Since high school sports began at the start of the 20th Century, there’s been plenty of changes in the Wabash Valley. Schools have come and gone. Community identities have changed or been lost.
However, the most constant presence in the Wabash Valley has been Sullivan.
Of all of the schools in the Wabash Valley? Sullivan has been open the longest. Sullivan High School opened in 1882. Among currently-open schools on the Indiana side? Only Linton is anywhere near as continuous as it opened in 1886. On the Illinois side, Paris had a high school in the 1860s, but the current Paris High School considers 1909 as its opening year as it celebrated its centenary in 2009.
Being first has its distinctions. Sullivan has the oldest history in the IHSAA boys basketball tournament, having first participated in 1913. Sullivan has been playing football since at least the early 20th Century.
So as long as anyone can remember? There’s been Golden Arrows.
“The high school is the center of the community. A lot of activities are based around the high school. You have a lot of individuals who went to the high school so there’s a lot of pride,” said John Montgomery, who has broadcast play-by-play for Sullivan contests in many sports for WNDI-FM since 1994.
Sullivan’s recent distinction has been balance in winning. While some small town high schools excel at a sport or two, or have success split among one gender or another, Sullivan has had multiple winning programs among both the boys and the girls sports.
While Sullivan hasn’t always enjoyed postseason reward – it’s one of the smallest 3A schools and it has recently been routed to play larger southwestern Indiana 3A schools in several sports – the Golden Arrows have been a threat in volleyball, football, both genders of basketball, baseball, softball and golf.
“Everyone has the drive and works hard and wants to compete to win. We have several successful programs on the boys and girls side for all of our sports. We have good coaches, parents and kids. We strive to motivate those kids to do their very best,” Sullivan girls basketball coach Julie Meeks said.
Sullivan support is strong in its community and in the parts of Sullivan County it serves. Montgomery’s long-time radio presence – not every community supports blanket radio coverage – is one way in which Arrows fans show support.
“One of the slogans at Sullivan is ‘Gold Pride’. You take a lot of pride in your school, yourself and your class. It’s a big slogan for Sullivan and that many graduates still hold true,” Montgomery said.
One thing that has helped Sullivan – as it does in any school district that replicates the same model – is that kids who attend kindergarten to high school graduation are together for most of their school years.
Kids in Carlisle maintain their own grade and middle schools, but everyone else in the Southwest School Corporation attends the same schools. It maintains a singular athletic mission that can be taught from a young age.
“We really do not have a feeder system in Sullivan schools. Carlisle is our only feeder school so most of our athletes play together from an early age, as early as 4 in baseball and soccer. A lot of schools don’t come together until junior high or high school. The kids really develop long friendships and camaraderie playing together from such an early age,” Sullivan baseball coach Tony Steimel said.
Due to its longevity, Sullivan also has a legacy to maintain, one that’s passed down from one generation to the next. It’s a long history of success.
Sullivan’s first tournament-level success came in track and field. Victor Flynn won the IHSAA state title in the mile in 1927 and 1928. Curiously, when you check for how Flynn’s exploits were celebrated in the Sullivan yearbooks of the time, track is barely mentioned in favor of football and basketball.
The Arrows have had big moments on the gridiron and hardwood too. Sullivan played in the old Western Indiana Conference – which included the bigger Terre Haute city schools – and more than held their own.
In the pre-playoff era, Sullivan football went undefeated in 1937, 1953 and 1955. The 1955 Arrows beat each of its WIC foes by at least two touchdowns and won 10 games. Sullivan would not win 10 games again until 2016.
Sullivan boys basketball won its first of 27 sectional titles in 1921. The Arrows made it to the state tournament in 1923, in the years before the semistate round existed.
There would be no semistate appearances in the single-class era – though Carlisle made one in 1960 – but the Arrows appeared at the semistate in the class era in 1998, 1999 and 2001.
Two of the most notable postseason runs occurred in baseball and girls basketball.
In 1976, Sullivan baseball, led by Jack Smith, made it to the state championship game, losing to LaPorte in a tight 6-5 contest after beating Forest Park in a state semifinal.
In 1982, Sullivan’s veteran girls basketball team – who had made it to the championship game of their regional in the three previous seasons – broke through in a big way.
Coached by Dru Bock and led by seniors Cherrie LeDune, Sherri Jett, Paula Townsend, Kelli Lawhorn and Sue McKinley, the Arrows won their first four postseason games by an average of 16.2 points.
Austin and Evansville Bosse were beaten in the semistate and Sullivan was off to the Final Four. Heritage beat the Arrows 66-55 in a semifinal, but it was a memorable run.
In recent years, Sullivan has embraced another sport new to small town high school athletics – soccer – and has enjoyed success on both the boys and girls side of the sport.
This while maintaining winning ways in the longer-established sports.
“We’ve been through phases of football, basketball, baseball, softball, cross country, wrestling, all being strong. Overall, in almost everything, at one time or another, we’ve been competitive or very, very good,” said Sullivan athletic director Otto Clements, who has been at Sullivan since 1986.
There’s never been a Wabash Valley sports landscape without Sullivan being an important part of it. The success the Golden Arrows have enjoyed is a testament to the standard the community has set since the 1880s.