A Big Ballgame for a Small Town
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
"Hoosiers" is one of my favorite sports movies, partly because it reminds me of something I experienced growing up. And a few years ago, I stumbled across an old tape recording that transported me back to another small town team with big dreams. We put together a story based on that tape back then and we're going to play again for you today.
Mr. RUSS SMITH (Sports Announcer): Waiting on the shift. There it goes to Ydstie in the corner and out front to Rudolph. To Gronison to Bowersox in the left corner. Bingo!
YDSTIE: It's of March of 1968, the title game of North Dakota's premier sporting event, the Boys Class B High School Basketball Tournament; big city schools playing Class A. Class B is a place for small towns to shine; schools of a few hundred students, or maybe just a few dozen. In that 1968 game it was David against Goliath. My school, tiny Wolford High against big, fearsome Central Cass. They were one of the best teams in the state's history.
Mr. SMITH: Twenty-five, twenty-one. The shot up is not good. Ydstie rebounds! He scores at the buzzer.
YDSTIE: Ydstie, that's me, number 30. I played guard and it was the biggest game of my life. Central Cass was from the east near Fargo, the state's largest city. It was a big school with big players. Wolford was small, very small.
(Soundbite of music)
Wolford was a tiny village under the dome of the high plain sky, up near the Canadian border. Towns like Wolford were invented by railroad surveyors in the late 1800s. They plotted a town every 12miles or so along the line, so the farmers furthest from town could still make a round-trip by horse and wagon in one day. By 1968, Wolford was already in deep decline. The main highway into town was a gravel road. The nearest paved road was 15 miles away.
There were more people buried in the town cemetery than there were living souls in the community. My friends and I would count and recount the number of people in town, and we struggled to reach 100.
Mr. ROSS JULSON (Former Coach, Wolford Wolves High School): Most anybody that would be listening, I think, if they went to Wolford they wouldn't think of it as a town. They would think of it as a sudden gathering of homes on the prairie, elevators sticking up. It would be, at best, a neighborhood to most people.
YDSTIE: That's Ross Julson. The 1968 Wolves were his team. He'd come to town to teach math and science a few years earlier; but in a high school with only five teachers, he'd ended up the basketball coach, too. The team's star was Vance Bowersox, a rangy, angular six-foot forward.
Mr. VANCE BOWERSOX (Former Player, Wolford Wolves): We weren't the typical term "redneck," but we used to carry a .22 rifle along to take a shot at a rabbit or something on the way home from practice. I remember that vividly.
YDSTIE: it was the middle of nowhere. We got one station clearly on television, but we had basketball. In the late winter when the haylofts were near empty, we'd go from barn to barn playing hoops till midnight. And Vance had nailed a wooded backboard on the side of his dad's barn.
Mr. BOWERSOX: I remember shoveling snow just so I can shoot baskets and playing out in the barn, and replaying games that I'd heard on the radio.
YDSTIE: Vance's farmyard was so rutted from tractor wheels and covered with cow pies that you couldn't dribble. But he would loft long jump shots one after another. Without any instruction at all he made himself a great shooter, even the coach didn't tinker with his shots.
Mr. JULSON: Anybody who remember Vance would remember a pure jump shot that just unfolded naturally.
YDSTIE: The rest of the starting five: Richard Petric (ph), Roger Rudolph, Jerry Gronison and I were all pretty good athletes. And we had all high expectations for that 1968 season, but you had to win seven tournaments in a row to get to the Class B championships. And to us that seemed impossible. You see, Wolford suffered from an affliction that was common to all small towns, it had a deep inferiority complex.
Mr. JULSON: The town kind of had the mentality that we were going to pee down our leg when the time came. So, we had that to overcome. And I think that permeated the kids; that kind of fatalistic sense of impending doom at some point. So that had to be overcome. So I think it took a sense of success, of knowing how to win.
YDSTIE: The year before we came close, we lost in double overtime in the district tournament. After that Coach Julson lined us up in the bleachers of our tiny, windowless gym and convinced us that the difference between us and the teams from bigger towns were trivial. That with more focus, more discipline, one or two fewer mistakes we too could bask in the warm spotlight of the state tournament.
Mr. JULESON: We played the style of ball that minimized anything that could mentally block you up. We played defense and we rebounded. Those aren't things that you choke on.
