Friday, August 31, 2012

Planting the Seed

Throughout the history of Illinois high school basketball, there are a number of teams that have captured the attention of basketball fans throughout the state. Stories or accounts of these teams have been passed down to the younger generation of basketball players by parents and grandparents. Many of these teams are still celebrated today, including the Appleknockers of Cobden. 

The 1963-64 Appleknockers were the smallest school (enrollment 147) to reach the single-class Illinois State High School Basketball Tournament Finals since Hebron qualified in 1952. Smaller schools traditionally had a longer road to the finals due to the additional district tournament, so teams like Hebron and Cobden had to win eleven games to be crowned champions compared to the larger schools having to win only nine. 

1963-64 Cobden Appleknockers
Although Cobden's school enrollment was small, their starting line-up was not, which included heights of 6'6'', 6'5'', 6'5'', 6'5'', and 6'1''.  Many of the largest schools didn't have a team with that much height, nevertheless, a starting line-up. The school's unusual mascot also aided in their mystique and popularity as they advanced through the 1964 postseason. 

Cobden was a community of 900 located about 13 miles south of Carbondale in southern Illinois.  A blue-collar town where farming and coal mining were a means to provide a living. Cobden was known for its apple and peach orchards that surround the town, where many of the young school boys worked after school.  It is said that when an orchard's crop of apples got too big for the trees to handle, the orchard would send workers with long sticks or poles to knock the apples out of the trees. They became known as "Appleknockers".

"Appleknockers" mascot
It wasn't until the 1940s when Cobden began using the unique "Appleknockers" team name. The story goes that it came from a response when the small town won a sectional tournament. Someone was quoted as saying, 'Whoever heard of a bunch of Appleknockers winning such a thing?'.  Years later when the Appleknockers were beating much larger schools on their way to the 1964 IHSA state finals, the name would become no laughing matter.

The Appleknockers success was not a surprise to those in southern Illinois. Coach Dick Ruggles had been hired at Cobden in June of 1962, specifically to coach the young group of underclassman boys that had high expectations. During the1962-63 season, the Appleknockers compiled an impressive 27-2 record, winning the conference but losing in sectionals. They had been ranked the No. 1 team in their area but had not received much respect in the basketball media circles in the north region of the state. With the core of their team returning, many in southern Illinois believed that Cobden could be playing in Champaign the following season. They were right.

The Appleknockers would end the 1963-64 regular season with a 22-2 record.  They also earned some recognition being ranked No. 16 by the Associated Press prep poll towards the end of the season. Cobden battled its way through district, regional, and sectional play, beating the likes of Douglass, Cairo Sumner, Carmi, and Harrisburg. The further they went into each tournament, the more media attention they received and the more fans joined the Cobden bandwagon. As teams started to bow out of the single elimination tournament, they too would follow the small team from southern Illinois.

Many from Cobden believed that their Appleknockers were good enough to compete for a state title, even though they would be going up against schools ten to forty times their size. After a three-overtime victory in the supersectional game against one of the state's best in Pinckneyville, the Appleknockers' expectations were met and they were on their way to Champaign. 

The Elite Eight field would be made up of teams that were traditionally strong, including Centralia, Rock Island Alleman, Pekin, Stephen Decatur, and Galesburg. Of the final eight teams remaining, Cobden would be ranked seventh, with little odds of winning but as everyone knows, anyone can be beat. Cobden didn't disappoint.  After beating Galesburg 60-57 in the quarterfinals and Stephen Decatur 44-38 in the semi-finals, Cobden would play Pekin for the coveted single-class state championship. 

