacting. He emphasized man to man defense and precision on offense. His Cajuns ran. They ran a lot. And they began to win.

The Cajuns qualified for the playoffs annually under Coach Jarrett but could never make it past the first round. The 1975 team actually got in on a technicality when a school that finished higher in the district got disqualified from the playoffs. That Country Day team started a skinny 6’4″ sophomore center and three juniors. They were young and overmatched in that playoff game, being soundly routed by a very good team from  Port Sulphur.

Getting obliterated in a basketball game is usually not how a dynasty starts but for this group of Cajuns it provided impetus. With only one starter graduating the returning nucleus wanted more, and in 1976 they set out to get it.

That 6’4 sophomore added three inches by next season and soon became a force to be reckoned with. His name was John Derenbecker. By 1977 he would be the player of the year in the state of Louisiana. As a junior he was the team’s best player, earning all district and all state honors, but this article is not about John. This is the story of the 1976 senior class.

Anyone who has played sports knows that having a star is essential to victory. With that being said no man is an island unto himself. The seniors of 1976 were accomplished  athletes, many in more than one sport, and each of them contributed in a profound way to the success that team would enjoy. They each had a role and all of them stepped up in various ways, and at critical times, to lead the team.

On the bench were John Greenberg, Matt LeCorgne, Leonard Nicholson, and Vance Reynoir. Greenberg broke his leg playing football and never fully came back from that injury. A strapping 6’3″, he was also left handed. His good nature made him a locker room favorite. His physical strength made him a practice beast. Both John and I endured his brute strength everyday in various drills and scrimmages, and it made us better players. Even though he was sitting behind two juniors he never let his ego get in the way of the team’s success. That unselfishness was leadership at its finest.

LeCorgne was scrappy and tough. He was a solid ball handler and shooter but like Greenberg he was physical as well. He battled our guards and the other teams guards. Getting defended by LeCorgne was like running naked through a thicket of cactus. He was vocal and tenacious and in many ways he set the tone for a team that had no intentions of losing a first round playoff game ever again.

Nicholson was also a man of girth but his game was finesse and shooting. At 6’3″ he had the size to get off his jumper and he may well have been the best pure shooter on the team. A nationally ranked skeet shooting champion, Nick Guy, as he was known by his friends and teammates, could fill it up. Like Greenberg he found himself coming off the bench behind two juniors. If Nicholson had a flaw it was that he was foul prone. I watched him get five fouls in a quarter, which was probably a record. He also demonstrated absence of ego, never complaining about playing time, and always giving his best when called upon.

Reynoir may have been the most dynamic and electric player ever to don a Cajun uniform. In 1975 I initially was the team’s sixth man, but midway through the season it became apparent that when the team needed a spark it was Reynoir who had to be on the floor. Vance was our smallest player but also our most ferocious. He attacked the basket constantly, often contorting his body in rapid twists as he scored and drew fouls. Backing off of him was not an option because he was a good shooter as well. In 1975 he came off the bench against our arch rival St.Martins and put on a mind boggling display of offensive prowess. He led us to victory and was carried off the floor on the shoulders of his teammates. A knee injury limited him in 1976 but just having him on the bench was a boost. Vance’s confidence was contagious and it spread to the rest of us.

As stated earlier in 1976 Derenbecker and myself were the junior starters. I had replaced our  point guard from a year ago, Kevin Piper. Piper had been our leader in 1975. He was a tremendous defensive player. Rounding out the starting five were three remarkable seniors.Keith Holbrook, Jimmy Kock, and Robert Montgomery. All our first five but myself had started the year before and I had played significantly as the on again off again sixth man. While Derenbecker and I had two years left in our high school careers for our three seniors 1976 was all or nothing. At 6’2″ I gave us more size but without Piper we lacked a true point guard. As a result all three of our starting seniors assumed the leadership role Piper had the year before.

Holbrook was a complete player. At 5’10” he was a hard match up for smaller guards. He was an excellent ball handler, a good shooter, and a great defender. Where Keith was extraordinary was his ability to see the floor. He was our best passer and routinely set up all of us for baskets. He did this primarily playing off the ball. His game was so smooth that you never knew the effect he had on the outcome of the contest until you looked at the stat sheet. In one game he had close to twenty assists. He was never out of position and hardly ever turned the ball over. He was steady in his actions and in his words. I was a hyper aggressive player and there were numerous times when he would slide up next to me during a game and quietly refocus me.

With me entering the starting line up as a power forward  Kock moved to his more natural position of small forward. Jimmy was a solid player who could rebound and score but his real forte’ was defense. He literally could shut down the other team’s best player. He was a master at taking a charge, a situation where you beat an offensive player to a spot on the floor and basically let him run over you. It’s a painful way to cause  a turnover, and I say that from experience. Jimmy would get knocked down several times a  game and each time it not only created a turnover it resulted in a momentum shift. With Kock we knew we had someone who could take out the other team’s best player and at 5’10” he could guard players of any size. In our foyer was a plaque that said Defensive Player of the Week. It had a slot where a player’s name could be inserted. In 1976 the only player to earn that distinction was Jimmy.

