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That Championship Season

50 years ago Zebras hoop team rolled to Pioneer League title
By: Mike Ray
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Saying that Lincoln was a different town in 1969 wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

 

For starters, the population of the “Clay City” some fifty years ago was just under 4,000 persons. Today, the city limits are bulging with over 50,000 populating the area.

 

In 1969, Lincoln was still what you could call a sleepy little town on Highway 65 between Roseville and Marysville that had had no traffic signals and was without a McDonald’s.

 

“I think when I started at Lincoln High in 1962, the high school had about 320 kids,” remembered former Zebras basketball coach Dale Pence, who headed the basketball program for 18 seasons and would later to go on and end a 34-year career in education as the school’s principal for 15 years. “It definitely was a lot smaller then.”  

 

Last week, Pence and some of the key players from his 1969 squad got together to reminisce about a special season that the Zebras put together that winter.

 

“It’s hard to believe that it was fifty years ago,” said David DeArcos, the team’s MVP that season. “Seems just like yesterday.”

 

At Lincoln High in 1969, a school then of about 450 students, the Zebras were a member of the old Pioneer League which included Del Oro, Wheatland, Colfax, Colusa and Tahoe-Truckee.

 

As the 1968–69 basketball season was about to begin, not too many of the Lincoln faithful were making bold predictions on the hardwood for the Zebras, who returned just two starters from the previous years team.

 

“We didn’t have a whole lot of height that year,” said Pence. “I think David (DeArcos) was about 6-1 and we brought Odell (Kimbrough) up from the JVs for some height. He was 6-3, maybe.”

 

Going into that ‘68–69 season, Lincoln hadn’t won a league basketball championship since the early 1950s. And, as the pre-league schedule started to unfold that season, the Zebras were doing nothing out of the ordinary to show that something special may be brewing that year.

 

“We lost our game with the faculty that season,” remembered All-League guard Mario Robles. “I think that was kind of the slap in the face that we needed that year.”

 

The team started off by going 2-1 and finishing in third at the Wheatland Tournament. After losses to Nevada Union, Oakmont and Biggs, an 80-71 win over Roseville left the Zebras with just a 4-4 record going into the Christmas break.

 

Things didn’t get much better following the vacation layoff as the Lincoln fell below .500 when they started 1969 with a close 52-50 non-league loss to El Dorado. But following the narrow loss, things started to click for the Zebras.

 

With the offense coming from DeArcos and Robles, and other steady efforts supplied by junior forward Richard DeArcos, senior point guard Rick Harris and  Kimbrough, the sophomore center, the Zebras started to make strides.

 

Wins over Truckee and Colusa got the ball rolling for the Zebras, and in their first big test of the Pioneer League season, Lincoln ventured to Colfax. After a close half, Lincoln bested the Falcons 65-45 as David DeArcos and Robles both hit for 21 points apiece.

 

“We weren’t what you could call a fast team,” said Pence. “But we had some basketball quickness. We ran a 2-1-2 zone press that gave a lot of teams trouble.”

 

After a 69-63 win over Wheatland, the Zebras were then faced with the task of tangling with defending league champion Del Oro on the Golden Eagles’ home court, both teams with 4-0 league marks.

 

In a game played before a standing-room only crowd, the Eagles stunned the Zebras racing out to a 25-14 lead after a quarter. However, Lincoln settled down and with David DeArcos setting the pace, the Zebras rallied to trail by just two, 38-36, at the break.

 

In the second half, Lincoln took control as its fine teamwork overcame the bigger Eagles for a 70-63 win. David DeArcos finished with 29 points, Robles added 14 Kimbrough netted 12, Harris eight and Richard DeArcos seven.

 

“It seemed like it was a different time back then,” said David DeArcos, now retired from education and residing in Sun City Lincoln. “Basketball was big for the small communities. People had to get to the gym early or not be able to get in.”

 

Following the win over Del Oro, nothing stopped the Blue and Gold as the team ripped off six more consecutive wins, including a another rout of Colfax, 73-47, behind Richard DeArcos’ 25 points, and a title-cinching 69-57 home win over Del Oro to cap an undefeated league season.

 

Supplying the depth for the Zebras, 16-7 that season, were the likes of Joe Knapp, Terry Francimone, Curtis Hubbard and sophomore Jim Files, who was brought up to bolster the roster late in the season.

David DeArcos was named the league’s MVP and was joined on the All-League team by his brother Richard and Robles. Pence was tagged as the Coach of the Year.

 

Pence would go on to coach a total of 18 seasons at Lincoln, including 16 at the varsity level. He also coached league championship teams in 1971, ‘72 and ‘77. Two of his teams competed in the North Section Tournament of Champions.

 

“First, I can’t believe it was 50 years ago,” remembered Pence, who is 81 and still resides in Lincoln. “But that ‘69 team was a joy to coach. No superstars. Great chemistry. A real team.”  

 

While the ‘69 team played its games at Lincoln’s old R.A. Lee Gymnasium, fitting the school’s new gym, which opened in 1996, was christened as the Dale Pence Gymnasium.