2017-'18 Season Coverage
updated: 2/4/2013 10:19 PM

Geneva honors 1963 state team, Soto

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By Dave Heun
Daily Herald Correspondent

Geneva High School may be hard-pressed to ever top the Hall of Fame induction it presented Saturday night.

How do you do better than welcoming the first wrestler in school history to win a state title, as well as members of the 1963 basketball team that recorded a school-best 30-3 record while reaching the first state finals event at Assembly Hall in Champaign?

On a night when the current Geneva basketball team knocked off visiting Quincy, a school with numerous state tournament glories of its own, the spotlight was on a group of players who rang up 28 straight wins 50 years ago after starting the season 2-2, before finally falling to eventual state champion Carver 57-50 in the state quarterfinals in Champaign.

Nine of the players from that team -- Pete Burgess, Tom Busch, Bob Johansen, Dick Krell, Bob Liden, George Peck, Rick Tornberg, Chuck Radovich and Mike McCleary -- were on hand for the ceremony.

"This has been so much fun, and we've been doing it (reminiscing) for two or three days now," said Bob Schick, an assistant coach on that 1963 team and himself a past inductee in the school's Hall of Fame.

Schick still has a hard time grasping the emotional cloud nine the team and city was perched on during that meteoric season.

"How many basketball teams can win 28 games in a row?" Schick asked. "And we were a small school, with 400-some students, and we were playing much larger schools."

Geneva worked its magic in the era of one state tournament, not a series of classes designed to keep schools of the same size competing with each other.

Schick said he knew the 1963 team was destined for big things when, as sophomores, the same group won a Belvidere sophomore tournament that featured numerous outstanding athletes, including Drew Pearson, who went on to be a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.

Mostly, the team was playing for its coach, Mel Johnson, who was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease and would pass away a year later. His son, former Geneva athlete and St. Charles coach Ron Johnson, represented Mel at the ceremony.

In that regard, the team members see a lot of themselves in the movie "Hoosiers," about a small Indiana high school team that wins the state tournament against great odds.

"I have seen that movie over 20 times," McCleary said. "We had a coach who was dying from ALS, and we were like David playing Goliath in going down to play these inner city schools."

McCleary called it a "heady experience" for a team from a small town.

Radovich said teams just prior to the 1963 squad laid the groundwork for excellence. "We lived in an era where there must have been something in the water, because we had a lot of tall players," Radovich said.

McCleary said Sports Illustrated magazine in the early 1960s noted that Geneva High School had the tallest starting five of most any high school in the country.

While it was a night for basketball ecstasy, those fond of wrestling also had something to cheer about.

Ray Soto, a 1990 graduate, grappled in the 171-pound division for the Vikings, wiping out every foe in his path during the state finals on his way to a season record of 36-5.

"It brought back a lot of memories," Soto said of hearing a cheering crowd in a Geneva gymnasium after receiving his Hall of Fame plaque from Geneva athletic director Jim Kafer.

"But this was in a different gym," Soto said, acknowledging that most of his great wrestling moments unfolded in the old Mack Olson gym. "But it still brought out a lot of butterflies."

Soto joined the Marines after graduating from high school, and he even wrestled in 1993 for a base team when stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

"After that, it got too hard to keep wrestling, with all of the Marine deployments and stuff like that," Soto said.

Soto said his former coach Jon Schaus gets most of the credit for his success, along with his group of high school friends who always supported him.

"Coach Schaus was a big influence for me," Soto added. "And my buddies; after 23 years I still keep in contact with them."

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