Folks…a little different format this time as I needed to get through the football season in preparation for my Willie Wilson Night.
We pick up our story with the 4-0 Hilltoppers taking on Springfield, with Willie seeing his first full-time action since his injury. After being blanked in the first half, Summit rolled to a 28-0 victory. Willie had three TDs and 129 yards in 18 carries, while Ernie Gwathney rushed for 101 on 20 carries. Summit had 389 yards total offense while the defense held Springfield to 92. Even sophomore QB Chris Teare got into the action with an 11-yard scoring strike to classmate Alan Wessel.
Next up, Millburn, and Summit prevailed 27-0 in this one. Willie carried it 20 times for 238 yards (still a school record) as he had scoring runs of 50- and 54-yards, plus a 39-yard pass reception for a score. Ernie Gwathney chipped in with a 25-yard TD reception from George Gross and the Hilltoppers gained 432 yards in this contest to Millburn’s 105. The win was Summit’s 15th straight and coach Howie Anderson’s 100th.
Millburn coach Frank Close said of Wilson, “He’s fantastic. He’s even greater than I thought. We hit him and hit him and hit him, and he still kept going.”
Despite missing essentially two games, Wilson still had 84 points on the season, trailing Westfield’s Glen Kehler who at this time led the state with 108.
Game seven..Caldwell…and another triumph, 39-16, as Summit upped its record to 7-0, the same mark as Verona. In the Caldwell contest, “Wonderful Willie” scored four TDs and kicked 3 extra points as he carried 20 times for 138 yards and picked up 128 more on five receptions. Yes, Willie accounted for 266 of Summit’s 384 yards in total offense. Quarterback Gross added three touchdown passes of his own, two to Johnny Foushee, and on defense, Bobby Gregory chipped in with two key sacks early. The only bad news was a back injury to Ernie Gwathney in the first half after he had gotten off to a fast start with 43 yards on 8 carries.
Howie Anderson said of Wilson, “We try to give Willie plays where he has running room. You don’t coach him on how to run.”
So the stage was set for the big one…Summit/Verona, both 7-0. 8,500 fans packed the field at Verona for one of the key matchups in the state that year. Verona coach Al Rotella said before the game that his own Willie, Willie Taylor, “was the best back in the conference.” Prior to the contest, 3 of 4 coaches, who had lost to both teams, were interviewed by the Daily Record and predicted Verona would come out on top.
Wrong. Try Summit 39…Verona 14! It was the 6th consecutive year that Summit won or shared the Suburban Conference title.
As for Willie Wilson, all he did was have a 93-yard TD run and a 90-yard return of an interception, both still school records. Howie commented, “I have never seen anyone – and I mean anyone, in high school, college or on any level – who can rise to the occasion like him.”
Picture that on Summit’s very first play from scrimmage, George Gross hooked up with Johnny Foushee on a 61-yard TD pass. The play was designed for Willie, but Gross recognized Foushee was streaking down the sideline. Wilson then scored on a 2-yard run to make it 13-0, Ernie Gwathney ran it in from six yards, and when Wilson converted the two-point conversion, Summit was off to a 21-0 lead, shocking the hometown fans.
Verona then scored to make it 21-7, but Wilson ran it in from two, after a key 25-yard pass play to Gwathney, and it was 27-7 at half. [Willie missed a few XPs, but we’ll let him off the hook.]
In the second half, Verona was driving but Gwathney picked up a key fumble recovery on the Summit 7 and the next play, Wilson took off around right end for 93 yards to make it 33-7. Verona then scored and was driving again in a belated effort to get back into the contest, but Willie Wilson deflected a Jim Hughes pass at the Summit 10, snatched it out of the air, and ran 90 yards for the final score…39-14.
Summit ended up with 410 yard on only 46 plays while Verona amassed 358 but on 64 plays. Willie also had seven receptions. Howie singled out Ernie, Rick Portine and Art Jordan for their stellar play on defense.
Oh yeah, Verona’s Willie Taylor? Zippo. Rotella looked like a fool.
So Summit was 8-0 as it headed into its finale against New Providence on Turkey Day. Willie had 139 points to Glen Kehler’s 151 in the race for the County scoring title, despite all of Willie’s missed time. [Some guy from Mountain Lakes would end up leading the state.] Recall that Willie had scored 156 the year before.
In the race for the overall state title, though, remember they didn’t have playoffs in those days and Howie was touting the Hilltoppers as the best team in New Jersey, despite being Group 3.
Well, Summit beat NP 27-0 before 8,000 at Tatlock as we bid farewell to Willie (and Ernie, and George, and Johnny…). Willie scored all 27 points in the game, as he rushed 36 times! for 218 yards and caught another 3 passes for 55. As if that wasn’t enough, Willie also completed an option pass for 26. Part of the reason why Willie carried so often was Ernie got hurt early. Summit outgained New Providence 371-177, with Willie having a hand in 299 of them, as the Hilltoppers gained revenge for their only loss in the Wilson years, a 12-0 defeat back in 1971. Howie singled out the defensive play of Tony Zackery, Rick Portine, George Bollinger, Chuck Wiebe (INT, fumble), Foushee, Jeff Hunt and Bobby Gregory.
