Sunday, February 7, 2016

T-Town is Title Town

Turning in circles while admiring the four walls covered in basketball trophies, team pictures and awards, my eyes fixated on a pair of clogs hanging above the large Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state championship trophy case. I asked anyone listening,  "It's unique, isn't it?"

Teutopolis' athletic director, Andrew Johnson had just left us in the school's trophy room, turned cafeteria, as he had to get back to overseeing other duties.  "You're absolutely right", my brother responded as he stood in the doorway looking into the adjoining gymnasium admiring the large shoe in the middle of the court, "there's not too many places like this".

That may be an understatement. But again, underestimating Teutopolis is something many don't do.

Sign on the side of the Teutopolis High School

The village of Teutopolis, Ill, also known as "T-Town", is one-of-a-kind, literally.

Established in 1839, Teutopolis, "the city of the Teutons (or Germans)", is the only town in the United States with this unique name. Having celebrated their 175th anniversary a few years ago, the village located in the "Heartland of America" has a vast amount of history tied to it as one would expect. 

What you don't expect as you drive by the village of 1,530 alongside U.S. Route 40, is the uniqueness of its storied high school basketball programs and the mascot chosen for the town's German heritage, the "Wooden Shoes". 

Although the establishment of the village put Teutopolis on the state map, its success on the hardwood put T-Town on the basketball map. Large and tiny dots span the entire state map, representing the few historic programs from a century's time, but that one minuscule dot, halfway between St. Louis, MO and Terre Haute, IN, is not like any other.

It is one-of-a-kind.

For those not familiar with a wooden shoe, or clog, it's footwear made in part or completely from wood.  Although the shoe design may vary by culture, traditional clogs were often worn in heavy labor, such as agriculture and mining, due to its firmness and low cost.
Although the origin of wooden footwear in Europe is not precisely known, what is known is the origin of the mascot name in Teutopolis.

This story dates to 1932, when boys basketball coach, John Harold Griffin, was hired and soon began to look for a "unique" name for the basketball team. According to Andrew Johnson, Teutopolis' athletic director, up until 1935 Teutopolis High School did not have a nickname. It was then, Albert "Penny" Hewing and Bert Hawickhorst, local fans and businessmen, gave Coach Griffin a pair of wooden shoes made out of lindenwood and carved by a local shoemaker, George Deymann. 

Deymann, in his 80s at the time, had spent most of his life making shoes for Teutopolis and area residents who wore them during the winter months. They sold for fifty cents apiece in the local grocery stores. Coach Griffin suggested that the shoes be painted - one gold and the other silver, and used as trophies for the annual homecoming games played by and at Teutopolis and Neoga. 

Ever since then, the Teutopolis High School athletic teams have been referred as the "Wooden Shoes". The name would recognize both the German heritage of the community and honor George Deyman who carved wooden shoes for a living for the farming community.  

Wooden Shoe at half court

How unique is the mascot name? 

Teutopolis is the only high school in the world to have the Wooden Shoe as it's mascots. The only other team with this unique mascot was the Holland Wooden Shoes minor league baseball team, that played in the Michigan State League from 1911-1914.

Holland High School in Holland, Mich. is usually mentioned in the conversation but their athletic nickname is actually "The Dutch" and they do not have an official mascot, although the Holland High Marching Band is known for performing in wooden shoes during parades.

Wooden Shoe at center court
Historians also say these unique shoes are worn, in many cultures, for dancing. This would be true in Teutopolis, if you consider reaching the original March Madness state basketball tourney as going to the "Big Dance".

In its 91 years of existence (through the 2014-15 season), the Wooden Shoes boy's basketball program has a 72% winning percentage, including 1763 wins and 694 losses, under the leadership of only seven head coaches in its history. The majority of these wins occurred under head coaches, J.H. Griffin (404 wins in 24 years), Lawrence Carie (443 wins in 23 years) and Ken Crawford (612 wins in 26 years).

