Perhaps the most dominating basketball teams in the Central Section history, the Panthers of Coach Tom Cleary won not only back-to-back section titles but also twice reigned supreme in the Tournament of Champions, the precursor of the state championship.
No central San Joaquin Valley team had played in the TOC until the ‘72 Panthers, fresh off a section championship victory over top-ranked East Bakersfield, earned an invitation in the tournament’s 26th year. Led by future NBA first-round draft pick Clifton Pondexter, Ben Lee and Dave Wenig, SJM swept over all three games, including a 61-41 victory over Hayward in the title game at the Oakland Coliseum. Cleary would shout, “Two in a row” to his team and Panthers fans the next season. His team swept again, claiming another TOC title with a 70-65 victory over Berkeley High before a tournament-record crowd of 32,047 at the Coliseum.
The All-American Pondexter scored 24 points against Berkeley, but it was a total team performance, as forward Nelson Beazley added 18 points and eight rebounds, guard Kevin Caston scored 20 points and Sam Pondexter had a team-high 14 rebounds.
The Panthers’ record over two seasons: 52-7 overall, 20-0 in the North Sequoia League, 12-0 in postseason playoffs and the TOC.
The players: Bill Allen, Nelson Beazley, Joe Bremer, Kevin Caston, Brian Cleary, Exell Cooper, Ron DeLuca, Dave Dunklin, Mike Durham, Robert Emler, Dennis Frye, Chuck Kass, Ben Lee, Bob McGuire, Richard Ochoa, Mark Paolercio, Pat Pardini, Clifton Pondexter, Sam Pondexter, Mike Trotter, Dave Wenig, coach: Tom Cleary, manager: Frankie Esquivel.