According to the Herald, Wilson gained 1,118 on the ground for the season, while George Gross passed for 1,033 and only three interceptions. We should also note Willie’s linemates, who opened up the holes (along with Ernie); Dave Collins, Kevin Dunne, Kevin Davis, Dorey Facchinei, and Dave Mugford. For the season, Ernie Gwathney led the team in tackles from his linebacker position. [Ernie, like Willie, was a man among boys.]
The following week after the New Providence game, the All-Suburban Conference honors came out and Willie (offense and defense), Ernie (LB), Foushee (WR), Facchinei (OG), Dunne (C), and Collins (DT) were all first team.
Then the all-state selections were revealed and Willie was once again first team, while Ernie made first team Group 3 on defense and George Gross was 3rd team Group 3.
Howie Anderson said of Willie, “He’s the finest player in the country. If he goes to college, I think he can win the Heisman.”
Back to the points race, Willie ended up beating out Westfield’s Kehler, 166 to 159, thus running his career total to 401.
But the coup de grace for Summit was yet to come. Without a playoff system, the New Jersey Athletic Assoc. computers weighed all the evidence, including strength of schedule, and the Hilltoppers, despite being a Group 3 school, came out No. 1 in the entire state! Summit beat out Group 4 schools Cedar Ridge, Bloomfield and Camden. What a year, and what a run. 25-1-1 in the Wilson years. Howie Anderson had also now guided Summit to 10 conference titles in his first 18 seasons. Remarkable. [Alas the 18-game winning streak would end with the first game of 1974.]
What else was going on in those days? Let me run through the soccer action.
Going back to October, Summit ran its record to 8-1-1 with shutouts of West Orange, 4-0, Caldwell, 1-0, and Madison, 2-0, as goalie John Combias continued to stand tall. [Not for nothing, but the other day I was talking to a classmate and we agreed Combias was one of the more underrated athletes in those days.] In the three contests, goals were scored by Bruce Thomson (2), Jack Green, Jim Caporaso, Bruce Atkinson and J.P. Dunne. [Plus there was an ‘own netter.’] At this stage, Verona was first in the conference with a 9-0-1 mark.
The following week, Summit picked up wins over Springfield, 1-0, on a J.P. Dunne goal, and New Providence, 2-0, on goals by Dunne and Atkinson. In the Springfield effort, Doug Colson made a game-saving play as he dove in front of the Summit goal after Combias was bumped out of the play. Meanwhile, Verona had tied Caldwell, 0-0, to move to 10-0-2.
But when Summit finally hooked up with Verona, the Hilltoppers suffered a crushing loss, 1-0, on a penalty kick. They then lost to Berkeley Heights, 2-0, and finished the regular season 10-3-1.
Unfortunately, the papers didn’t cover the Union County tournament but Summit must have lost its second round game and then in the state tourney, after beating Edison Tech 2-1, we lost 1-0 to West Essex in the quarterfinals for a final 12-5-1 mark. Don Minkler and Bruce Thomson scored in the Edison Tech contest. Yes, it was a somewhat disappointing finish.
As for the cross country team, where yours truly was an underachieving member (but a helluva cheerleader for my teammates!), by late October we were 8-3 after a 27-28 loss to Caldwell.
But it was soon on to the Union County meet where Summit finished a solid 4th out of 19, and then us harriers shocked the world!…or at least the conference, as we captured the Suburban Conference title with a victory in the championship meet as Mike Paytas, Mark McMinimy and Dave Sehnert went 2-3-4. We also avenged our loss to Caldwell and defeated New Providence in dual meets, breaking NP’s mark of 46 consecutive dual meet victories in the process.
Elsewhere around the community during this stretch, did you know the Summit College Club Book Sale in those days was “one of the biggest events of its kind in the Eastern U.S.”? I remember big crowds, but the Herald talked of hundreds in attendance.
1973 was a very rainy one. By end of September we had had over 46 inches, a record since the Union College weather station came into being in 1960. Sept. 4 was actually the warmest day of the year, 96 degrees.
The oldest resident in town, Dr. John L. Meeker, passed away. He was 104 and had served in World War I. His father had been in the Civil War. Meeker was born on a farm that would become New Providence in 1868. Two prominent city leaders also passed away during this time…Philip Trowbridge and Arthur Dailey.
22 windows were broken at Summit High School. I knew nothing about this, officer! One patrolman, though, hurt his shoulder getting out of his squad car as he pursued vagrants on Mischief Night.
In November, despite a surging Democratic Party at the state and national level due to Watergate, Summit re-elected three Republican council members; Frank Lehr, Naomi Faison, and Winston Smith Jr.
We had an energy crisis in those days, sports fans, and the city mandated all buildings lower the thermostat to 68. I must have been going nuts because I like it 73 or 74, personally. Also, as Christmas approached, and in line with President Nixon’s energy conservation directives, there was no Christmas lighting on Springfield Ave. as almost all merchants cut back in their store window displays as well.
Playing at The Strand during this time were movies such as “M*A*S*H”, “1776”, and “Billy Jack”.
Next installment March 27.