Northland News

Remembering Brookhaven

Howard's legacy looms large

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It's been more than a decade since one of the greatest figures in the 51-year history of Brookhaven High School last made his presence felt.

The boys basketball team won its first district championship in 1974 and became a power in the City League in the 1980s, but Bruce Howard's impact on the program from 1992 until he died of liver failure just after the 2003 season has spanned the test of time for many.

His legacy has come to define what athletics have meant at Brookhaven, which is closing at the end of the school year as part of school district cuts.

"Honestly, I think he's a legendary figure in Columbus," said Raheem Moss, a senior on Brookhaven's 2002 state championship team who went on to play for Cleveland State and overseas. "He was more than a high school coach. He was more like a father. He never used profanity and everything was blue-collar and professional. I still carry a lot of those core values with me today."

Howard guided the Bearcats to a 198-52 record that included 10 City League-North Division titles in 11 seasons.

With college recruits such as Moss, Ron Lewis (Bowling Green and Ohio State), Andrew Lavender (Oklahoma and Xavier) and Brandon Foust (Oklahoma), Brookhaven made a state semifinal in 2001.

The Bearcats added eventual Penn State-recruit Jamelle Cornley and Denzel Lyles to the mix in 2002 and beat Cincinnati Winton Woods 66-49 for the Division I state title, the first for a City team since Columbus East won in 1979.

Howard first was hospitalized in January 2003, and assistant Drew Williams took over on an interim basis. The Bearcats went on to earn a state-runner-up finish.

"Losing coach Howard, I still don't think I've ever gotten over that," said Williams, who was an assistant for 18 seasons before leading Whitehall to an MSL-Ohio Division title in his first season as coach last winter. "That was hard. I think the biggest thing was that he had a vision. We created a culture for winning."

Howard, who played for Mifflin's 1977 state runner-up team, coached at the youth and AAU levels as well as boys and girls basketball at Crestview Middle School before taking over at Brookhaven.

He even had a role in shaping one of central Ohio's all-time great girls players.

Helen Darling, who led the Bearcats to a Division I state title before playing for Penn State and then in the WNBA from 2000-10, played for Howard at Crestview.

The Bearcats girls program won its first of 10 league championships under Reggie Lee when Darling was a sophomore.

"(Lee) was just a dynamite coach," said Darling, who is coaching and mentoring girls in Dallas. "Not only Mr. Lee, but Bruce Howard instilled some things in me at a young age. Bruce was like my godfather. He was the one that got me interested in basketball."

Lee guided the Bearcats to district titles in 1994 and 1995, and a team led by Darling, Kahli Carter, Latisha Fambro and Lisa Wube helped them beat Wooster 56-46 to cap a 28-0 season in 1996.

Then with Andrea Johnson and Brittany Hunter among its key players in 2001, Brook-haven won its first 23 games before losing in a regional semifinal.

Hunter and Kristin Peoples led Brookhaven to another district title in 2002, and that duo along with Carlesha Chambers and Alesia Barringer made it to a state semifinal the next year.

Peoples (Arkansas and Wright State), Hunter (Duke and Connecticut) and Barringer (Xavier) all went on to play Division I college basketball.

Although Brookhaven last won a district title in 2005, Lee led the program to district runner-up finishes in each of his final two seasons and won 515 games from 1981-2011.

The Bearcats won City titles from 1994-97 and 1999-2002, as well as in 2005 and 2010.

"I was proud to say I played for Brookhaven," said Hunter, who is now a teacher in Harlem in New York City. "We were always the team people wanted to beat in the City. I loved coach Lee. He was my dad away from home and he was going to hold everyone accountable."

The girls team, which lost City finals in 1986 when Sheila Brockington starred and in 1988 when Jai Jones led the way, won its first City title in 1975.

Also during the 1970s, the school was impacted by one of its most famous families and had some of its first successful wrestlers.

Vic Keeler made it to the state wrestling tournament at 155 pounds in 1970 and Mitch Davis (145) and Jerry Fultz (unlimited class) both made it in 1974. In 1975, Fultz took fourth in the same class at state.

The O'Neill family, meanwhile, carved a niche in football, baseball and basketball.

While Paul O'Neill would go on to play professional baseball from 1985-2001, he was a 1981 graduate who was the youngest of five brothers.

Mike and Robert, who graduated in 1973 and 1978, respectively, and Paul all were standouts in basketball for the Bearcats.

"We won (11) in a row in 1978, but we lost to (East) in two ... overtimes," Robert O'Neill said. "We didn't beat the big teams back then, which were North, East and Linden."

Paul O'Neill led Brookhaven to shares of the City-North title in 1980 and 1981, but the Bearcats didn't win their first overall league title until Anthony Thornton scored 23 points to lead a 67-63 win over Eastmoor in 1986.

The Bearcats won a share of the City-North title and a district championship in 1987, earned an outright City title in 1988 and won City and district titles in 1989 under Dick Meloy, who went 243-118 as coach from 1972-89.

Brookhaven made it back to the City title game in Howard's first season in 1993 with a cast led by June Henley and Ryan Nelson, but lost to Marion-Franklin 59-58.

It was the first of many memorable moments under Howard.

Anthony Lavender, DeShannon Butler and Stefan Walker led Brookhaven to its first City title under Howard in 1996, and the Bearcats captured a district title behind Antwain Lavender in 1998.

While the Bearcats shined in boys basketball throughout Howard's tenure, they also had three wrestling state qualifiers during the same period in Antonio Scott (215) in 1999, Ahmad Stephens (160) in 2000 and 2001 and Curtis McGhee (189) in 2003. Stephens was fifth at state in 2000 and McGhee was a sixth-place finisher.

The Bearcats won City wrestling titles in 1965, 1968 and 1970 but didn't win another until they shared the title in 1996. They followed with titles in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2007.

After Hali Robinson took over as boys basketball coach for the 2003-04 season, the success Brookhaven enjoyed under Howard continued.

The Bearcats followed their state runner-up finish in 2003 when Andrew Lavender and Foust were seniors by reaching a state semifinal the next year as Cornley, Lyles and future NFL player Jeff Cumberland led the way.

Brookhaven won district titles in each of Robinson's first three seasons and was a district runner-up when Chris Johnson, who now plays for the Boston Celtics, was a senior in 2008.

After declining enrollment dropped the school to Division II in 2012, Khalid King and Randal Clarkson led it to another district title.

After a district runner-up finish in 2013, the Bearcats made their final season a memorable one.

On Feb. 10, three days after the announcement that Brook-haven was on a list of schools to potentially close, the boys snapped Northland's 118-game City winning streak with a 67-66 victory.

The Bearcats, with senior Ronnie Williams leading the way, then beat Walnut Ridge 44-42 in overtime Feb. 15 for their final City title.

On March 7, three days after the school board officially voted to close Brookhaven, the Bearcats' season ended with a district runner-up finish.

"It's a very difficult journey to come to find ways to push the right buttons when you're coaching beneath a cloud that you're not coming back tomorrow," Robinson said. "There was a sense of finality to everything you do. We just had a host of wonderful kids over the years."

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