Former Wildcats vividly recall 1949 title run

The '49 Wildcats pulled off a feat considered nearly impossible, romping through the state tournament after winning just 11 of their 20 regular-season games. 

By GREG ECKERLE
Special to the Herald

Maybe the most significant in-game coaching adjustment by Cabby O’Neill came 70 years ago, during halftime of the sectional basketball championship match between Jasper and undefeated Winslow.

The outlook was bleak for the 1949 Wildcats, trailing the Eskimos, 24-14, and their horse, Dick Farley, who later starred for Indiana University’s 1953 national champions.

O’Neill’s instruction was brief and to the point to guard Bob White as they left the locker room in the old Jasper facility, since re-named the Cabby O’Neill Gymnasium, in large part because of what happened the next few weeks as the Wildcats charged to a state championship.

“I remember Cabby O’Neill walking up the ramp to start the second half and saying to me, ‘I want you to take it over and make it happen,’” says White, now living in Florida. “So I then became more of a scorer. My role during the year was to balance the floor, to get everybody in the right position, and make the pass. Earlier, I was never encouraged to go offense. So Cabby saying that then told me I had the green light to do whatever I thought necessary offensively. I think I had 13 to 15 points the second half, most of them on drives to the basket. You can imagine this little 5’6” guy going to the basket. But I had practiced that a lot in the summers, going against taller players. In the ensuing games, I’d usually start out driving, and that also opened up the outside shot. I wasn’t aware if the rest of the team knew Cabby had given me the green light. I never heard one word from teammates about any kind of change. I guess it was going well.

“One thing that is never talked about regarding that team is that no player ever talked badly to another. It was never ‘you’re shooting too much,’ or ‘you’re not passing to me.’ There was no dissension on the team, despite what’s been written.”

The outlook was bleak for the 1949 Wildcats in the championship game, trailing the Eskimos, 24-14 at half time.

White, a 1949 Indiana All Star and a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, was Jasper’s leading scorer in the last three tourney games.

Another cagey move by O’Neill came before the Winslow – Petersburg sectional semi-final game the afternoon before the winner met Jasper that night. As told in a 2009 interview for the Dubois County Museum by the late Bob Sakel, a former Jasper player and another Hall of Fame member, “Petersburg and Winslow were big rivals. Before the game, Cabby told the Petersburg coach he heard that his players played like sissies and were intimidated whenever they played Winslow. The Petersburg coach went right in to confront his players about it. Petersburg really played Winslow physical that afternoon. Winslow was worn out that night in the fourth quarter. On his way home, the Petersburg coach suddenly realized, ‘That Cabby O’Neill.’” He had orchestrated the whole thing.

Probably the biggest shot during Jasper’s tournament run came from forward Bill Litchfield, who fired one in from about the free throw line with 16 seconds to go to beat Bloomington, 50-49, for the semi-state championship.

“I didn’t shoot much, I saved it for something important,” laughs Litchfield, who lives in Franklin, Indiana. “I remember dribbling forward about the top of the free throw circle, and saw that our two tall guys, Dimp Stenftenagel and Buzz Rumbach, were in position under the basket. I was open, so I thought I’d go ahead and shoot, and they’d be there for the rebound. It went in, luckily.”

John Berg, the Wildcats’ sixth man, reserve Dave Krodel, and Leon Lehmkuhler, a regular season player who was assistant student manager during the tourney, all remember something even more remarkable about Litchfield’s game-saver. Like most players of that era, Litchfield shot a one-handed push shot. Both Berg and Krodel vividly recall that Litchfield launched his gem off the wrong foot, with his left leg lifting up first. “He shot it like he was holding a hot potato, get rid of it,” says Berg, who lives in South Carolina. And Lehmkuhler notes that the shot banked in, even though it was taken straightaway from the free throw area. It’s one more reason why Lehmkuhler, living in Florida, calls the squad “a team of destiny.”

On March 19, 1949, the Wildcats defeated Madison at the Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis 62-61 to claim the state crown.

Besides that dramatic shot, Litchfield also recalls a key play he made in the squeaker 57-55 win for the regional championship over a 27-win Monroe City team. “I got the last rebound,” he says. “I remember that as much as anything. I then had a shot straight up underneath the basket, and it went in.” His rebound basket with 15 seconds left extended Jasper’s lead to 56-53.

