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Tiny school, giant player - feats by Wingate, Stonebraker remain legendary 100 years later

April 24, 2013
Indiana High School Basketball Historical Society



This story appeared in the Lafayette Journal & Courier newspaper on March 23, 2013, and has been re-printed by permission.

 

Seven young men from a tiny rural high school, including one who everyone in the community knew was a special athlete, and a coach who made sure his team played basketball the right way.

That team went on to beat a big-city high school for a state championship.

Sounds like the plot for “Hoosiers,” right? Wrong.

More than 40 years before Milan became an Indiana legend with Bobby Plump in 1954, Wingate — a Montgomery County high school with 35 boys in 12 grades— won the first of back-to-back state championships on March 15, 1913. Wingate defeated South Bend Central, 15-14 in five overtimes, for the championship.

Coincidentally, the South Bend Central Bears were the state finals opponent for the fictional Hickory High School and Jimmy Chitwood in “Hoosiers.”

Montgomery County basketball historian Bill Boone, who played basketball at Ladoga High School and Wabash College, hadn’t thought about the link between Wingate, Milan and “Hoosiers” but he sees the resemblance.

“For them to win two state championships in 1913 and ’14, that had to be the early-day Milan story,” Boone said. “I think they were because, being such a small school, they nearly had to have every boy in the high school to play to field a team.”

Fortunately for Wingate, one of the 35 boys was a muscular 6-foot-4 giant for his time. Homer Stonebraker went on to be a three-time All-American at Wabash College and a member of the first Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame class in 1962, a group of six that included John Wooden and legendary Purdue coach Ward “Piggy” Lambert.

“Everyone who knows about basketball in Indiana knows about Homer Stonebraker,” said Bob Quirk, a historian and former teacher in Montgomery County whose family has lived on a plot of land between Wingate and Newtown since the 1830s. “In the late 1940s, the athletic director at Minnesota (Frank McCormick) was asked who was the greatest player he’d ever seen, and he said Homer Stonebraker.

“At that time, 6-4 was like a 7-footer in high school. They just didn’t have people that tall. He was not only 6-4 but he was good. He was very athletic.”

In “Indiana High School Basketball’s 20 Most Dominant Players,” author Dave Krider called Stonebraker “Indiana’s first authentic high school basketball superstar.” Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein called Stonebraker “the best all-around center he had ever seen.” In 2010, more than 30 years after his death in 1977, Stonebraker was honored at Bankers Life Fieldhouse as one of the 50 greatest ever to play in Indiana.

There was something almost mythical about Stonebraker. He scored 80 points in the second game of the 1913 season, a 108-8 victory over Hillsboro.

“I can imagine in a game like that — he was a 6-4 center, and they jumped center after every basket,” Quirk said. “Imagine: He would get the tip, someone would get it, he’d run down to the basket and score. I can imagine that happening time after time after time in that game.”

Layups were just one of the ways Stonebraker could score, Quirk said.

“He had to be a great shot,” Quirk said. “After he got out of Wabash College, he played for a professional team from Chicago. When they played a Washington, D.C., team, the Washington coach told the player who was going to guard Stonebraker: Don’t let him shoot on Chicago’s side of the court. At the half, Stonebraker had 14 points.

“ ‘I told you not to let him shoot,’ the coach said. The player responded that Stonebraker hadn’t taken a shot on that side of the center line.”

Boone recalled the story of another legendary Stonebraker high school feat after a snowstorm.

“He had an intense, passionate dedication to basketball,” Boone said. “Can you imagine shoveling a path from Wingate to New Richmond to get to practice in a regular gymnasium? I’m sure it didn’t happen every day, but the thought of doing it once was quite a picture.”

The driving distance between Wingate and New Richmond is seven miles.

Dennis Olin heard that story as well from his grandfather. Leland Olin was a starter on both state championship teams. The elder Olin didn’t talk much about his basketball exploits, but he did pass along his impressions of Stonebraker to his grandson.

“The whole offense more or less went through him,” Dennis Olin said of Stonebraker. “He was a good shot and he was tall. He got the ball quite a bit of the time when the ball was jumped at the center circle.”

Stonebraker’s height wasn’t the only unusual aspect of Wingate’s basketball team. In the heart of basketball crazy Montgomery County, the Spartans had no gym to call home.

“They were called the traveling team,” Olin said. “They traveled everywhere else to play. They practiced at New Richmond, the way I understand it. I know a lot of them walked to practice and away from practice, or they hitched rides.”

Wingate won 22 of its 25 games in 1913.

