Remembering a legendary team
By Rich Myhre / Herald Writer
A few days before the 1976-77 Region I high school boys basketball tournament, Mountlake Terrace went to practice at the Seattle Center Arena, site of its opening-round game.
Mountlake Terrace arrived just as Garfield, another Region I team and one of the state's premier programs, was wrapping up its workout. The two teams were soon trading gibes - talking trash, as people would later call these mouthy exchanges - and it was clear the kids from Garfield in Seattle's inner city were trying to intimidate the suburban boys.
Their practice over, the Garfield players lingered to watch Mountlake Terrace run its warm up drill. The first Mountlake Terrace player broke for the basket, but instead of laying the ball in he went up and dunked.
The Garfield players were unimpressed - after all, most high school teams have a player or two who can dunk - and they continued the catcalls.
But then the next Mountlake Terrace player dunked. And the next and the next and the next. Six or seven in all.
All the while, remembers Mark Miller, a backup guard-forward and one of the dunkers, the Garfield players "kept getting a little bit quieter and a little bit quieter."
A few nights later, in the regional final, Mountlake Terrace breezed past Garfield - a team with three future University of Washington players, plus a fourth who would go on to play NFL football - 48-33, to reach the state semifinals.
The Mountlake Terrace basketball program has produced some outstanding teams over the years, but never one quite like the 1976-77 team.
It was a ballclub that had everything and could do pretty much anything. Four starters stood 6-foot-5 or better, and they were all exceptional athletes, led by 6-7 Scott Copan, the team's best player and a state-caliber hurdler on the Mountlake Terrace track team. The four starting big men would all go on to play in four-year college programs, including two at NCAA Division I schools.
The irony, said forward Steve Murphy, who played at Wenatchee Valley Community College and then Simon Fraser University, is that "our high school team was probably better than either of the college teams I played on."
"That Mountlake Terrace team had all the ingredients," said Roger Ottmar, a Meadowdale assistant coach that season who became the Hawks head coach a year later. "They were really quite an overpowering team."
The '76-77 Hawks were big and more than a little brash, but mostly they were good. Of the team's 25 victories, including four state playoff wins for the Class AAA championship, only three were by less than nine points. In an era before the 3-point shot when scores and scoring margins were typically lower, Mountlake Terrace won 10 times by 20 or more points, five times by 30 or more, and once by almost 50.
"They have to be one of the better teams that ever stepped on the court," said Dennis Kloke, Marysville-Pilchuck's head coach that season. "If you're talking about teams from the Western Conference, I would put that Mountlake Terrace team right at the top. They could dominate the game defensively and they could dominate the game offensively."
"They were an exceptional group of kids," said former Lynnwood coach Bob Jacobs. "They were just uncanny."
The surprise is that Mountlake Terrace ever lost a game. It did, but just one and to a very good Mariner team that was also ranked among the best in the state.
Otherwise, the Hawks overpowered every foe. Under coach Merle Blevins, Mountlake Terrace opened with a win against Shorecrest, which had perhaps its best team in school history, led by Eric Brewe, the state's leading scorer at over 27 points a game. The Hawks routed perennial Northwest League power Mount Vernon. Three times they beat Snohomish, fresh from a state football championship in the fall and bound for the state basketball tournament as well.
"I think that Mountlake Terrace team might be the best team I ever saw," said Art Snoey, a longtime coach at Edmonds and later Edmonds-Woodway high schools. "They didn't have any real weaknesses. They would rank, I would say, as probably one of the top five teams in state history."
"That was a super team," said former Woodway coach Roger Myers. "They complemented each other so well, and Merle Blevins was smart enough to kind of just let them play."
On their path to the title, the Hawks dispatched two of the state's perennial powers. One was Garfield, which probably churned out more college prospects in those years than any program in Washington. The other was Richland, which reached the state championship game in 1976-77 for the fourth time in six years.
Richland stayed with Mountlake Terrace through three quarters in the finale, but the Hawks pulled away in the final period for a convincing 67-54 win, becoming the first of two Western Conference teams and the only one from Snohomish County to win a state boys basketball championship.
Ranking elite teams in different years and even different eras is a difficult exercise, of course, and certainly one subject to bias. People from Snohomish, for instance, probably figure their 1969-70 state title team is the best ever from this area ("I'd have a hard time saying which of the two teams is better, but I'd be prejudiced if I did," said ex-Snohomish coach Jack de Kubber). Likewise, longtime Everett boosters will no doubt favor the undefeated 1939-40 Seagulls team, or even the 1974-75 team that finished second at state.
Plenty of folks who follow basketball, though, say there has never been a better squad from Snohomish County than the Mountlake Terrace team of 30 years ago.
"I saw the Snohomish team that won the state title," Ottmar said, "and the Mountlake Terrace team was way better than that. For sure, that Mountlake Terrace team was the best in all my 35 years (as an assistant coach and head coach). I can't think of any other team that was close."
