TERRE HAUTE —
Over the span of its 103-year history, the Indiana boys high school basketball tournament has traditionally generated its share of stunning upsets.
None were bigger on the Wabash Valley scene than those that unfolded 50 years ago this month. That’s when an unheralded band of Garfield cagers from the Terre Haute northside made an improbable run in the 1963 state tourney.
This ballclub struggled during the early part of the season, searching to find a winning formula, only to reverse its sagging fortunes as tourney time approached. It was a winning combination that, when discovered, stunned insiders with a late-season turnaround and led to a trip to the state finals at historic Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Saddled with a 3-9 record and facing a losing season mark near tourney time, the Purple Eagles put together a 13-game winning streak.
That blitz of a finish not only surprised the so-called experts who had predicted an early exit from the tourney for the northsiders but many of Garfield’s loyal followers.
<center>Beginning of the tourney run<center/>
The magical journey began in the always-unpredictable Terre Haute Sectional, where the Eagles had to squeak out a narrow two-point win over city rival Wiley, an overtime victory over West Vigo and then a lopsided win over arch-rival Gerstmeyer in the title game.
All three of their opponents had beaten the Eagles earlier in the season, including Gerstmeyer, which took a four-overtime decision from Garfield on the same Indiana State Arena floor only weeks earlier in the regular season.
Anchored by a stingy defense, the Eagles rolled through the Terre Haute Regional with convincing wins over little Freedom and perennial tourney powerhouse Bloomfield, earning them a ticket to the Evansville Semistate.
Defending state champion Evansville Bosse was the clear-cut favorite playing on its home court at Roberts Stadium. The rest of the field included little Ireland, Seymour and the upset-minded Eagles.
<center>A semistate to remember<center/>
As expected, Bosse had little trouble disposing of the Ireland Spuds, while the Eagles continued their unexpected winning run with a nailbiting 52-51 decision over Seymour in the second game of the afternoon.
That set the stage for what appeared would be a certain return trip to the state finals for the seasoned 22-4 Bulldogs.
Almost from the onset, the title game turned as ugly as the damp and dreary skies that surrounded the crowded stadium for the heavily favored Bulldogs as they felt the sting of a puzzling Garfield defense that had the hometown team tied up in knots throughout the night.
The Eagles meticulously built an 11-10 lead at the end of the first quarter and were on top by five at the intermission. Even with their near-perfect effort and entering the final period clinging to a precarious 43-37 advantage, few in attendance gave the Garfield squad a chance of fending off an inevitable rally from the defending state champs.
In what the assembled press would later term one of the biggest upsets in tourney history, the Eagles played the final eight minutes to near perfection, dethroning the Bulldogs by a 60-55 score.
Winning coach Willard Kehrt, who went with his starting five the entire contest, offered high praise for his ballclub and termed the win the biggest of his highly successful coaching career.
“This was the biggest and most thrilling win we’ve ever had,” said the Hall of Fame coach, who had notched his 400th career win earlier in the season. “I was truly amazed at the way the kids handled themselves there at the end. I kept hoping they wouldn’t fall apart.
“This was a bunch of nobodies that wasn’t suppose to do anything. Now look where we are. They did themselves and Terre Haute proud.”
Although the miracle run would come to an abrupt end against a taller and much quicker South Bend Central team a week later in the state finals, the run by the Eagles remains one of the most surprising and popular chapters in Terre Haute basketball history.
Central ended Garfield’s run with a 72-45 decision at Butler Fieldhouse. Frank Hamblen, who went led the Purple Eagles with 14 points in that loss, would later go on to play basketball at Syracuse University and enjoy a successful career as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, among other NBA teams.
The loss didn’t sour the memory for many involved with the magical trip to Indianapolis.
Those close to it recall with pride and excitement the chain of events that led up to and through what has been the last trip for a team from north Terre Haute to the state finals.
Former team players and coaches of the team rightfully look back with a deep sense of accomplishment on their efforts now five decades later.
Bob Kehrt, son of the head coach, was a year removed from his Big Ten playing days at Purdue and had a first-hand look at the Eagles’ miracle run.
“Dad always said it wasn’t the best team he ever had but maybe his smartest. They had basketball savvy. The chemistry wasn’t there early, but they worked their way through it and was a very good ballclub going into the tournament,” recalled the younger Kehrt.
Don Jennings served as assistant for the team and recalls the turnaround that led to the eventual winning drive.
“We struggled early in the year, but jelled just at the right time. You always want your ballclub playing at its best going into the tournament. I think the key to our success was our defense. That 2-1-2 matchup zone carried us a long way,” recalled Jennings, who also served as the school’s head baseball coach and later went on to take Terre Haute North to two baseball state-final appearances, including the state title in 1974.
Garfield’s 1962-63 roster was a blend of four seniors and eight underclassmen who knew and handled their respective roles well. It included seniors Greg Samuels, Skip Greenleaf, Jack Sanders and Bill Morris and juniors Jim McCallum, Vic Fink, Glenn Salmon, Bob Poynter, Frank Bell, Terry Roberts and Charlie Bensley. Hamblen was the lone sophomore.
