As another state basketball tournament looms, the movie “Hoosiers” serves as true-story template for the magic high school athletes can create once they realize a team is more than the sum of its individual parts.
Milan High School’s conquest of the 1954 Indiana state championship provided the plot for the most moving of sports movies, but Milan – renamed “Hickory High” in the script – didn’t corner the market on inspiration. Four years before Milan gained acclaim as The Little School That Could, the South Kitsap Wolves won a state tournament that figured to start without them.
“South Kitsap had a disappointing regular season, and wasn’t supposed to have a chance,” John Lundberg said Tuesday from his home in Front Royal, Va. “Milan returned four starters who’d gone to the semifinals of the Indiana state tournament the previous year. They had a team that was loaded for bear.”
Lundberg, a retired Army colonel who recently moved to Virginia so he could be closer to his children and grandchildren, didn’t play for the Wolves in 1950. He merely watched them as the 9-year old son of South Kitsap athletic director Maynard Lundberg.
John Lundberg was captivated by the squad that transformed itself from a late-season mediocrity into royalty befitting a championship parade through Port Orchard.
Lundberg, 72, recalls the Wolves’ tournament run – it culminated with a 40-37 overtime
upset of Seattle’s Lincoln High at Hec Edmundson Pavilion – with a memory that’s encyclopedic.
“There were no pro sports teams around in those days, and few people had television sets,” Lundberg said. “High school sports were a big deal, especially in a town like Port Orchard.”
South Kitsap’s championship was improbable on several counts. With a 9-7 record, the Wolves staved off elimination by beating North Kitsap in their final Olympic League game. After losing to Bremerton in the district tournament, South Kitsap was forced to win three loser-out games just to qualify for one of 16 state-tournament bids
Beyond its modest credentials, South Kitsap, with an enrollment of 84 senior boys, was regarded among the smallest of the big schools in Class A. (In 1950, schools with fewer than 150 senior students were designated Class B.)
The declining size of South Kitsap’s enrollment was understandable: It was the aftermath of World War II, and the shipyard workers who had been recruited from the South and Midwest during the Depression were in less demand.
“A lot of families moved elsewhere,” Lundberg said. “The families that stayed, many lived in the federal projects. Units were pretty much a concrete slab that had maybe 1,000 square feet of room. We’re talking dirt poor.”
Absent any household amenities more luxurious than four walls and a roof, grade-school kids played outside: Baseball in the summer, football in the fall, basketball in the winter. Neighborhood friends such as forward Hal Dodeward and guard Arno Stautz, who grew up within a half-block of each other in the projects, became seventh-grade teammates and, ultimately, senior-class teammates.
“In the eighth grade, we beat the ninth graders in basketball,” Dodeward said from his home in Yakima. “That was a big thing for us because the game was played in front of students at the school.”
The crowd for the state tournament semifinal, against Clarkston, was even more of a big thing: About 12,200 fans – a Hec Ed record at the time – showed up for South Kitsap’s 32-21 victory. The record was eclipsed against Lincoln’s undefeated Lynx in the final, when 12,500 jammed the building.
“Quite a contrast from what we were used to,” Dodeward said. “At South Kitsap, we only had seating on one side, 18 rows deep, barely beyond the length of the floor. The overflow sat on the stage.”
The Wolves didn’t lose sleep about the 12,000-fan attendance spike. They slept just fine, thanks to first-year coach Ty Stephens. Instead of keeping the team in a Seattle hotel, Stephens wanted the Wolves back in Port Orchard.
Because construction of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge wasn’t finished, this meant an early-morning ferry ride from Seattle.
The Wolves weren’t bothered by the commute. All that bothered them was the perception they didn’t belong in the final after Aberdeen, behind the high-scoring Tony Vlastelica, lost to Lincoln in the semifinals.
“The two strongest teams in the tournament,” lamented Seattle Times sports editor Eugene Russell, “were placed in the same bracket.”
The overtime victory over Lincoln and guard Ed Pepple (who went on to become the state’s all-time winningest high school basketball coach) the following night, erased any doubts about the Wolves’ credentials.
“The country cousins from Port Orchard took the city slickers for a hay ride,” opined Royal Brougham, the dean and patron saint of Pacific Northwest sports writers, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Never has a team with more heart ever won the state basketball tournament.
“The South Kitsap victory is good for basketball. It demonstrates that courage and teamwork pay off – whatever the odds – and it provides encouragement for small schools everywhere.”
Dodeward, who went on play pro baseball with the Cleveland organization (he was on the field the day minor league teammate Earl Weaver made his managerial debut as a substitute skipper) didn’t regard the state championship as momentously.
“When you’re in high school,” said the retired teacher and coach, “you don’t understand the background of the tournament. You’re 17 or 18 years old, you don’t pay a whole lot attention to the importance of events like that.”
The reception after returning from the ferry ride gave Dodeward and his teammates an early clue about the importance of the 1950 state basketball championship. Car horns blared during a mile-long caravan from Sinclair Inlet to downtown Port Orchard, where the party continued with grilled steaks at Myhre’s Cafe.
Said Lundberg: “You’d have thought World War II had ended again. The celebration lasted until the sun came up.”
The party was as spontaneous as South Kitsap’s resurrection: down and out in the middle of February, legends in the middle of March.
“You’re always hoping for the best,” Dodeward said, “but the state championship wasn’t one of the things on our minds. We were just thinking we needed to win a game. We continued to win, and it took off from there. It was quite a ride.”
And then the ride continued, on the ferry boat and through Port Orchard, home of the proud shipbuilders whose sons mastered a course in chemistry.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com