Robert Montgomery rounded out the starting five. He was the best athlete we had. During the football season he switched from wide receiver to running back and became the first 1,000 yard rusher in school history. Montgomery became our primary ball handler and our gun slinger. Fearless and confident, once Robert crossed half court he felt like he was in scoring range. If he missed a few shots he kept firing until he got hot again. His glare was steely and he had a way of staring down who ever was trying to guard him. After a  basket he would go back down the floor in a manner that was almost dismissive of our opponents. To me Robert was the heartbeat of the team. His confidence bordered on arrogance and when he had the ball he was in charge.

We played several higher classification schools that year and won most of those games. In district play we had to exorcise a demon known as New Orleans Academy. NOA had beaten us three straight times in 1975. They too returned  a senior laden ball club. Our first meeting in 1976 was in our gym. Everyone thought we would win except NOA. They employed their methodical slow tempo to counter our desire to fast break. To our shock they beat us again.

As we dejectedly sat in our locker room no panic ensued. This was a wake up call. We knew  we were better than NOA. We had to recommit, and we did. We raced through the rest of our district schedule with one thought in mind. Get to NOA and settle the score.

NOA’s gym was always brutally hot. We felt they did that on purpose to fatigue us so their slow tempo would be more effective. Their head coach, Charlie Myers, was also the head of the New Orleans Basketball Officials, so our coach always requested Baton Rouge area referees when we played them, to avoid any favoritism perceived or real, from officials calling a game their boss was coaching in.

Our bus ride over was a quiet one. Our campuses were about two miles apart so it was a short ride but we were all business. We took the floor with one thought on our mind. We didn’t want to beat NOA we wanted to dismantle them. Four quarters later we left the floor with an 17 point victory. We had vanquished our demon and won a share of the district title. In a week we would have to play them again to see who would go into the playoffs as the district champion.

The extra game to decide the district championship was played at St. John Prep and the outcome was never in doubt. We cruised to a 25 point victory. We now had another hurdle to overcome, which was to avoid the first round knockout. We played Buras and our resolve was tested. Both teams went back and forth trading the lead. We ended up going into one overtime and then another. We prevailed and we were now a very confident basketball team.

Our next opponent was Oberlin. They had the one of the leading scorers in the state, a 6’3″ dynamo named Ray Baggett. Baggett lived up to his billing but we built a big lead and never looked back. By beating Oberlin we earned the right to go too the state tournament in Alexandria.

Known back then as the Top Twenty there was actually twenty four teams there, four from each classification. Our first opponent was Wisner. Again we won easily, but instead of playing in a gym we were now playing in front of a few thousand people in the Rapides Parish Coliseum. It was an electric atmosphere with media from all over the state covering the games. We now had gone further than any Country Day team in the history of the school. We were going to play for the state championship!

An old nemesis emerged. Port Sulphur, the team that had destroyed us the year before in the first round of the playoffs was at the tournament as well. We thought that this would bring us full circle. We beat NOA, we won our first round game and two others after that, and now we could play Port Sulphur for all the marbles and avenge our humiliating defeat we had suffered the previous year. Davidson High from a tiny delta town called St. Joseph, had other ideas. They beat Port Sulphur and would be our opponent.

There would be no storybook ending. Despite 37 points from Derenbecker, Davidson was the better team that night and we lost by ten. Our seniors would not get the big prize.

As we walked back to our bus I told Holbrook that we would come back next year and get it done for him and all the seniors. Keith responded by saying win it all. That next year we had a 6’8″ John Derenbecker and a team with eight seniors and three juniors. We again avoided a first round loss by coming back from 23 points down with a minute to go in the third quarter. When we finally beat Grambling to win the school’s first state title sitting in the stands cheering us on were many of those from the class of 76.

If you go to the Country Day gym you will see those state championship  trophies proudly displayed. The runner up trophies are also there but they don’t quite get as much attention. It is how society is. Time marches on, people grow older, and memories fade. Robert Montgomery died in a tragic car accident while he was in college and Leonard Nicholson has left us too. Coach Richard Jarrett passed away last year. Coach Jarrett would add another title to the trophy case in 1980.Shortly after that second title Jarrett would leave Country Day to reunite with Emmett Wright at Woodberry Forest in Virginia. It was Wright who hired Jarrett to coach the Cajuns when he was the Headmaster at Country Day. Even our old nemesis NOA is gone. The school closed several years ago.

In 1977 Country Day won it’s first state title in boys basketball but we did it on the shoulders of the class of 1976. For me our 1977 title is as much theirs as it is mine. You see all great stories have a beginning and for Country Day basketball the standard of excellence was established in 1976.










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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