One of Cats’ best teams played 60 years ago

Archival photo

By Greg Eckerle
Special to The Herald

Sixty years ago, the 1960 Jasper Wildcats boys’ basketball team blazed to the third best record in school history, the best in the past 75 years, and one that is often overlooked in discussions of the school’s greatest teams.

The team had four all-stars, a starting five that all played college basketball, an Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame coach, and impressive performances against some of the state’s top teams in the single-class era.

Senior center Bob “Chesty” Luegers was picked to play in the National High School All-American World Series in Houston, was chosen as the No. 1 player on the Indiana South All-Star team, and was the No. 6 selection on the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Indiana All-State team. Junior guard Bob Merder was named to the 1961 Indiana All-Star team, junior forward Bob Kreilein made the 1961 Indiana South All-Stars, and sophomore forward Mick Stenftenagel was selected to the 1962 Indiana Silver Anniversary Team by the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Merder and junior guard Jerry Rees played college basketball in Texas, Luegers at Loyola in New Orleans, Kreilein at Ole Miss, and Stenftenagel at Georgia Tech.

Coach Lloyd “Barney” Scott was in his second of three seasons at Jasper. He went on to a legendary coaching career at Seymour, where his teams were five-time semi-state runners-up. The Seymour gym was later renamed the Lloyd E. Scott Gymnasium, which a recent study showed is now the world’s largest high school gym. Scott’s first-year assistant was Ed Schultheis, who later coached Jasper to five straight sectional titles and two regional crowns. So the team obviously had a lot of firepower.

The squad finished 22-3, eclipsed in Jasper history only by the 1934 Final Four team that went 29-2, and Coach Cabby O’Neill’s 1945 team at 24-2.

An early close loss on what arguably was Jasper’s toughest-ever road trip served notice that the 1960 Wildcats were a state power. They drove in the coaches’ cars — in the snow — all the way to East Chicago Washington to face the eventual state champions before their rabid home crowd of more than 5,000 fans. In a 2005 interview with the Dubois County Museum, the late Ed Schultheis recalled an East Chicago student telling the Wildcats as they walked in the gym, “We’re going to kick your [behind].” Schultheis replied simply that he didn’t know about that, that “we’re pretty good, too.” During that same walk, reserve Steve Heidorn heard another fan yell, “If that’s the biggest player you got, you might as well go back home.” Luegers, at over 6-foot-6, was not one to pick on. He led both teams in scoring with 21 points, and the Wildcats hung tough before losing, 68-61.

Merder, now living in Texas, said, “Luegers was pretty fast. He could get up and down the floor with you, and was tough under the boards. Once you got the ball to him, he pretty well owned the bucket.” Luegers, still a Jasper resident, sported a lethal left-handed hook shot near the basket. He sharpened the shot by shooting a hundred of them in the gym in the mornings before school. Coach Scott was quoted as saying Luegers’ hustle and aggressiveness made him a tough player.

The team’s long-range bomber was Merder. After Jasper lost to East Chicago Washington the next year by four, their Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame coach, the legendary Johnnie Baratto, told Merder, “you’re the best shot I’ve ever seen in high school.” At the Indiana All-Star team banquet later that year, Baratto again told Merder the same thing.

Heidorn labeled Merder a “dead-eye shot,” recalling his exploits during a practice rebounding drill. A small iron ring was placed inside the basket so shots would bounce out, making for good rebounding practice. Trouble was, the smaller ring was just big enough for a perfect shot to squeeze through it. “Merder, believe it or not — I still can’t get over it — he put quite a few through that little hole,” Heidorn said with a laugh.

Reserve Dave Eckerle noted that Merder could also handle the ball as well as anybody, bringing it up the floor, and that his running mate, Rees, was also a good shooter who “helped carry the day many times.” 

