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Mercer Honors Its Basketball Heroes
at Hall of Fame Dinner

1/28/03


There were plenty of handshakes and hugs to go around as Mercer County Community College welcomed back its basketball heroes from the 1960s and 1970s on January 18.  Former Men's Basketball Coach Howie Landa, and five players were inducted into the MCCC Sports Hall of Fame, and the 1973 Men's National Championship Team was honored as Mercer's "Team of Distinction."  All but two of the honorees returned for the emotional event, some from as far away as California and Nevada, along with family, friends, other alumni and MCCC staff members.  "We were thanked over and over for hosting the celebration," said Athletic Director John Simone.  "More than 120 people turned out.  It was a heartfelt day for everyone involved."

Mercer Professor Al Leister, who chaired the MCCC Athletic Department from 1970 to 1989 and was on the planning committee for the event, noted that some of the players had not seen each other in 30 years.  "I was delighted that so many alumni came back," said Leister.  Honoree Terry Dorner ('80), who had previously been inducted into the Hall of Fame at Rutgers University (her transfer school after Mercer) and the Loyalsock High School Hall of Fame (her high school), said that neither of those events compared to her special day at Mercer.  "There was a real family feeling here.  It was great fun," said Dorner.  Added Leister, "At the risk of sounding corny, there was a lot of love in that room."

According to Leister, the basketball celebration had been on the burner for a number of years.  "We talked about doing it for the 20th anniversary of the national title, and then for the 25th.  I'm so glad it finally happened.  It was an opportunity for all of us at Mercer to thank the players and staff who put so much of themselves into our basketball program.  It was an exhilarating era in Mercer sports."  Leister noted that the '73 team was truly something special.  "There may have been individual athletes on other Mercer teams who were better," he said.  "But that team knew how to play together and to do what it takes to win."

The Hall of Fame festivities began at halftime of a regular season game between Mercer and the Community College of Rhode Island.  During a ceremony with over 250 spectators in attendance, the six inductees were introduced: Howie Landa, MCCC basketball coach from 1961 to 1986 and three-time NJCAA Coach of the Year; Jim Cornwall (represented by his brother Rich), a 1963-64 NJCAA All-American; Bobby Sands, 1968 National Player of the Year; Mel Weldon, 1973 National Player of the Year; Connie White, 1974 National Player of the Year, and Terry Dorner, a 1980 NJCAA All-American who led the Lady Vikes to their first NJCAA tournament.  (As a Rutgers transfer, Dorner helped the Scarlet Knights win the AIAW women's national title). Next introduced was the "Team of  Distinction," the members of the 1972-73 men’s championship team – Weldon, White, Richie Freda, Marty Prendergast, Mike Richbow, Mike Leaphart, John Ford, Bill Kauffman, Steve Shearer, Larry Davis, Richie Pace and Jerome Young (not in attendance).

At the conclusion of the game, guests moved to the Student Center for a reception and dinner.  During the reception, a videotape of the 1973 championship game was played, along with the radio broadcast.  A display of archive photos featured the honorees during their Mercer years.

Among the many speakers at the moving ceremony following dinner were MCCC President Robert Rose, himself a former basketball coach who put his full support behind the event; Bob Pugh, coordinator of physical education and assistant coach of the 1973 championship team; George O'Gorman, Mercer alumnus and former sports information director; player Mike Richbow, who served as spokesman for the 1973 team; and staff member Charles Smith, who spoke on behalf of the program's assistant coaches.  Basketball honorees and a number of staffers received commemorative plaques. Honoree Howie Landa said again and again how happy he was that "these kids" were finally getting their day in the spotlight.

"People told many funny and wonderful stories about those days," said Leister, who was especially pleased to see alumnus Connie White of Berkeley, CA, attend the event.  "He is the best example of who we are and what we do at Mercer," said Leister, recalling that White arrived at Mercer with a poor academic record.  "But he got serious when he got here.  He took his books to games."  White transferred to the University of California at Berkeley with an athletic scholarship and today works for the Probation Department in Alameda County, California.

Mercer's winning ways began when Coach Landa came to the college in 1961.  In 1963-64, the Vikings took their first trip to the nationals in Hutchinson, KS.  In 1968 the Vikings returned to the nationals, this time going as far as the finals before losing by two points.  The 1972-73 team finally brought home the trophy, beating host team Hutchinson in the title game and completing a record breaking 34-3 season.  The streak continued with another national title in the 1973-74 season.  Many of Mercer's finest went on to play quality ball at four-year schools.  With their two national championships, Mercer remains the only East Coast team to win the NJCAA title – before or since.

Click here for photos of Mercer's Hall of Fame Celebration.

For more on Mercer sports see:

Sports News
2002 - 2003 Teams

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