"That was a great Mountlake Terrace team," said Keith Kingsbury, who became the Edmonds Community College basketball coach in 1968 and retired two years ago. Among Snohomish County teams of all-time, he went on, "I don't think there was ever anybody better."
Even as younger players, Scott Copan and Steve Murphy were special. Both were tall, both exceptionally gifted athletes.
Copan, in fact, was a bit of a man-child. He stood over 6-feet tall in the sixth grade and could dunk a basketball by the eighth grade, which was about the time he began sporting a mustache. He even dunked in a ninth-grade junior high game, an astonishing feat for someone his age, then or now. Dunking was a technical foul in those days but Copan, who tended to snub authority, did it anyway.
Copan and Murphy started out as rivals at opposing junior highs, and not particularly friendly rivals either. But their paths would merge when they arrived at Mountlake Terrace as towering sophomores, these two onetime foes, now varsity teammates.
With Copan and Murphy, the Mountlake Terrace basketball program suddenly had a very bright future.
The future became even brighter when John Greenquist enrolled at Mountlake Terrace as a sophomore. Greenquist, whose family moved in from the Bay Area, was a basketball player, too. Maybe not as good as classmates Copan and Murphy, but he showed promise. And, like them, he was tall.
By this time, Hawks head coach Merle Blevins was feeling darned lucky about his team's abundance of talent. As it turned out, he was about to get luckier.
Dan Caldwell was a year younger than the other three, and as a sophomore he had been slender and awkward - his nickname back then, recalls teammate Mark Miller, was "Clodwell" - but he kept growing and by his junior season he was as tall as the others. Like them, too, he had developed into a terrific player.
When it came time to measure his team for the 1976-77 season, Blevins needed a stepstool. Copan was the tallest of the bunch at 6-7. Murphy and Caldwell both stood 6-6, while Greenquist was 6-5.
Any two of these players would have given Mountlake Terrace a solid nucleus. Three guaranteed the team would be a powerhouse. And all four made the Hawks a state championship contender, if not the odds-on favorite.
Rounding out the starting lineup was 5-7 junior guard Rick Cummins, the smallest player on the team, who played, he said, "because fortunately they needed somebody to dribble the ball down the court."
Having been ousted from the state tournament the year before, the Mountlake Terrace players "were bound and determined to win it the next year," Blevins said. "They knew what they had to do. They really worked hard, and I knew they were going to be real good."
"With all the big people we had, we knew teams would have trouble matching up with us," Murphy said. "So we knew we'd be good. But our goal was not just to go to the state tournament. We'd done that the year before. Our goal was to win the state championship."
Even before the first game, Greenquist said, "we all had a sense of our own destiny."
Still, talent alone is just one piece of any championship puzzle. To bid for a state crown the Hawks needed to be better than the sum of their parts, and that meant sharing the ball willingly and well between four gifted scorers. Moreover, it meant playing an entire season as if personal statistics were meaningless.
Which, oddly enough - odd, because this was a team of considerable individual ego - is exactly what happened.
Occasionally there were scoring outbursts, such as the night Murphy put up 34 points against Snohomish - the high for a Mountlake Terrace player in 1976-77 - but more often the scorebook showed Copan, Murphy, Greenquist and Caldwell all scoring between eight and 15 points in a given game.
Cummins, meanwhile, became a distributor, which meant there were games, he said, "when I wouldn't even take a shot."
Everyone, it seems, sacrificed some. Copan, for instance, would undoubtedly have been a low-post go-to guy on any other team in the state that year, but instead he agreed to a different role. Blevins asked the 6-7 Copan to help direct the offense from the perimeter, where he could hold the ball overhead - way over the head of virtually any defender - and zip passes to teammates coming clear around the basket.
"Scott had so much talent," Greenquist said. "He was absolutely our principal leader on and off the court. It was his self-assured confidence and ego that led us and carried us through many an uncertain time."
Murphy, meanwhile, was a terrific scorer from the wing, while Greenquist and Caldwell generally swung between the high and low posts.
As good as the Hawks were offensively, they might have been even better on defense. Their base scheme was a 1-3-1 zone, and with those long arms and quick feet "nobody could get through," Miller said. "The other team would get one shot and we'd get every rebound."
Sometimes Blevins would call for a half-court trap, and he would put all four of his big men out near center court. "They'd spread their arms," said Kloke, the Marysville-Pilchuck coach, "and they were practically engulfing from sideline to sideline."
Another trademark was the defensive rebound, followed by a quick outlet pass and a Mountlake Terrace fast break. Because even with their usual size advantage, the Hawks were not a walk-it-up team.
"They liked to get out and run," Kloke said. "And if they got the rebound, they were gone."
"All four of those guys," said Miller of the starting big men, "could run like deer."
At times the Hawks scored in devastating flurries, such as the night they outscored Marysville-Pilchuck 19-2 in the first quarter on the way to a 102-55 victory, still a Mountlake Terrace record for points in a single game.