State finals

The state tournament was played at Indiana University in the old Assembly Hall. There were no semistate rounds in those days, and Wingate had to play five games — three in one day — to win the championship.

“Of course they didn’t play fast like they do today,” Quirk said.

According to the school yearbook, the Spartans’ journey by train to Bloomington the Thursday night before the state finals took seven hours, mainly because of a late-arriving second locomotive in Linden. The long journey mattered not the next afternoon when Wingate dominated Whiting, 24-12, in the opening game.

“A hot bath, a good rub down and then ... to bed,” the yearbook states. The team rested before its 8 p.m. game against Rochester. The game was tied at 17 at the end of regulation. The referee determined the winning team would be the first to score two points. In a prelude to what would happen 24 hours later, Forest Crane scored the game-winning basket to send Wingate into the quarterfinals.

Up early for a 9 a.m. game against Manual, Wingate trailed 11-6 at halftime but shut out the Indianapolis team in the second half and prevailed, 16-11.

After a short rest, Lafayette Jeff awaited Wingate in the semifinals. The Bronchos were no match for Stonebraker and Co., 23-14 victors.

Wingate’s victory was especially sweet, Quirk said.

“Wingate wanted to play Lafayette, and they wouldn’t play them” during the regular season, he said. “Lafayette wanted to play bigger teams. So they had to go down to Bloomington to beat them.”

The championship game against South Bend wasn’t the first time Wingate had played the bigger school in a championship game that school year. In the fall, the Spartans and Bears played in the baseball title game at Purdue, and the Bears won, 17-0.

However, the Spartans had Stonebraker, who scored nine points yet wasn’t the hero of the state final. Regulation ended tied at 13. Four two-minute overtime periods were played before South Bend took a 14-13 lead in overtime No. 5. Crane calmed the anxious Wingate crowd by making the field goal that brought Montgomery County its second state championship in three years.

The team — other members were Jesse Graves, John Blacker, McKinley Murdock and Lee Sinclair — each received a gold watch fob, and Wood was presented with the championship cup. Wood and Stonebraker addressed the sold-out crowd of 2,500 after the awards ceremony.

Encore

Stonebraker, Olin, Sinclair, Graves and Blacker returned the following year — joined by Pete Thorn, a future Indiana Basketball/Football Hall of Famer — and repeated the feat with new coach Len Lehman. In the 1914 state finals, Wingate had to win two games on Friday and four on Saturday.

One of those games was against their archrival, Crawfordsville.

“There was no TV, no radio, so the people in Wingate gathered in the lumber yard and had someone send them a telegram about the game,” Quirk said. “The message came that Crawfordsville had won. Then it said, “Wingate 24, Crawfordsville 1.”

The final was anticlimactic compared to the year before, a 36-8 victory over Anderson in which Stonebraker scored Wingate’s first 20 points.

Wingate’s success didn’t end with Stonebraker’s graduation. From 1915 to 1927, either the Spartans or Crawfordsville won the sectional championship — with one notable exception. In 1920, Wingate won the mythical national championship in Chicago after the Spartans and Crawfordsville were suspended for one year by the IHSAA for recruiting and other violations.

“The whole town turned out to see them off for the national championship,” Dennis Olin said.

It seemed fitting to Wingate residents that its team beat Crawfordsville, 22-10, in the final game. The Spartans had an extra edge in the tournament. Fletcher Kerr, a standout player for Wingate, told Quirk that when the team arrived in Chicago, the players met a University of Chicago student who took a liking to the Spartans.

He agreed to scout the games whose winners Wingate would play next. Kerr said the student’s notes helped Wingate win every time by double digits.

“Who was this student? None other than Tony Hinkle, who went on to become the legendary coach of Butler University,” Quirk said.

The end

Wingate High School closed in 1954 and consolidated with New Richmond to form Coal Creek Central High School. In 1971, Coal Creek, Darlington and Linden combined to form North Montgomery.

Wingate High School was razed in 1975, but the Spartans have not been forgotten.

Signs welcome travelers on Indiana 25 at both ends of town. The cornerstone of the school, which reads “In Honor of 1913-1914 State Basketball Champions,” was placed at the city park.

“They liked the game, like everyone else does in this area,” Dennis Olin said. “Wingate is a small community, and this is something they can hang their hat on.”

The livery stable that was used as Wingate’s gymnasium starting in 1925 is still standing on High Street.

In 1934, that gym was the home of the first electric scoreboard with an operating clock and the full lightbulb numbers.

One of the men who constructed that scoreboard, Roy MeHarry, had a small role in “Hoosiers” — as the scoreboard clock operator.


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