One missed shot that Berg will never forget came after Jasper’s 62-61 state championship victory over Madison. He was fouled as the buzzer sounded, was awarded a free throw, but missed. He didn’t think much of it until returning to his job at a Jasper gas station. “The owner came up to me and said, ‘John, you cost me $200 when you missed that free throw.’ He had been in a pool where if you have the correct number of the ending score, you win money. I wonder if he would have split it with me?”

Berg did hit a crucial free throw during the game, though, when he converted on a three-point play to put Jasper ahead 60-55 with 2:43 left.

“We played fast break basketball,” he says. “And our zone defense confused other teams. It was the secret to our success. And we had good rebounders, even though we were smaller than about every team we played. I don’t think Buzz, a good jumper, ever lost a tip. Dimp had a good hook shot.”

Both White and Berg laugh about a ploy they used that season. “I would tie a guy up for a jump ball, fake an injury, and limp off the floor so John, a good jumper, could come in for me and win the tip for us,” says White. “That was a little game we played. We probably averaged one per game.” The rule allowing such a substitution was later changed.

Seventy years ago, the 1949 Jasper Wildcats secured the state championship title.

“Cabby worked defense hard,” says White. “We would shift our zone defense a bit to confuse other teams, from a 2-3 to a 1-3-1 or even a 1-1-3. A zone defense was unusual then. That helped us in the tournament.” White credits fellow guard Tom Schutz with being an excellent defender in Cabby’s schemes.

“Cabby disciplined people and set an atmosphere for winning. He worked you hard in fundamental drills. Those fundamentals became so automatic that you did them in games, and you didn’t need him on the sidelines hollering. He kept you concentrating on doing the right thing.” White loves watching the film of the last 25 seconds of the final game, seeing the players move the ball around, and is amazed at their calmness with a one-point lead.

Krodel, who lives in Texas, says that Cabby’s strength was he made you believe in yourself. “He made you believe you could do what you needed to do. That was the motivation, and the belief in the man training you. He coached us well, you just didn’t want to go hunting with him,” he says with a laugh. “You couldn’t ask to play for a better man. And that 1949 tournament was like living a dream. It seemed like everything we touched worked out just right.”

Krodel also laughs at the funny incidents, like him getting lost on the way to the dressing room at the cavernous Butler Fieldhouse at halftime of the state finals afternoon game. “I got a big write-up in the paper as a country boy who couldn’t find his way to the locker room. Student manager John Bohnert had asked me to pick up some sweatshirts, I did, but then we got into the crowd and didn’t see where the team turned off.” That night, at halftime of the title game, he was asked to stay by the bench to keep an eye on the Wildcats’ gear. So he took practice shots alone at halftime, likely a rare sight for a championship game.

“I can remember how happy Mr. Leas was,” says Krodel. Leas was a Jasper teacher and the team’s statistician. “He and I were sitting next to each other during the final game. He almost tore my leg off, squeezing it so hard, that we were going to win or lose.

On March 20, 1949, more than 15,000 people gathered around the Courthouse in Jasper to welcome the team home.

“Winning was a wonderful thing that happened to Jasper, and I don’t think they’ve ever gotten over it. We took on all these big cities, and here comes little old Jasper, and we whomped them. Dang right we’re proud.”

Reflecting on the 70th anniversary of the Wildcats’ state title, White says, “It seems like everywhere I go, even today, something eventually comes up about the 1949 championship. It was five players working together, listening to what the coach says. I commend the people of Jasper for the atmosphere and spirit that allowed the team to win. I owe everything in my life to the situation that people in Jasper created for me. Frankly, it was the relationships with those people that got me most everything in my life. Winning the state, getting a college scholarship, working with Ford Motor for over 30 years. It all relates back to the lessons you learn from Cabby O’Neill. I can’t over-emphasize it.”

Greg Eckerle is sports exhibit director for the Dubois County Museum. The exhibit displays artifacts, uniforms, photos, and basketballs from Jasper’s 1949 state championship run.





 




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