Church came close before breaking through

Herald file photo
Dubois coach John Church got a regional T-shirt to wear along with his team’s regional crown on March 10, 1984, after the Jeeps beat the Loogootee Lions, 46-42.


The COVID-19 pandemic has left its impact on a countless number of lives, but that’s not so much the case for former Dubois coach John Church. The Jasper resident has no problem staying at home during this time.

“I do miss going to church and I miss going to the gym,” Church said. “Otherwise, this has no effect on me whatsoever.”

Those who run into him at church and at the gym are having a brush with somebody who accomplished a lot in his days coaching the Jeeps, both as an assistant coach and head coach. Church was Jim Mueller’s assistant coach when the team won its first sectional and got to the semistate championship in 1977. He went 77-55 in six seasons, and he had a semistate appearance in his own right as head coach after he succeeded Mueller for the 1978-79 season.

Mueller went to Pike Central afterward. Church credited Mueller for the success the 1977 Jeeps had, and added that the first coach to win a sectional at Dubois did a lot for him.

“He gave me so much opportunities to be a part of this team and making decisions and so forth,” he said. “Not only was he my head coach, he was also my best friend all those years.”

Church relished the opportunity to take the mantle in 1978. He also coached against Mueller a couple of times the first season he was at the helm. The Jeeps lost to the Chargers, 73-66, the first time they played, but they got them back, 62-60, later in the year.

He tried not to think about who he was coaching against, seeing him as just another coach, though he praised Mueller as a “great guy and a great friend of mine.”

Church doesn’t think he differed too much from his predecessor, apart from the fact that he beefed up the schedule when he took over the program. He believed in controlling the tempo of the game, running a form of a controlled motion offense and was a proponent of the zone defense, though they did play man-to-man also.

The John Church era didn’t get off to the greatest start, as Dubois went 2-6 in its first eight games. Church believed there’s an adjustment period any time there’s a new head coach. The Jeeps put that opening stretch behind them, going on to win eight in a row and win six in a row at one point.

“They all knew me, but they were seeing me in a different light than what they did before,” Church said. “I think it was just them gaining confidence in themselves as the year progressed.”

Sometimes close calls happen in the sectional, for better or for worse. The Jeeps had the luxury of being on the better end in the opening 1979 sectional game when they held a 46-45 lead with one second left against Perry Central.

Senior Bruce Guillame stepped to the free throw line for the Commodores. One free throw would tie the game and would’ve sent it to overtime. Two would’ve won it. Instead, Guillame didn’t make either, and the Jeeps escaped, though Church doesn’t recall the sequence.

Close brushes persisted through the rest of the tournament for Dubois. The Jeeps won, 64-58, against Jasper in the semifinals, despite the fact that they turned the ball over 18 times, twice as many as the Wildcats.

However, the Jeeps were on the other side of the heartbreak in the March 3 championship game against host Southridge. Dubois had 17 turnovers versus eight for Southridge, but it was a close game despite the turnover differential.

The Jeeps, again, put somebody on the foul line. This time it was Southridge’s Jeff Williams, who had previously been 1 for 9 at the charity stripe for the game. Williams picked the right time to make his free throws, though. He sank both of them for a 46-44 lead. Dubois sophomore Greg Meyer got off a 14-foot jumper, but it was no good, and the Jeeps could not force overtime for the title win.

Church noted that Southridge coach Gary Duncan took away the team’s point guard, senior Larry Wineinger in that game, which led the Jeeps to do things they weren’t used to doing. However, he also faulted his own judgment for calling a timeout before Williams shot his free throws.

“I should’ve waited until the first free throw was shot,” Church said. “So, that would’ve dictated a lot more rather than a timeout before the first one.”

John Church, 1979

The 1979-80 rendition of the Jeeps had a strong showing in the regular season, going 16-4 and rattling off 10 straight victories to end the season. But to get back to the sectional championship, they had to do so without senior Royce Hurst, who had torn ligaments in his left ankle dating back to the Feb. 29 regular-season finale in a 59-52 win at Bloomfield.

Hurst averaged 15.1 points per game that regular season, but the Jeeps had others to look to that year in Brook Hoffman and Curt Breitwieser, who averaged regular-season totals of 11.4 and 11.1 points per game, respectively.

Dubois still got to the championship game after a 43-36 win against Forest Park in the semifinals. The Jeeps, however, could not beat the Raiders for the third time that season, and a 55-45 game made Southridge sectional champions over Dubois for the second year in a row.