The team started the season with confidence and it grew with each victory. The Hawks were good and they knew they were good, and they pretty much made sure everyone else knew it, too. Copan, for one, loved to chirp at opposing players, and he was not alone.
"That team was very confident, though the difference between confident and cocky is a fine line," Miller said. "But we had a lot of people who liked to talk. A few years later, I was playing pickup ball with some guys who had played at Shorecrest and they asked me if there was a class at Terrace that taught talking smack. I said, 'Yeah, and we all took it.'"
At other times, the Hawks could intimidate without saying a word. Sometimes, if the referees were not yet on the court, Mountlake Terrace would put on a dunking display during pregame warm-ups. They go through their lines once or twice, "and by then we already had the other team beat," Miller said.
Mountlake Terrace finished its regular season with a 19-1 mark, and then won twice to clinch the Northwest District title. In those days, the state playoffs were divided into two weekends, starting with regional tournaments the first weekend, and the state semifinals and finals the second. After beating Federal Way and Garfield at the regional, Mountlake Terrace defeated Juanita in the semis to set up a title showdown with Richland.
The game was played before a virtual sellout of almost 10,000 spectators at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on the University of Washington campus. Richland shot the ball well from outside early and built a 32-29 halftime lead, but in the second half the Hawks made two pivotal adjustments.
First, they switched from a 1-3-1 zone to a 2-3, which allowed them to do a better job of defending the perimeter. Then, to start the fourth quarter, Mountlake Terrace went to a high-post offense with back-door cuts to counter Richland's defensive pressure, and the Hawks quickly ran off eight unanswered points to take control of the game.
When it was over, Caldwell - who remembers barely sleeping the night before the finale - had a game-high 23 points with 10 rebounds. Murphy chipped in 20 points, and Copan added 12 points and eight assists.
Afterward, the players gathered in the locker room around the championship trophy, each one holding a No. 1 finger aloft. Miller and Cummins wore the Hec Ed nets around their necks, relics they both have to this day.
The elation, Murphy said, "was great. Even though Scott and I were not always close friends, I remember talking to him later about how we had gone through a lot of stuff and about how it was finally worth it to win a state championship in our last game."
If there is one thing that still irks the Mountlake Terrace players after three decades, it is their loss to Mariner. It ended up being the season's sole blemish.
Mountlake Terrace had beaten the Marauders by a rather convincing 66-48 margin in January, but there would be a February rematch at the Mariner gym. That night, the Marauders and their fans were revved for payback - the gym was packed, the crowd raucous - and the Hawks came out flat.
Mountlake Terrace had overcome sluggish starts to win other games that season, but not this time. Mariner, which had three returning starters from a team that finished sixth at state the year before, jumped out early and never let the Hawks back in the game, eventually winning 50-44.
No one struggled more than Scott Copan, who was just 1-for-11 from the field, making it probably the worst game of his season, if not his entire high school career.
The most disappointing thing about that defeat, said Steve Murphy, is that it has kept Mountlake Terrace "from being listed among the top teams in the state for all-time. Because the teams that are always listed are the ones that went undefeated."
Newspaper articles that rank the best teams in state history "never mention us because we had that one loss," agreed Mark Miller. "But I'd put our team up against anybody, any day."
That sore spot aside, it would be hard for the Mountlake Terrace players to improve on much of what happened 30 years ago. For Copan, Murphy, John Greenquist and Dan Caldwell, the season became a stepping stone to further successes in college. Murphy and Caldwell would even go on to play professionally in Europe.
For others, the 1976-77 championship season was their high-water mark, athletically speaking. Miller calls it "the highlight of my sports career, definitely."
These days, the Mountlake Terrace players display the telltale symptoms of middle-age, particularly growing waistlines, receding hairlines and a desire for less strenuous activities. They are all a few years from turning 50, and for most their last link to basketball is what they see on television.
Or what they watch from the bleachers. Several have kids, including some who have played or still play on the same Wesco basketball courts where the dads once played. Murphy's son, also named Steve, was part of some strong Kamiak teams a few years ago. Miller's son was in the program at Monroe. Rick Cummins' son is an up-and-coming player at Snohomish.
For the entire team, the years that followed triumph also brought tragedy. They have mourned the loss of two teammates - Copan, the captain, who died in 1985 after being diagnosed with lymphoma, and backup forward Jason Casteel, a heart attack victim this past November.
Otherwise, the state champs of 1976-77 have, for the most part, good lives and good memories. Their paths cross from time to time, and invariably they end up sharing experiences from that extraordinary season.
It is, Murphy said, "something we can always talk about. ... We really were exceptionally good."
"We worked hard for that championship," Greenquist said. "And we all understood, in retrospect, what a truly remarkable thing we had done."
Caldwell, meanwhile, says he "didn't have the ability to appreciate (the championship) back then as much as I do now. But now that I'm older, I can look back and appreciate how everything came together. It's really quite amazing how it did, and for me it was certainly a wonderful experience for high school."