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|
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|
|Jump ball during 1964 state title game|
|Pekin's Dave Golden who would later play for Duke|
|Pekin and Cobden players rebounding|
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?
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|
|1964 State Championship display at PCHS|
|Pekin community celebrating a state championship|
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|
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|
"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|