YDSTIE: Slowly we began to believe him and the next season the team dedicated itself to almost monastic concentration. Getting to the state tournament was all we cared about.
Mr. BOWERSOX: One year, it was my senior year we had somebody gave me a can of beer, and I was going to drink the thing afterwards. And on my way home from all the festivities that night, I had pulled that can of beer out of the glove compartment and I was driving home, and I started to open it and I said Nah, and I threw it out the window.
YDSTIE: I gave up girls, though, there's some question whetherI had any girlfriends in the first place. Our dedication paid off despite the toughest schedule in the school's history. The 1968 Wolves didn't lose a game during the regular season, and we had won 27 straight when we faced off with Central Cass for the state championship.
The day we arrived in Minot, the big town in the center of the state, we found ourselves in what seemed like a different world. At least, it was different for us. This is my teammate Richard Petric.
Mr. RICHARD PETRIC (Former Player, Wolford Wolves): We were pretty much dumbfounded out here because we had never been in that big a place. We stayed in Minot, which is quite a big town. We had never been overnight anywhere else, I don't think.
YDSTIE: We went down to the big tournament arena to practice. It was the biggest space we'd ever been in. It felt like a big barn. In fact, Richard said, You could put a lot of hay in here.
The morning of the big game, we awoke to find our pictures on the front page of the Minot Daily News with a David vs. Goliath headline. That night in the arena was like a dream.
Mr. SMITH (announcing): A minute and ten to go on the quarter, Bowersox down in the middle. Underhand shot knock good. He tips it in! Bowersox tips it in after he missed the underhand shot. Twenty-one, twenty--a minute to go in the quarter.
YDSTIE: Wolford was virtually empty that night. There were probably a few old bachelors huddled in the lamplight listening to this play by play on the radio. But the rest of the town was at the game; we could see them in the bleachers.
Mr. SMITH: So Jerry Pyle and Bowersox having quite a battle. What a first quarter.
Mr. JULSON: I believe it was the biggest thing that ever happened in Wolford. The most exciting time and the most attention that Wolford has ever gotten.
Mr. SMITH: Eight seconds to go on the half, 43-41 Cass. Bowersox, 35 footer. Good!
Mr. BOWERSOX: It was a long shot and then the camera panned up on the scoreboard, and it said 43-43. it was just really thrilling at that point.
YDSTIE: Despite the tied score, Coach Julson was worried.
Mr. JULSON: I recalled thinking later that they shouldn't have had 43 points, that we couldn't beat them with that type of score.
YDSTIE: Vance Bowersox was in an epic offensive battle with Central Cass's star, six-seven Jerry Pyle, a terrific athlete who later played for the University of Minnesota. They traded baskets all night long and ended with 38 points apiece. But by the middle of the third quarter we knew we were struggling.
Mr. SMITH: You can't watch something like this without - here's the steal by Jerry Pyle. He drives. He's under. He shoots. He scores and it's 51-49.
Mr. BOWERSOX: They just seemed to shift gears on us in that third quarter and then we went into a stretch where we didn't make a few shots, and pretty soon it was tied to about nine down. And then it was all uphill and we just couldn't do it anymore.
Mr. SMITH: The free throw is good. Bartholomew scored them. Long one hand shot in the air. Is that good? There it is. And that wins it 95 to 77.
YDSTIE: In the locker room afterwards there were tears and a sense of failure. But the next morning, the town came to meet us at the main highway. Someone had stuck an American flag on the back of the town's firetruck, Wolford's only official vehicle. And the long caravan of cars escorted us the final 15 miles across the prairie and down our gravel road back into town. It took some time to get over that loss.
Mr. JULSON: I didn't want to lose. I felt, may be in some respects, it was as much a disappointment as it was an accomplishment. But, I'll tell you, Wolford was the first tiny school to make a big splash in Class B basketball and threatened the larger towns. And I think it gave a sense of belief to a lot of kids in a lot of small towns in North Dakota. Because after that it started happening with regularity.
YDSTIE: In fact, all those legendary coaches had it wrong. Winning isn't the only thing, it's just the sweet icing on a very rich cake. In the long run, I'm sure it really made no difference that we lost that game back in 1968. Had we won our lives would probably be pretty much be the same. What really matters, what really changes your life is the passionate pursuit of something you love.
Thanks to the late Russ Smith for his play-by-play call of that 1968 title game.
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. Scott Simon will be back next week. I'm John Ydstie.
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