This small school boy's team has seen the most success in the last 30 years, when they have been a 6-time State Final Qualifier in 1986, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2006, 2007.  The Wooden Shoes brought back a 3rd place finish in 2007, a 2nd place trophy in 2000 and the coveted state championship in 1986. 

Although, the boys program has a long history of success, the Lady Shoes are a unique team in Illinois. 

State Championship banners

The Lady Shoes girl's program won three consecutive state titles from 1987-88 to 1989-90. They also won state titles in 1985-86 and 1994-95.  According to, the Lady Shoes have 5 state titles, 4 second place and 3 third place finishes in 15 state appearances, making them the most storied small school basketball program in the state.

In all, they have garnered 12 State Tournament trophies in girls basketball. By the end of the 2013-14 season, the Lady Shoes basketball program, which had only originated 37 years ago, have compiled a record of 951 wins and only 170 losses - a 85% winning percentage. 

Wooden Shoes above State Championship trophy case

The leader of the Lady Shoes for 24 of those years and for all 5 of the state titles was legendary coach Dennis Koester.  Koester had a career record of 652-88 from 1982--2006 on the T-Town sideline heading into his 25th and final year of coaching at Teutopolis after announcing his retirement following the school year.  Tragically, prior to the start of the 2006-07 season, coach Dennis Koester died in a single-vehicle accident near the town that became synonymous with his name.

Koester's longtime Teutopolis High School assistant girls basketball coach Laurie Thompson replaced him as head coach. Having won a state championship trophy as a player under Koester and coaching alongside him since the 1992-93 season, Thompson was the obvious chose to take over the coveted program. In the nine years since taking over the program in 2006, Thompson has won 226 games and led the Lady Shoes to two State appearances. She is among the best coaches in the state, having a career winning percentage of nearly 80%.

With all that success, you have to have a large area to store decades of recognition and awards, right?  Well, over 90 years of tradition can be admired in the cafeteria area, which doubles as a shrine to the many athletic and activities accomplishments over the decades.  Regional and Sectional plaques line the walls, in addition to tournament trophies, team photos, basketballs, record boards and everything else you can earn at the high school level. 

Your eyes may immediately be drawn to the state tournament hardware enclosed in glass, but it's the footwear on the walls that your eyes will soon be fixated on.

The wooden shoes hanging in the cafeteria are clogs that were donated to the school for winning various state championships such as the 1990 Girls Basketball State Championship game vs. Nashville - score was 62-29.  1988 vs. Massac - score 59-44. Girls Track State Champs 1984.  Not all State Champion Teams had a pair of shoes to represent their win, but there are at least 6 pair on the premises.  

As my wife would say, you can never have enough shoes.

Even when you step out of this awards room adjacent to the gym and walk down the hallway, you will enjoy another room, a hidden gem that showcases the past success of the Lady Shoes basketball program. The actual IHSA Girls State championship pictures reside in here, an area known to many as the "Pit". 

Teutopolis athletic director, Andrew Johnson, mentioned that it is his understanding that this area was at one time the actual gymnasium (at least a part of it), since then it has been used as a cafeteria and now it is an area that students or groups utilize out of the classroom, or for clubs to hold meetings. 

As a high school basketball fan, this room is a must visit as you get an up-close look at the personnel that helped T-Town earn the right to be called the most storied small school basketball program in the state. You will also see the many smiles of Coach Koester, as I bet these are proud moments that are everlasting. It's also these teams that contributed to his many IHSA small school coaching records that still stand today.

"The Pit" area with the official IHSA girls state team photos

It can be overwhelming and sometimes unimaginable the amount of success the village of Teutopolis has earned over the years.  Keep in mind, both boys and girls basketball teams brought home a basketball state championship in the same season in 1985-86.  Not many schools have this accomplishment in their athletic portfolio.  But as we mentioned earlier, there are very few small schools of this caliber.  It is one-of-a-kind.