A key early road win in the race for the coveted Southern Indiana Athletic Conference championship came at Washington, where snow once again hounded the Wildcats. In a 2013 interview, the late Bob Kreilein laughingly recalled, “A bunch of guys came in from outside and threw snowballs on the court. Coach Scott had a full-court press that worked real well. We pressed them, had them down 20, and they snowballed us.”

Luegers, who set Jasper scoring records at that time for a game (35), a year (22.4 per game) and a career, credited Kreilein for a lot of his points. “He was very unselfish,” Luegers said. “When he got the ball, he was always looking for me. And he was all hustle.” Indeed, Coach Scott said at a basketball banquet that he never had to tell Kreilein to hustle, and told the media he was “our best defensive man.” Reserve player Ed Wuchner thought Kreilein was probably the physically strongest player on the team, “somebody you didn’t want to bump around too much.” Merder said Kreilein “could do it all, but rebounding was probably his biggest strength.”

In a win over Jeffersonville, their center scored 10 points early, and Luegers recalled, “He was giving me the once over, saying how good he was, and how they were going to blow us out.” Luegers went to work, and his talkative opponent picked up four fouls by halftime. He finished with the same 10 points, while Luegers scored 30.

Jasper then dealt a talented Bloomington team its only regular-season loss. Bloomington went on to win the Evansville semi-state.

A much-anticipated matchup came when the No. 5-ranked Cats played No. 10 Vincennes in the championship game of the Terre Haute holiday tournament. Jasper trailed by 15 in the first half, and Coach Scott asked at halftime, “What can we do?” Schultheis remembered Luegers responding, “just get me the ball.” “Within about five minutes, Luegers had just taken over the game,” Schultheis said. “He gave Jasper every ounce he had.” Luegers hit eight straight shots after halftime. Of Coach Scott, Luegers said, “Not many coaches would do that, to say, ‘hey, what can we do here?’”             

Scott was a no-nonsense disciplinarian. “We were running one day, and he didn’t think we were running hard enough. So he gets a rubber jumping rope and says, ‘When I say run, I mean run! (whoosh, whoosh) He didn’t hit anybody, but we didn’t know he wasn’t going to,” Kreilein said with a laugh in hindsight. “But I liked Coach Scott. He was a good guy.”

Reserve John Schmitt remembered the fervor of the Jasper fans at home games. “When we were sitting in the dressing room prior to the game, the fans above us were stomping their feet, and you could feel the building vibrating,” he said. “I’m sure the opponents were a little intimidated.”

With several players battling sickness, Jasper lost its only home game of the year to Evansville Reitz, 69-63. That set up the daunting task of winning at New Albany to clinch the prestigious 19-team SIAC title. The Cats had not won there in 12 years, and New Albany was the defending semi-state and SIAC champions. Jasper prevailed by five, led by sophomore Stenftenagel’s 18 points. It was Jasper’s first SIAC crown since 1944, and propelled the Wildcats to a No. 6 ranking in the final UPI coaches’ poll.

Jasper rolled through the sectional, then met Washington in the regional, a team the Cats had beaten by 28 points at Jasper a few weeks before. But the Wildcats’ shooting deserted them, as they hit but .319 from the field, while Washington shot a blistering .524. Washington guard Sam Alford, the father of future Indiana University star Steve Alford, hit two key free throws with 1:48 left as the Hatchets won by four. 

“We had more shots that rolled around and around and fell off,” Kreilein said. “It was just unlucky. We should have kicked their behind. We were bigger and better, but we weren’t that night. It was the biggest disappointment I ever had playing ball.” Wuchner, who became a doctor and moved to San Diego, admits to still thinking about that game even after living away from Jasper all these years.

“I didn’t do anything. Everything I shot went in and out,” Merder said. “That would have been the year we could have went to the state and won it. We had a pretty solid ballclub. And we had a lot of fun. We all got along pretty well.” 

Jasper beat three of the four teams that appeared in the Evansville semi-state that year – champion Bloomington, runner-up Tell City and New Albany.

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