Tidal Wave of Hoop Mania Washed Over Surf City in ’68 : Basketball: Huntington Beach, led by Coach Elmer Combs, had a remarkable run through playoffs 25 years ago.
It could have been a slice out of the motion picture “Hoosiers.”
The players were a group of hard-working overachievers who wouldn’t settle for anything less than a championship.
The coach, Elmer Combs, was a sly, no-nonsense guy who demanded the most from his players yet but still managed to make practices and games fun.
The only difference was the setting. Instead of a small town in Indiana, the scene was “Surf City” Huntington Beach, a seemingly unlikely place for basketball mania to strike.
Twenty-five years ago, Huntington Beach’s boys’ basketball team made a remarkable run to the Southern Section Division 4-A championship game.
It wasn’t the most talented team and certainly not the tallest. Brian Ambrozich, a 6-foot-3 forward, was the tallest starter. Current Huntington Beach Coach Roy Miller was the team’s center at 6-2.
But the Oilers became the darlings of a city that was still in its infancy. They used a 1-2-2 zone defense and a full-court press that chopped bigger and better opponents down to size and ran others out of the gym with a fast break comparable to none.
“The bottom line is we had five good athletes who worked hard,” Combs said. “They ran the fast break and pressed as well as any team I’ve ever seen. The press was the great equalizer.”
Combs became a big proponent of fast-break basketball as a star player at Huntington Beach in 1945-46. The Oilers’ style was basic but effective. Huntington Beach won 328 games and eight league titles in 19 seasons before he retired in 1977.
Combs used a three-guard, two-post offense.
Sharp-shooting guard Greg Snyder was the team captain. Multitalented swingman Mike Contreras, with Elgin Baylor-like moves at the baseline, was the crowd favorite. Miller, an unlikely looking center with a blue-collar work ethic, was the enforcer.
Rick Seibert, who rarely shot, was the team’s quarterback at point guard. Ambrozich, a skinny senior with long, gangly arms, was the best rebounder. Reserves Kelly Bounds and Bobby Wickersham were generally the only ones who got off the bench.
Basketball was king at Huntington Beach in 1967-68. The Oilers went undefeated in the Sunset League, continuing a streak that saw them win 44 consecutive league games from 1967-70.
Among the league victories were two paybacks to archrival Marina and its then youthful coach, Lute Olson, who has gone on to bigger games at the University of Arizona. Marina defeated Huntington Beach in two tournaments that year, but the Oilers got revenge in two highly publicized sold-out games to win the league championship.
What followed was two weeks that Miller said he will never forget.
“I’ll never forgot the ‘high’ we experienced that year in the playoffs,” Miller said. “It was just like the movie, ‘Hoosiers.’ Basketball was king and the students were in a frenzy.”
Huntington Beach opened the playoffs with routine victories over Magnolia and Bellflower, advancing to the quarterfinals against a very good Sunny Hills team led by guard Brad McNamara.
It marked the beginning of an eventful week. Huntington Beach narrowly defeated Sunny Hills, 70-65, on a Wednesday night. The victory set up a semifinal game against North Torrance two days later. North Torrance had a towering lineup of Jim Nielsen, Ron Taylor and Dan Anderson.
Taylor, a 6-10 center, and Anderson, a 6-5 guard, later went on to play at USC. Nielsen, a 6-8 forward, played at Washington. It was a tall order, but somehow Huntington Beach managed to upset North Torrance, 72-71, when Miller made two free throws with three seconds remaining.
“We played the ultimate game to beat them,” Combs said. “When I look back, that’s the victory I enjoyed the most. They were so much bigger than us, but we went right at them. I’ll always look back at that game as our greatest team effort.”
The unlikely victory set up a showdown with Compton the following night at the Long Beach Arena for the Southern Section championship. It would be the Oilers’ third game in four days and the schedule ultimately proved to be their downfall.
“We had a really tough game with Sunny Hills on Wednesday and then we were emotionally drained after the win over North Torrance on Friday,” Miller said. “But we came back the next night against Compton and believed we could win.
“The chemistry we had on that team was unbelievable. We thought we were invincible and no one was going to deny us the championship.”
No one except Compton. The Tarbabes were unquestionably the best high school team of its era. They won 62 consecutive games from 1966-69. Seven players on Bill Armstrong’s teams received major college scholarships. Another, center Reynaldo Brown, became an Olympic high jumper.
“That was one awesome team,” Snyder said. “Larry Hollyfield, Lewis Nelson and Brown were men. They could jump out of the gym. They killed everybody on the boards.”
Predictably, Compton defeated Huntington Beach, 64-52, for the championship. But the Oilers had their moments. Huntington Beach opened an 18-12 lead in the first quarter and the teams were tied, 37-37, at halftime.
“By the time we played the game, we were pooped,” Combs said. “Compton was the best high school team I ever coached against. They really hurt us on the boards. They would throw up a shot and five guys were going to the boards.
“They repeatedly got third and fourth shots against us. We had nothing left in the second half.”
Miller said Compton was the only black school that the Oilers faced that season. He recalls the game as “a real eye-opener” for the students at Huntington Beach.
“Compton’s band came into the arena with bass guitars and a drum set and played the entire game,” he said. “They had a mascot (Tarbabe) who wore a body stocking with a big pair of diapers. The cheerleaders danced in go-go boots.
It was a real eye-opener for a bunch of beach kids.”
Combs: “They did everything they could to intimidate us. We stayed with them for a half, but they had superior talent. But I thought we really did well for a small team. I’m asked about that team everywhere I go.
“I’m amazed how many people tell me they attended the North Torrance or Compton games. So many can name the starting five from that team.”
Combs, who lives near the 16th green of Sunrise Country Club in Rancho Mirage, still marvels at the fan appeal that the 1967-68 team generated.
“There was so much interest in basketball at Huntington Beach,” he said. “I’ll always remember those games with Marina; you couldn’t get into the gym.”
Miller and Contreras played on three teams that had a combined record of 79-12 from 1967-70. Miller credits Combs with recognizing talent and then molding individuals into a team.
“Everyone knew their roles,” Miller said. “Elmer was a sly, intelligent man who knew exactly what he was doing at every moment. He was the dean of county coaches and he commanded authority. He had a way of intimidating officials and opposing coaches in those days.”
Contreras and Combs remain the only Huntington Beach players to earn first-team, all-Southern Section honors for two consecutive seasons. But Snyder is often recognized as the biggest star in the school’s history.
Snyder was an extension of Combs on the court. He was a thinking man’s guard who had a competitive drive that few could match. He was the team leader who claims to have been on the same wavelength with Combs.
“No one has ever given Elmer enough credit for what we accomplished,” Snyder said. “His greatest quality is that he let us play and never over-coached us.
“Funny, but after reading about Roy’s team qualifying for the (Southern Section Division I-A) championship this week (against Mater Dei), I’ve been thinking about our team a lot lately. We had talent, but most of our success came because we worked together so well.
“Team chemistry was the key. I’ve come to realize 25 years later that you’re only as good as the people around you. And I was fortunate to play with a great group of athletes and a great coach.
“Basketball was important to the school. We had tremendous support from the students and the community. I don’t think you’ll see anything like that again.”
Points per game: 73.0
Points per season: 2,266
FG percentage: 47.5%
Winning percentage: (27-4) 87%
Consecutive league victories: 44
Source: 1992-93 basketball program.