When asked what it meant to be a part of this winning tradition, Andrew Johnson shared, "We are proud of our teams and success. The hard work that is displayed here daily is witnessed in the success that hangs in the gym (banners), the trophies displayed in the cases, and pictures you see on the walls in the cafe and pit areas.  Makes what you do daily, feel important."

Teutopolis has leveraged athletics to touch the lives of many. There is no doubt that the community will continue to relish in the success of its basketball programs. And the next time a Teutopolis team makes it back to the state tournament, I expect everyone will wear their best shoes as they prepare to go "dancing" - even if they are wooden.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Remembering Joe

Most people remember their first mentor in their professional career. They were there for them when they were taking their first baby steps into a new life journey with needed guidance, support, confidence and an attentive ear. Joe Protsman was that for me.

Ten years ago today, heaven received one of the best human beings, leaders, and mentors I know. I will never forget what he taught me.

lthough I have many memories of Joe, there a two that I wanted to share. In fact, they bookend my working relationship with him. 
After receiving my undergraduate degree at Western Illinois University (WIU) in Macomb, I immediately pursued a Masters Degree in Sport Management. I wanted to work in sports; therefore, why not gain experience in the WIU Athletics office in their graduate assistantship program?

I was nervous walking into Joe's office for my initial interview. For those that know Joe, he had an intimidating appearance, especially given his background as a former All-American wrestler and coach for the Leathernecks. As a Senior Associate Athletics Director, overseeing the department's fiscal duties and game operations, Joe needed help and I wanted to be that guy.

After being selected as a grad assistant, Joe told me that he knew when reviewing my resume that he wanted to extend the offer to me. I didn't have a lot of experience, only one other internship so what was it? He said that when he read that I was from "Kahoka, MO", he knew that I would be a hard worker. Having grown up across the river in Keokuk, IA, Joe knew many people from Kahoka and they all had a strong work ethic. As a result, he knew that I would give equal effort.

This gesture has always stood with me, I knew from that point on, that I must give 100% because of the expectations that he placed on me. He also knew that this would be a great opportunity for someone who grew up in a town of 2,100. I will never forget that.

Additionally, Joe and I would talk a lot when I would be assisting him during his fiscal responsibilities of expense recording. He would read me the team expense and which account it should be assigned to and I would record it into the accounting program on the computer. I looked forward to these days because we would talk about life, classes, last night's game, our families, work, etc. 

I once mentioned that I was the only member of my immediate family that never earned a honor's stole (cord) to wear around my neck when graduating high school. My father, mother, older brother, and twin brother had all placed within the top percent of their class. They all earned honor cords and wore them proudly during graduation. He reminded me to remember that I was working towards a post graduate degree and I should be proud.

Months after that particular conversation, I walked across the stage, having earned a Graduate Degree from WIU. The following week, I celebrated my last day as a grad assistant in the WIU Athletics office. 

I came into work that day, knowing that I would be leaving behind some of the best people I have met and who had developed me into someone that I may not have been 10 months earlier. As I entered the office, there was a graduation gift on the table for me. I opened it and lifted out a purple Adidas WIU windbreaker (which I still have today). As I began to fold it and put in back in the box, I noticed another gift that was underneath the jacket. It was the purple and gold stole that I wore over my Masters Degree gown during graduation.

Joe, remembering our conversation months prior and knowing that I had to turn mine in after the graduation ceremony, had went to the grad office and got a stole for me so I too would have a stole/cord of my own, just like my other family members. He knew it would mean a lot to me. I remember looking at him and with a slanted smile, he gave me a proud nod.

I was in awe. Who thinks of stuff like that? The special ones do.

As I go through my career, this is one of those mentoring moments that I remember most. Remember those types of conversations, even when little. Always have your bags packed to celebrate with others.

Ten years ago, I lost someone that meant a lot to me but his teachings live on through many. As I look at his picture after all these years, I can't help but give him the same nod of pride. Thanks, Joe.

               Joe Protsman, 1951-2006