1963-64 Pekin Chinks
The 1963-64 Pekin Chinks, from central Illinois, were 21-3 and ranked eighth in state after losing to Moline in their last regular season game. After the Sweet Sixteen field was set, the Associated Press would rank the remaining teams. Pekin would be ranked No. 5.  Once Centralia, ranked No. 1,  was upset in the quarterfinals, it was not a surprise to see Pekin in the finals. Although Pekin was a community of 32,000 with a school enrollment of 1,000 plus students, they would be going up against a much taller Cobden team. Pekin too had an unique team name.  The boys athletic teams were known as the Pekin Chinks from the 1930s until 1980 when the school administration changed the nickname to the Dragons.
Jump ball during 1964 state title game
One of the great stories of the game occurred before the teams took the court. Pekin's coach Dawson "Dawdy" Hawkins knew that Cobden was the fan favorite because they were the Cinderella team.  Being the smallest school to qualify for the state finals since Hebron, the crowd would be pro-Cobden; therefore would garner the majority of the cheers.  Knowing that the loud cheers for Cobden could affect his Pekin team and make them out to be the underdog, Hawkins purposely had his team wait in the tunnel until Cobden ran on the floor and then sent his team to take the court for warm-ups at the same time. The teams were greeted with a roar from the crowd of more than 16,000 fans.

Pekin's Dave Golden who would later play for Duke
Once the ball was tipped, the game would be as good as it was billed. Although Pekin would take a commanding lead throughout the first half, Cobden would close the gap quickly at the beginning of the second half making it a competitive game until the final buzzer. 

Pekin and Cobden players rebounding
As the final seconds run off the clock at the end of each championship game, one team will immediately become celebrated while another team will hang their heads in defeat, knowing their chance slipped away. The champion will be remembered for either their dominance throughout the tournament or for their adversity to overcome all odds to win it all. Thousands of images will have captured the victors as they lift the championship hardware over their heads, cementing that moment in time forever. Front page headlines will read "State Champs" as the news circulates around the state.

Each year, one team will be remembered. Championship teams are remembered.

All other teams become a footnote.

I clearly remember my father talking of tiny Cobden and their unusual mascot, but most notably their run in the 1964 state tournament to battle a much larger Pekin for the title. For many years, I assumed that Cobden did the unthinkable and won the tournament. Why else would he be talking about them?

The headlines around Illinois following the 1964 title game would contain Pekin's name, not Cobden. Pekin would beat Cobden 50-45.  But over the years, a rare occurrence would take shape.

In the Epilogue of The Amazing Appleknockers: Illinois' Cinderella Basketball Team of 1964, authors Teri Campbell & Anne Ryman write, "the years passed, a curious phenomenon occurred. Many people in Illinois and elsewhere think the Appleknockers won the state championship in 1964.  The reason for this revisionist history is unclear, but members of the team and residents of Cobden often run into people who refer to the Appleknockers as the 'tiny team who won the state tournament.'" 

If you were to drive through Cobden, you will see a commemorative sign proudly recognizing the team and proclaiming, "Home of The Amazing Appleknockers". Occasionally while reading blogs or online prep basketball articles, the Appleknockers and their Cinderella season will be mentioned.  If you peruse the book store shelves in Illinois, you will find a book published in 2011 about Cobden and the Appleknockers detailing the challenges and adversity that the team overcame in the years and months leading up to Champaign. With a lot of fanfare around the small-town team the past forty-eight years, it's understandable why some think they are the champions.

They are remembered.

Commemorative sign in Cobden

Book about the Appleknockers published in 2011

On the other hand, if you were to drive through Pekin, you won't see any mention of a basketball state title.  The only place where I’ve seen the accomplishment commemorated is in the Pekin Community High School trophy case outside Hawkins Gym and the championship banners hanging from the rafters.  A year ago, I inquired about this with my in-laws who are 1965 and 1967 Pekin graduates, at the time when Pekin had its greatest basketball success.  It was during our discussion that my father-in-law mentioned that the 1964 state championship is commemorated outside the school. I immediately asked, "where"?

1964 State Championship display at PCHS
He began to tell me that in the days following the state championship game, thousands from the Pekin community met at the East Campus gymnasium to celebrate the victory with the team and coaching staff.  The team members were introduced, speeches delivered, and the trophy was displayed for all to see. 

Pekin community celebrating a state championship
My father-in-law then recalled an event that either took place following the celebration or the next day at school.  He remembered students, teachers, and administrators walked out the school's front entrance doors and across the vehicle turn-around located at the top of the hill. At that moment, a ceremony took place.

