Wells had whirlwind journey, made history

BY COREY STOLZENBACH
sports@dcherald.com

Life is said to be full of twists and turns — a statement many can testify to. Just ask Rex Wells, who graduated from West Baden Springs in 1950. He would be able to tell about the twists and turns he experienced just by the time he was 25 years old.

Wells attended Hanover College, playing three sports — baseball, basketball and football — but he especially shined on the baseball field. He played for a very successful Jasper Reds team in 1953. The team went 27-9, winning the regular-season pennant and the playoffs in the Indiana-Kentucky League.

Herald file photo
Rex Wells was only 25 when he guided Springs Valley to the Final Four in 1958. It was the first season in Blackhawks history after West Baden Springs and French Lick consolidated into Springs Valley.

He was so proficient on the diamond that a scout from the Washington Senators offered him a minor league contract, which he signed. However, duty called. A draft notice derailed his professional baseball career. He found himself in the Army by Christmastime 1954. Wells underwent basic training at Fort Riley, Kan, and played baseball while he was in the Army as part of a regiment team. Wells served in Germany, and was discharged in October 1956.

Wells chose not to don his cleats once he came home, opting instead to return to West Baden Springs as a teacher, and coach the Sprudels basketball team.

“I saw good, young baseball players in the Army — 18, 19 years old — that were outstanding,” Wells said. “Reality set in. My baseball career was over, and I knew it.”

It didn’t take long for him to see success in his new endeavors, though. Wells guided the Sprudels to the sectional championship game. They lost, 77-63, to a Jasper team that made it to the semistate championship game that year.

That turned out to be the only season he ever coached the team. The year 1957 brought about rumblings in the valley that West Baden Springs and French Lick would consolidate into one school — and bring about the end of the rivalry between the Sprudels and Red Devils. Talk of consolidation was nothing new within the valley, but it especially gained steam at that time.

Wells wasn’t the biggest proponent of the proposed action.

“I wanted to stay at West Baden,” he said. “I was coaching there and I was teaching, and I thought it was good, and that was my alma mater. So, I would guess that I wasn’t real excited about having the two schools combined, and I think probably that was true with several people in the schools — both French Lick and West Baden teachers — I doubt that they wanted consolidation, to be honest.”

There might have been those against the move, but consolidation became a reality in June of that year when residents approved the vote. Wells did not think consolidation would actually happen, but when West Baden Springs and French Lick consolidated to become Springs Valley, that also left questions about Springs Valley basketball swirling in the air for 1957-58.

Wells may have guided his team to the sectional championship game, but he wasn’t expecting to become the coach of the team at the new school. After all, he only had one year of experience. Wells thought Marvin Blemker, the coach of the Red Devils, would get the gig instead. Wells enrolled in summer school at Indiana University with the thought that he might go back to school for another year.

However, Wells was chosen on Aug. 1, 1957, to be the basketball coach of the newly christened Springs Valley team, much to his shock. The whole ordeal frightened him because nothing was ready and he had to organize the team.

Wells said he held tryouts with assistant coach Warren “Doc” Keyser on Oct. 1, two months after he had been chosen to be the inaugural coach. The final roster for the first-ever season of the Springs Valley Blackhawks was a mixture of both former Sprudels and Red Devils. Wells hadn’t intended it to be that way, it just was, and he thought that turned out to be a blessing.

“It was a very, very strong bond that was forged early in the practice sessions that we had, and that bond is still strong today,” Wells said.

What was about to follow was what Wells described as being a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Blackhawks had the label of underdogs ascribed to them all season long — a label they’d defy time after time. Springs Valley didn’t have a ton of size, but it did have junior Marvin Pruett, who led the 1957 Huntingburg sectional with 71 points, and he scored 411 points total between the regular season and sectional tournament for West Baden Springs. Pruett went on to average 25.1 points as a senior, score more than 1,100 points at the University of Evansville, and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

The Blackhawks played their home games at the old French Lick gym. Fans of the former Sprudels and Red Devils chose to wear the purple and white for West Baden Springs, or the red and white for French Lick, rather than the black and white of Springs Valley in the early going. The Blackhawks opened things Nov. 8 against Shawswick, but it was Springs Valley who came out on top, 55-40.

