Wildcats came away with semi-state thriller in '57

Dubois County Museum/Courtesy Photo
The 1957 Jasper Wildcats celebrate after winning the Huntingburg Regional. In front, from left to right, are John Hoffman, Jody Giesler, Jerry Birge, Jim Eckerle, and Junie Schnarr. In the back, from left, are Coach Nip Wuchner, Rich Merder, Bob Seng, Ed Marks, Bob “Chesty” Luegers, Bill Bohnert, student manager Rudy Mundy, and assistant coach Wes Settle. The hats were worn by students during the game and the players borrowed them during the on-floor postgame celebration.

By GREG ECKERLE
gregeckerle@twc.com

The Jasper Wildcats–Evansville Lincoln Lions 1957 semi-state basketball game earned instant classic status for likely the two most pressure-packed free throws a Jasper player ever faced.

But there was even more to behold – probably the most unusual timeout ever called by a Jasper coach, an unlikely storming through court barriers by high school girls, and a later unexpected father-son locker room meeting that became a lifetime highlight for a tearful son.

The game’s dramatic finish and aftermath managed to surpass the considerable pre-game hype. Going in, it was more than just a game, it was a real happening in Southern Indiana because it was the first semi-state contest to be held at the gleaming new Roberts Stadium in Evansville. Evansville officials and area fans had longed for years to wrest the prestigious tourney from Bloomington. That alone guaranteed a capacity crowd of 11,234, the largest throng ever to see a high school game in Evansville at that time. Plus, the match-up was enticing – the talented all-Black 23-1 hometown Lincoln team against a 19-6 fast-breaking Jasper squad, in its second-straight semi-state.

Lincoln was ranked tenth in the state, but should have been higher, as it fought the central and northern pollsters’ bias against southern Indiana teams. The Lions’ lone loss was by one to Mount Vernon, which they avenged with a 34-8 sectional smackdown. Lincoln was by far Evansville’s best team, as they went 8-0 against Evansville schools, with an average winning margin of 18 points. Meanwhile, Jasper was 0-3 versus Evansville teams. Jasper reserve player Bill Bohnert wondered how the Wildcats could compete with Lincoln’s athleticism when he saw every one of their players dunk during warm-ups. Lincoln’s Porter Meriwether later played in the NBA.

Jasper was widely known as the “Five Js,” as every starter’s first name began with the letter J, and all were seniors – guards Jody Giesler and Junie Schnarr, forwards John Hoffman and Jim Eckerle, and center Jerry Birge.

Semi-state participants eagerly looked forward to a modern experience in Evansville, leaving behind the aging former Indiana University fieldhouse in Bloomington that had terrible parking, a dirt floor underneath the bleachers, and an awkward elevated court. So people who did not normally go to games went to see the new showplace.

But the game outshone the packed, charged-up facility as a tense nip-and-tuck battle between the favored Lions and the Wilidcats went into overtime, and then into a rare second overtime of “sudden death.” The “sudden death” rule, eliminated in 1961, stated that the first team to take a two-point lead won, which ensured a memorable ending.

Lincoln opened the sudden death overtime by missing a jump shot. Jasper rebounded, and as Jody Giesler dribbled near the Cats’ free throw circle, Lincoln’s Charlie Vance stole the ball. But Vance had brushed against Giesler, and even though Vance sprinted away for a layup, an official had already called a foul on him. “Jim Eckerle had passed the ball to me,” said Giesler, an Indiana All-Star that year. “(Vance) knocked me down and the ref called a foul.” Giesler was awarded two free throws. Lincoln’s coach immediately called a time out to heap even more pressure on Giesler. It didn’t matter, as Giesler calmly sank the first free throw. Then, as Birge recalls, “(Jasper coach) Nip (Wuchner) called a time out. We got back in the huddle and Nip said, ‘It (the timeout) worked the last time, let’s do it again.’ That’s the way Nip was, that was his logic.” “I asked for a drink of water,” said Giesler, “but Nip said, ‘No, you stay here, we’re going to say a prayer, we need a prayer more than water.’ So that’s what we did.” Freshman reserve Bob “Chesty” Luegers remembered Nip telling Giesler, “You made the first one without water, you’re going to make this one without water.” Birge didn’t think any of this bothered Giesler, saying, “Jody was loose as a goose. If anybody should be at the free throw line with pressure, it should be Jody. We went back out, the crowd was going nuts, with a possible big finale. I lined up near Lincoln’s Ted Lander under the basket, and mentioned to him, ‘He’s going to make it.’ And really quick, in a nice way, Lander said, ‘Yeah, I know.’” Longtime Jasper fan Frank Ebenkamp remembered a Lincoln player patting Giesler on the rear before the final shot. The crowd was on its feet in anticipation. Hoffman remembered the deafening noise during the overtimes, and how it became totally silent as Giesler shot the free throws. Meanwhile, Giesler recalled, “All I was thinking was, 'Make it, make it, make it.' I thought, 'If you go through your routine, you’re going to make it,' and that’s what I did. It was a good feeling.”