Coach Kehrt had spent most of the early part of the season trying to assemble a winning lineup going through 11 different starting units before hitting on the right combination.
Throughout the tourney run, each player — including the subs — provided pivotal roles that produced a winning outcome.
Samuels, the senior leader, led the club in scoring with an average of 14.7 points per game. But more importantly he provided the on-floor leadership that a disciplined offense needed to be so effective.
Now living in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and retired after a successful career in sales, Samuels looks back with pride on his playing days at the high school and collegiate level, where he played at Middle Tennessee State.
The events leading up to and through the tournament journey remain fresh in his mind today, with the Bosse contest standing out the most.
“Without question, we played our best game of the year when we went up against Bosse. We had only five turnovers, our defense was superb against a really good ballclub and offensively we scored enough to win. Defensively, that 2-1-2 match-up zone was so unique that it had the flexibility to be either a zone defense or the switch to a straight man-to-man with a signal called from coach Kehrt. It confused the opposition and contributed greatly to us winning 13 straight at just the right time,” Samuels recalled.
While the trip to Indianapolis ended in disappointment, one bright spot of the day was Samuels being awarded the coveted Trester Award for Mental Attitude. It was symbolic for not only his play on the court but his work in the classroom.
“Something was said about how smart of team we might have been. I do recall that all four seniors were on the National Honor Society, which may have had a little to with our play,” noted Samuels, who served as senior class president.
Sanders drew a starting nod for his stellar defensive play near midseason and on any given night was given the tough task of guarding the opponents best offensive player. No bigger assignment came his way than in the Bosse contest when he was called upon to defend the Bulldogs’ leader scorer and all-state candidate Jerry Southwood.
“Too bad the Bosse game wasn’t the final game at Butler because it mirrored the movie ‘Hoosiers’ in terms of the story line and how it played out. I think if we had played them nine more times we would have lost them all. No one would have bet against them returning to Indy and even repeating as state champion,” said Sanders.
The crafty southpaw, who also starred on the baseball diamond, limited Southwood to 14 points.
“I knew how well he could shoot a jumper and I was able to keep the ball out of hands by staying on his grill. I also remember that our guys made a lot of key shots and that we didn’t make many turnovers. I recall Southwood being so frustrated that he punched the ball way up into the stands at the buzzer,” added Sanders, who now resides in Johnson City, Tenn.
Charlie Bensley, a 6-4 junior, played in the middle and looks back on the ’62-63 season as one filled with surprises.
“It really was a remarkable season. I think at one point, we were 3-9, not winning games [and we went] to winning games we weren’t suppose to,” he said in retrospect.
He still looks back in amazement at the Bosse game when, as a starter, he went the entire 32 minutes.
“I remember coach being asked why he didn’t substitute,” Bensley said.
Kehrt’s simple response: ”Things were going so well, I didn’t want to screw it up.”
“It really was a great night,” added Bensley, who went on to play at the Air Force Academy and Hawaii.
<center>A true team effort<center/>
Morris, a reserve forward who put down a key baseline jumper in the closing moments of the Seymour contest, reflected on the season and semistate final.
“We did not have one dominating player, but we had a bunch of really good, fundamentally sound players,” he recalled.
“I remember coach Kehrt saying before the game with Seymour that we could beat Bosse if we got past Seymour, which we were fortunate enough to do. What I remember most about the Bosse game was how the reigning state champions came to our lockerroom to congratulate us and wish us well in the finals. I thought that was a really classy act for a group of young men who just had their dreams of a repeat championship crushed by a bunch of overachievers from Terre Haute.”
Greenleaf went on to play at Michigan Tech, was a frequent starter throughout the year and vividly recalls the semistate game with Bosse.
“I watched five teammates play the game of their lives. I remember the feeling of walking onto the [Butler] Fieldhouse floor for our finals practice. It was portrayed well in the movie Hoosiers. Also the excitement through out our fan section and watching Greg [Samuels] go up to get the Trester Award. We were able to live the Hoosiers dream of playing in the state finals and we had that great welcome when we came back home.”
Poynter, a reserve guard who remains close to the Terre Haute high school sporting scene as a photographer for the Tribune-Star, says the Bosse game still remains fresh in his memory.
“What an awesome game,” Poynter recalled. “I remember how Greg Samuels took over the game. He wasn’t intimidated by all the hype with Bosse. We knew Greg was the guy who would get the job done when the game was on the line. We just expected it out of him.”
Tom Miller, who severed as an assistant for the basketball team and was the school’s head football coach, is retired and resides in his hometown of Brazil.
As team members reflect on those magical moments, they also take time to remember two who are no longer with them — coach Kehrt, who died in an auto accident in 1996, and McCallum, who died unexpectedly following complications from heart surgery in 1998.