Wellemeyer carried Hunters teams in 1960sApril 29, 2020
BY COREY STOLZENBACH
John Wellemeyer has been retired since 2008. He has five grandchildren and is active in their lives as they play sports like he once did. They attended his induction ceremony into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, but he doesn’t talk much about his past to them.
Therefore, his grandkids don’t know the extent of his prowess when he played at Huntingburg and for the University of Evansville, but they’re about to find out.
Wellemeyer quarterbacked the Hunters football team and also played baseball in addition to making an impact on the hardwood for Huntingburg from Day One.
“I guess I would say that I probably got most of that from the fact that I was the youngest kid in the neighborhood, and we played a lot of sports outdoors then,” he said. “I had to find a way to keep up with kids that were older than I was.
“I was also very lucky because I grew early,” Wellemeyer continued. “I was tall early, and I think that probably helped me out quite a bit there, too.”
Wellemeyer wasn’t the only one new to the team by the time his freshman season of 1963-64 rolled around. Hobby Gibbs entered his first season as coach of the Hunters, and Wellemeyer thought Gibbs taught him a lot. He thought Gibbs helped his development, was a good person and the team worked hard under him.
Gibbs, meanwhile, named Wellemeyer a starter at the beginning of his freshman year. Wellemeyer thought starting in football as a freshman might’ve helped, but he had no idea how he was able to start right out of the gate his freshman year. He mostly played the forward and center spots in high school, but also saw some time at guard later in his prep career.
Wins were hard to come by Wellemeyer’s freshman year at Huntingburg, but one of those wins came in the first sectional game he ever played. The Hunters played rival Holland, and he notched 20 points en route to an 85-64 win.
However, Springs Valley proved to be a foil, eliminating the Hunters in both Wellemeyer’s freshman and sophomore years. The Blackhawks won three straight sectional championships from 1964-66, including the 1965 sectional championship against Wellemeyer and the Hunters. He averaged 16.4 points and scored 328 as a sophomore, but the Blackhawks limited him to eight points in the 72-65 title game. It was the only time in his prep career he ever played in the sectional championship game.
“It was nice being in the championship game, but I don’t think that we played that well that night,” he said.
The Hunters ended the year 16-8, and that was only their second loss on their home floor all year. They went 11-2 at Memorial Gym that season, but changes certainly came about when Huntingburg lost some seniors to graduation in Pat Kendall, Bill Prather, Jerry Powell, Kenny Richardson and Steve Collett. However, many returned from the previous year.
There was also a coaching change, as Jack Davis replaced Gibbs for Wellemeyer’s junior year. It didn’t take long at all for him to adjust to his new coach, who would one day campaign for his enshrinement into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Jack was fine, I liked Jack a lot,” Wellemeyer said. “He was very supportive. I would consider Jack a mentor, a friend of mine, and back then, he treated me exceptionally well, but I think he treated all the players well.”
The Hunters enjoyed a 14-6 record in the regular season, but a loss to Dubois in the sectional tournament prevented them from progressing further. A 16-point effort from Wellemeyer and 36 points from Pat Gooch proved insufficient. Steve Merkel led the way for the Jeeps with 26 points, as one of four players in double figures for Dubois that night.
Wellemeyer went through a lot and played through a lot. He had a growth on his pancreas that was removed after his sophomore year, but he carried on for his team his junior year. However, a hemorrhaging muscle in his right leg forced him to miss a basketball game for the first time in high school in the opening game of his senior year in 1966-67.
The Hunters lost, 65-57, and again, 42-41, to the Crusaders with Wellemeyer back in action. His 11 points made him the only Hunter in double figures that night.
“Senior year, for me, the first part, was very, very hard,” he said. “I was back in action, but I had three or four rolls of tape and padding. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t jump. All I could do was hobble up and down the floor, and that continued for a month or more. That was my senior year. I was taped up, and we took a little bit off each time.”
The first time all the tape came completely off, he said, was Dec. 29 against South Spencer in a holiday tournament at Tell City. Wellemeyer torched the Rebels for 52 points that night, setting a single-game record among area players. The Hunters won the game, 94-62, and closed the regular season 5-15.
Huntingburg got past Orleans, 55-46, in the sectional tournament, but a 73-62 loss to eventual champion Holland ended the Hunters’ run.
However, Wellemeyer didn’t put down a basketball for good after the loss to the Dutchmen. He had a national championship to win in Evansville.
Wellemeyer grew up rooting for the Purple Aces. He went to an Arad McCutchan basketball camp in eighth grade, and the late Hall of Fame coach followed him after that. Wellemeyer said McCutchan told him to take his time when making his decision, and there’d always be a place for him with the team if he wanted it. He followed in the footsteps of some of his immediate family members who also went to the University of Evansville.
He once scored the winning basket against Purdue University on a goal-tending call while with the Aces. Wellemeyer described it as a fun game, and his shot wasn’t going to go in, but it was by the foul line. Three Big Ten Conference officials ruled it a basket on a goal-tend, and that was the game, 80-78.
They won the NCAA Division II championship in 1970-71, winning their final four games of the tournament by double figures. The Aces won the championship on their home court, 97-82, against Old Dominion University (Va.), to claim the prize, and that brought back memories for him.
“Being in the locker room before that game, for the final game, and I was there and I heard this just rumbling noise,” Wellemeyer said. “I thought, ‘What in the heck is that?’ Finally, I figured out, it was all the fans in the stands in the seats out there.”
Wellemeyer thought the Aces had great chemistry and also a quick team, a lot quicker than the other team many times. He scored 1,200 points in his Aces career, was a starting forward on the national championship team and his 19.8 points per game on the 1971 national championship team led the squad.
“To me, I couldn’t play the same way as I did in high school, but I still did a lot of the same things,” he said. “My game didn’t change a whole lot then.”
Wellemeyer earned a degree in industrial engineering. He applied his degree to working for Whirlpool at first, and also served in the Indiana National Guard. Wellemeyer left Whirlpool and worked for Mead Johnson for 33 years before retiring.
He was very excited upon hearing he would be enshrined in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Wellemeyer appreciates the campaigning Davis did for him, and also his brother-in-law, Ralph Scales, the retired athletic director from Jeffersonville. He added that other people wrote nice things in an effort to get him inducted.
His speech consisted of talking about Davis and McCutchan, and what they meant to him. He reflected on his parents not being there, as they passed away not long before. John talked about how his father, Leon, missed only two games of his when he was in college due to pneumonia. He told of one game where Leon still had pneumonia when John played in Oakland City, and he listened to the game on the radio in his car.
With all he accomplished in Evansville, he never forgot his roots.
“I talked about Huntingburg and how good it was to grow up there and how I really appreciate the people and how nice a community it was and a great place to grow up in,” John said. “That goes from Huntingburg to Jasper to Dubois County. It was a great place to grow up in.”
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