Several Jasper High School girls sitting near the floor in the school’s cheering block, including Mary Carolyn Hopf, felt so good about the 69-67 win that they rushed past stadium guards, uprooted some posts holding up a security chain, and stormed the court in celebration. “It’s a wonder we didn’t go to jail,” said Hopf, laughing. “We were so excited. We huddled around the players, jumped on each other and ran around. I lost a shoe out on the floor. When we left, those security people were so mad at us. When we came back for the night game they had a lot of people standing in front of us. They were ready for us.”

As crushing as the defeat was for Lincoln, the Terre Haute Tribune reported that the Lions visited the joyous Jasper locker room afterward, writing that “Jasper was impressed with Lincoln’s sportsmanship.” Giesler noted, “Lincoln had some good sports, they took it in stride,” while Eckerle said, “They were a bunch of nice guys on the floor.”

Jasper was smaller than most of their opponents, but they were athletic and thrived on playing team basketball. The scoring was well balanced, with Eckerle at 13.6 points per game, Giesler and Hoffman at 13.3, Birge at 11.4 and Schnarr at 6.1. All five attended college on a basketball scholarship.

“We beat Lincoln because we were just as fast as they were,” said Hoffman. “Nip said they were no quicker than us. And Nip drilled us and drilled us for hours on the fast break. It became automatic with us. You knew where everybody was going to be when you got a rebound.” Hoffman’s uncle, Paul, who played in the NBA, watched Jasper play that year while he was Purdue’s assistant basketball coach. He said he had never seen a high school or college basketball team run a fast break better than Jasper. In Coach Wuchner’s system, when the rebound went to one side of the basket, the player on the opposite side hit the middle, sometimes before the shot hit the rim, and received an outlet pass. The guards were already alert and running, looking for another pass. If worked right, the ball never touched the floor. It worked right a lot.

Roger Kaiser, who played on a Dale team that beat Jasper and lost two close games to Lincoln, said, “Jasper beat Lincoln because they played better defense than Lincoln did. Jasper would get after you. Giesler was a pretty confident shooter, he knew those free throws were going in. And Hoffman was a fierce competitor, he was a guy that wasn’t afraid, although he usually played against bigger people.”

In the semi-state championship game, Jasper faced a Terre Haute Gerstmeyer team loaded with talent. The Wildcats once again were undersized. The six-two Birge, Jasper’s tallest starter, was shorter than every Gerstmeyer starter. But Jasper knew how to rebound. And the six foot tall Hoffman was a remarkable jumper. He held the Jasper high jump record for years, just one-half inch shy of the current 6’3” record. The Indianapolis Star ranked Hoffman the third-leading rebounder in the state. The Cats had outrebounded Lincoln, 45-36. And they outrebounded Gerstmeyer, 45-44, as Birge led the way with 16 while battling the six-six Charley Hall, who later played at IU. Jasper trailed only 61-58 with 4:04 left, but Terre Haute pulled away for a 75-66 victory.

Birge, who also scored 15 points, said, “I played way over my head, without a doubt the best game I ever played.” But the tough thing was thinking that his father, Cyril, was not there to see it. For Cyril, a first-rate basketball referee who had already worked three state finals, was officiating the first round of the Indianapolis semi-state that same day. He had not seen his son play all year because he was always refereeing a game elsewhere. When Cyril learned that Jasper beat Lincoln, he drove to Evansville and arrived just in time for the night game. Jerry didn’t know his dad was there. After the game, “I’m in the dressing room crying, really down and out, I’m thinking I wish dad could have seen me,” said Jerry in a recent interview, as his eyes moistened at the memory. “Then somebody poked me in the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, you played a pretty good game.’ It was Dad. He shook my hand. That was probably the highlight of my life as an athlete, because he was there and he shook my hand. That was really special.”




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