“That made all the difference in the world, and you can ask Duncan the same thing,” Church said about Hurst’s injury. “They wouldn’t have won that ballgame had Royce not been hurt the last game of the season.”

Church credited his other players for stepping up as the reason they got to the championship game. He knew the Jeeps had good players besides Hurst, but Hurst was the main ingredient of that team. Church thought the 1979-80 team was the best team he coached at Dubois that didn’t win a sectional.

He marveled at Hurst’s ability to lead, score, get rebounds and play good defense, and described Hurst as a menacing factor in games.

“All those things contributed to his success; probably the best ballplayer I ever coached,” he said.

Another solid campaign followed in 1980-81, and Dubois looked to get back to the sectional championship for the third year in a row. The Jeeps found themselves tangled in a tight affair with Jasper. It was a 51-51 game in the fourth quarter when Wildcats star Mike Ballenger fouled out of the game, and what happened next still bothers Church 39 years later.

“When Mike Ballenger fouls out, I probably should’ve got that team together and really got on them hard about this game was not over,” Church said. “This game was not over, and obviously, it was not over. I didn’t do that, a mistake that’s haunted me since then, but that was truly unfortunate that I didn’t do it. I did the kids a disservice by not just jumping all over them when it happened.”

The Jeeps went on a 4-0 run after Ballinger fouled out, but a turnover got the ball rolling for the Wildcats. Jasper had junior Dean Merder step in, and his seven free throws helped propel the Wildcats to a 65-61 victory. All they did the next night was win their first sectional championship since 1975 with a 69-68 win against Southridge behind Ballenger’s 38 points.

“Dean Merder was a really nice kid, and every time I’d see him later, I’d say, ‘I hate you, Dean Merder,’ because he was such a good kid,” Church said.

Three really good seasons, all snuffed out in the sectional tournament short of winning the championship at Huntingburg Memorial Gym. Church never got discouraged, though. He always believed his teams were going to win, and he still thought the Jeeps would win a sectional with him manning the team.

His only losing record as head coach of the Jeeps came in 1981-82, but they still played Forest Park tight in the sectional before the Rangers held on for a 32-31 victory. Dubois had 18 turnovers, 11 in the first half. The Jeeps were down by seven with 19 seconds to play, but could not complete the upset.

The Rangers then lost, 48-44, to Southridge in the sectional championship, and a 55-34 loss to Jasper in the 1983 opener still left the Jeeps without a sectional under Church.

“The most important thing for us was winning that sectional,” he said. “That was, by far, the important thing and what we prepared for season in and season out. It wasn’t to win the state championship. It’s to win that sectional.”

It almost never happened. Church submitted his resignation, effective at the end of the 1983-84 season, while the season was being played. He decided it was time to move on, but the players stayed with him that season, even after finding out about the news.

The Jeeps met the Rangers in the semifinals, who went on a furious rally themselves just to get there to bypass Perry Central. Church’s Jeeps had to outlast the Rangers, 61-55, in overtime, as four quarters wasn’t enough. They met Southridge again in the sectional championship, but it wasn’t 1979 and 1980 all over again. A 49-36 defeat of the Raiders made the Jeeps sectional champions for the first time since 1977.

“I’m just really thankful that those kids from Dubois were the special type of kids that I never did find any place else,” Church said. “I was just very thankful, actually, that it finally happened to these kids here at Dubois because they had so many chances other times to win it and didn’t have that opportunity.”

When it rained, it poured, for Dubois. The Jeeps waited so long to finally win their first sectional championship in 1977 before being one game shy of the Final Four. Then they went until 1984 to win another sectional, and they again advanced to semistate. The Jeeps bested Loogootee, 46-42, beating the Lions for the first time in nearly two decades.

The 1984 team, Church said, was as tough-minded as any team he had ever coached. The Jeeps’ run ended at semistate, 56-44, against a Vincennes team that finished 1984 as the state runner-up. But Church told The Herald back then that it still would’ve been the best year in coaching he had, even if the Jeeps didn’t get as far as they did.

Church spent a few years coaching at Madison, and spent many years as a coach for Clay City, his alma mater, but there was nothing, though, quite like being at Dubois for him. He taught math, and enjoyed going to school as a teacher there, too, not just as a coach.

“Those were just really sweet years, and it was just really the best time of my life until the last 15 years up until right now since I retired and being able to do what I do,” he said.

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