An apple tree was planted.

The apple tree was to commemorate the hard fought victory over the Appleknockers to win the coveted state title.

I asked if the apple tree still stands and my father-in-law thought it did.  Months later we attended an event at Mineral Springs Park which is near Pekin Community High School.  Afterwards I asked him if he could show me where the apple tree was planted since my curiosity had got the best of me. We drove the short distance to the turn-around on the hill, but to our surprise the tree was no longer there.

Commemorative apple tree once stood in the foreground - outside the school's turnaround

Dirt patch may have been where tree once stood
This hidden gem intrigued me so I asked a few friends, who were Pekin alumni, if they knew about the commemorative tree on the school's campus.

Not one person knew.

I finally asked Pekin's current athletic director but he had never heard the story. I mentioned that a friend's uncle thought it had been moved in later years but he was not sure of it's new location.  A few days later I received an email from the athletic director saying that he too was curious so he had looked for the tree, but could not find it.  He then asked a player from the 1964 team if the tree did exist. The player verified that an apple tree was planted in the days following the championship game but he thought it had been cut down about four or five years ago.  Pekin's athletic director then asked the East campus grounds keeper, who responded with bad news.  The apple tree had been cut down after a storm had split the tree about fifteen years ago. 

I would later find the below picture of coach Hawkins in the 1964 Pekin yearbook with the caption, "Mr. Hawkins beams proudly as he displays The Apple Tree, planted to commemorate the Chinks' Victory over the Cobden Appleknockers to capture the State Basketball title."

Coach Hawkins and the apple tree
The planting of the apple tree on the Pekin Community High School campus was symbolic to what was to come to Pekin basketball in the 1960s. The 1964 Pekin Chinks planted the seed for the next three years of basketball success in Pekin.

"He who plants a tree, plants a hope"

Many consider Pekin to have the teams of the 1960s. With the leadership of coach Dawdy Hawkins, the Pekin Chinks began their notable run in 1963-64 with a state title.  The remaining underclassman built upon the experience. The 1964-65 and 1965-66 teams lost in the supersectional, but the 1967 would again bring a state championship back to Pekin.  During those four years, Hawkins and his Pekin Chinks would compile a 115-11 record (.91 winning percentage). It is also during this time that Pekin would begin hosting a Holiday basketball tournament that featured some of the best teams throughout the state. The tournament still exists today.

Pekin's State Championship banners proudly displayed in Hawkins Gym

"Dawdy" Hawkins Gym during the Pekin Insurance Holiday Tournament

The Cobden Appleknockers also planted a seed, as Hebron did before them, for all the small schools who dreamt of competing in the single-class state tournament. For many of the small, "district" schools, winning a district tournament equates to a successful season.  But as district teams advance through the sectional tournament and the media begins to cover these teams across the state, a seed is planted inside all small-town basketball players, giving them hope that they too can do the unimaginable.

Unfortunately, as the commemorative apple tree would eventually fall in Pekin, so would single-class basketball in Illinois. From 1908-1971, a single tournament was contested by nearly all high schools in Illinois. In 1972, only eight years after Cobden's tournament run, the IHSA would create a two-class system based on school size, each producing a separate champion. In 2008, the tournament would be divided again.  This time into four separate divisions, each crowning a state champion. The governing body uprooted every team's dream of beating the best to be the best. The class system created opportunity for the smaller schools to compete but the dream of being the true state championship came to an end. Many argue today that the tournament is watered down and a championship is worth less. Is a runner-up finish in a single-class tournament more memorable than winning the 1A state title?

As for the 1964 runner-up Cobden team, I can only imagine the popularity and notoriety they have received over the last forty-eight years.  As we near the fifty-year anniversary of their memorable season, I only expect the Appleknockers to be commemorated even more.  I doubt any other state runner-up team is as celebrated.

Of the 735 high schools, large or small, that entered the single-class state basketball tournament series in 1964, Cobden made it to the state's final game.

Cobden is much more than a footnote. They're champions in my book.