It didn’t take long for the former fans of the Red Devils and Sprudels to rally behind the Blackhawks. On Nov. 12, they went to Jasper, again, as underdogs against the Wildcats. Springs Valley made it competitive, though. The Wildcats tied the game, 35-35, before the Blackhawks went on a 5-0 run and finished with a 45-38 win. They were situated with deficits against Silver Creek and Winslow before coming back to win those games, and they soon found themselves with a 9-0 record.

Wells now resides in Fort Collins, Colo. He was the principal of Rocky Mountain High School and hired one of his former players at Springs Valley, Paul Radcliff, a sophomore on that team, to be the school’s athletic director. The two discussed just recently about the hot start the Blackhawks got off to that year, and how devastating it would’ve been if they lost their early games.

“We were talking, ‘How would the community have reacted then?’” Wells asked. “Well, I think I know. They would’ve been very, very, pretty much disappointed that consolidation took their two high schools away.”

Wells never felt much pressure, though, to turn out a winner at that time.

“I was very young, inexperienced, but one thing I did do I think that saved me, of course, is I saw a lot of very good talent, and one of the things that I happened, I guess — and I don’t know how I learned it or if I even learned it — but somehow I did not overcoach this ball club,” he said. “In other words, I didn’t spend a lot of time drawing up X’s and O’s on a blackboard, because we had a good bunch of guys, and they were talented and they were good, skilled basketball players, and I had some basic patterns and all, but basically, I let these kids go and I let them play.”

The Blackhawks had a big emphasis on defense and rebounding, despite lacking in size. Wells was a big believer in conditioning, and he thought conditioning paid off. Springs Valley never got tired, it just kept on playing. Being in such prime basketball shape helped out in games against North Central. The Blackhawks saw their 14-game win streak in jeopardy when they were in a 12-point deficit against the Tigers late in the fourth quarter. Wells himself thought that might’ve been the team’s first loss. They banded together, though, coming away with a 57-51 victory.

Springs Valley again saw itself in a hole, down by six to Providence. But the Blackhawks tied the game, 67-67, with 20 seconds to go when Pruett fed a pass to senior guard Mike Watson, who came off the bench that game, in the final seconds. Watson took a shot, and the win streak remained intact with Springs Valley’s 69-67 verdict.

“I did not draw up anything,” Wells said. “What happened, the score was tied and the time was running out, and I really thought there would be an overtime. But as fate would have it, we got the rebound and they had a shot. They had the last shot, missed it and we didn’t call timeout. We did not. We just moved right on with the play, brought the ball up the court. I know they thought Pruett was going to take the last shot. I just know, but it turns out, he didn’t take the last shot. He passed off to Mike Watson, who was open, and Mike took the last shot, and, lo and behold, he banked that sucker in, and we won the game by two points.”

The Blackhawks managed to avoid overtime against the Pioneers, but the same did not ring true in the rematch against Shawswick. The Farmers themselves were on a roll as winners of 15 in a row. Their lone blemish was against Springs Valley in the season opener. This game also drew the attention of local sportswriters. The Shawswick gym had 1,800 seats, and plans were discussed to move the game to a larger venue to accommodate more people, but it did not happen.

Springs Valley and Shawswick traded leads many times throughout the game. Both halves ended in ties in regulation. The Blackhawks were seconds from escaping with a 68-66 win before the Farmers tipped a bucket in at the buzzer to force overtime.

“There’s no question they had it in mind they were going to beat us,” Wells said.

Wells could not recall making any great comments to his team, just that they returned to the floor with a determination to win the game, and win they did. The Blackhawks edged the Farmers, 77-72,  to improve to 16-0.

