What do the small towns of Lynd, Hebron, Fillmore and Milan all have in common?
First, let’s locate them. Lynd is in Minnesota, near Marshall. Hebron is in northern Illinois, close to the Wisconsin border. Both Fillmore and Milan are in Indiana. Fillmore is in the middle of the state, within 50 miles of Indianapolis. Milan, the largest of the four towns, is in southeastern Indiana, not far from Cincinnati, Ohio.
For a long time I knew about Lynd, the legendary fast-breaking runner-ups in the 1946 Minnesota one-class high school boys’ basketball tournament. After winning District 9 and Region 3, the Panthers caught the eye of the whole state with impressive state tournament victories over highly-favored Crosby-Ironton (58-47) in the quarterfinals and large-school Stillwater (45-39) in the semifinals.
After displaying its fast-breaking style so well in those two wins, Lynd was overwhelmed by the Austin Packers (63-31) in the 1946 state championship game and came home as the state runner-up. Edgerton’s 1960 victory over Austin (72-61) in the state title game was small-town redemption in Minnesota and duplicated what Hebron had done in Illinois back in 1952, which was matched by Milan in the legendary 1954 Indiana state championship game when Bobby Plump’s last-second shot gave the Indians a 32-30 victory over Muncie Central.
I also knew quite a bit about Milan’s legendary run through the Hoosier state’s one-class tournament, having read a couple of books about the legacy. In the 1986 film “Hoosiers,” the Hickory Huskers win the 1952 state title game on Jimmy Chitwood’s buzzer-beater, nipping South Bend Central (42-40) in similar fashion to Milan’s historic triumph.
The duplication of Plump’s dribble left, cross-over to the right and pull-up jump shot by Chitwood is one of the few exact likenesses between Milan’s actual championship run and the fiction version accomplished by tiny Hickory.
There are lots of differences, most notably the number of players. Milan had plenty and, in fact, had to cut the squad before the 1953-54 season began. Unlike, Hickory -- which was a huge surprise during it tournament run -- Milan had gone to the semi-state (final 16) in 1953 and was a highly-ranked team all year the following season.
While I knew a bit about both Lynd and Milan, I just recently learned about Hebron and Fillmore.
It must have been sometime last winter when I came across an article about Alden-Hebron’s 1952 one-class state championship in Illinois. Hebron, population 650, has a modern day water tower shaped like a basketball with “Home of the 1952 State Champions” painted below the town’s name.
Hebron’s teams had been good for a long time, winning a county championship in 1935 (the first since 1924) and earning a state tournament trip in 1940.
In 1948, Russ Ahern arrived as the new coach. A former semi-pro baseball player, Ahern initiated a regimented routine with a strict diet and lots of training rules. A couple of years later, Hebron legend Howie Judson, a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, came on board as his home town’s assistant basketball coach during his off-season.
“No dating, except on Saturday nights, take your vitamins, get the proper sleep and practice all you can” were among Ahern and Judson’s rules. Those farm kids shot hoops after morning chores, during noon hour, after school and in the evening -- after the cows were milked.
The Green Giants (they wore green and white uniforms, like the Comfrey Rockets did) became a state power during the ’50-51 campaign and they steamrolled their opponents throughout the winter of ’51-52. On the evening of March 22, 1952, the tiny school of 98 students tangled with Quincy High School (from a town of 44,000) in the state title game at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In an overtime thriller, Alden-Hebron won 64-59 with the starting five of Bill Schulz, Ken Spooner, Don Wilbrandt and the Judson twins, Phil and Paul, who were Howie’s younger brothers.
So, two years before Milan’s 1954 state championship in Indiana, the Green Giants ran the table in Illinois, the same year that Coach Norman Dale (in “Hoosiers”) guided Hickory through its fictional season of adversity and turmoil before becoming state champions.
What about Fillmore? The Cardinals were undefeated and a team to be reckoned with in Indiana during the ’53-54 season. There was a most interesting article about them in a recent edition of the Indianapolis Star.
Fillmore, population 408, was even smaller than Alden-Hebron (93 students compared to 98) and much smaller than Milan (161 students, grades 9-12). The sectional champion Cardinals were undefeated (24-0) and highly-ranked before being upset by the Montezuma Aztecs (55-52) in the finals of what was known as the Greencastle Regional (Sweet Sixteen) after holding a five-point lead with just a couple of minutes left.
Had Fillmore won that game and the next, they would have faced Milan in the state semifinals.
“I think we could have beat Milan,” summed up Fillmore starter Bob Sibbitt in the Star article, written by Gregg Doyel.
Sibbitt, along with fellow starters Herschel Ross and Dee Greenlee, were interviewed by Doyel for his story. A fourth Cardinal starter, forward Don Tharp, had a whole series of written memories from his playing days highlighted in the feature. Tharp, a long-time dentist, passed away at the age of 79 in 2017.
What could have been was the focus of the article. Perhaps, Fillmore -- rather than Milan -- could have served as the “backdrop” for Hoosiers. What about Hebron? Or Lynd? Then, of course, there’s Edgerton. And 10 years later, Sherburn did the same, winning the last one-class Minnesota tournament in 1970.
Yes, there were lots of small-towns which created basketball memories with their high school teams -- and there still are.