“We got a lot of press after that ballgame because sportswriters from Indianapolis and Evansville began to take notice, and they began to really write up some pretty good stories about the Blackhawks,” he said.

The stories kept coming, but so did the wins. Wells didn’t read many articles back then, but people saved them and gave them to him later in life. He doesn’t recall his players being overwhelmed by all the publicity.

Springs Valley staved off another upset, this time from Dubois, 54-46. The Blackhawks won their 17th game in a row, and were equally ranked No. 17 in the state by the Associated Press. They completed their undefeated regular season with a 68-62 win against Salem.

The Jeeps again looked to be in position to upset the Blackhawks in the sectional round, but Pruett and Radcliffe helped Springs Valley to a 4-0 run after being tied, 59-59.

“We were fortunate to win that ballgame,” Wells said. “Had we lost the ballgame, it wouldn’t have been too bad because we had had such a great season, but it would’ve been highly disappointing to us and to the community.”

The Blackhawks made it to the championship of the Huntingburg sectional against the host Hunters after the Blackhawks downed Ireland, 67-48, to get to that point.

Huntingburg was ranked No. 7 and Springs Valley No. 10. The Hunters had a size advantage, but the Blackhawks relished the underdog role all season long. This was more than an upset, this was a blowout. Pruett scored 20 points, while senior co-captain Bob McCracken notched 24 to lift Springs Valley to a 66-41 win and the sectional championship.

The underdog role didn’t stop by the time Springs Valley got to regionals. The Blackhawks saw themselves in the regional championship against Vincennes, another team with a height advantage. The Alices had All-Stater Larry Wright at center. Vincennes held a nine-point lead before Springs Valley rallied.

Springs Valley took the lead late, but Vincennes eventually tied. Pruett had 25 points, but could not win the game in regulation, and it was off to another overtime. The Alices built a 59-56 edge in OT, but the Blackhawks came storming back. A steal that led to a bucket by Frankie Self put them ahead. Two free throws pulled them across the finish line, 62-59. Self had four points in 12 seconds to give the Blackhawks the regional crown.

As Wells put it, the Vincennes fans were stunned.

“The Springs Valley fans were stunned as well with the victory, because they couldn’t believe that the Blackhawks had pulled out the ballgame,” he said. “They couldn’t believe it. Well, none of us could, I guess.”

Being the underdog was nothing new by this point. The Blackhawks met a favored Gertsmeyer squad, but McCracken and Pruett came through again with totals of 26 and 22 points, respectively, for a 66-55 win and the right to face Princeton in the semistate championship. Springs Valley stormed to a 71-54 win and a 25-0 record to advance to the Final Four.

The Blackhawks met Fort Wayne South Side for the right to advance to the state championship. However, their run came to an end when the Archers denied them a trip to the title game, 55-42. Springs Valley’s first-ever basketball loss came in the state tournament. The Archers then ran past Crawfordsville, 63-34, to win the championship later that night.

Wells and the players thought they’d win the tournament. He believed they made a great showing, but it wasn’t enough to be the champions. A reporter asked him after the game about starting 25-0 and falling at state. He recalled saying he didn’t think his players were losers, no matter what the scoreboard said.

“At the end of the game in the dressing room, I said to the players, I said, ‘Hey, we’ve had a great season,’” he said. “‘I don’t know what we could’ve done today much better than what we did. We gave them all we could. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We have had a great season. It’s been probably once in a lifetime, and years and years later, we will remember this.’”

That’s how it’s been for the past six decades. The team had reunions and get-togethers now and then to reminisce about the good times that transpired that season.

The memories are still very much there in Wells’ mind. He’ll turn 88 in August, and marvels at how he can recall things from 62 years ago as if they were yesterday. Wells considers himself blessed in that respect. It’s not always the case. He might not recall what he had for dinner, but memories of the “Valley Boys” have stayed with him all this time.

“When a person has a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you kind of like to hang onto it, because you know it’s fading and it’s going to finally fade away,” Wells said.




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