Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Assumption had big sports legacy - Part I

We're happy to present a two-part series that hits the highlights of athletics at Assumption Academy in Chadron during its 38-year history.  Written by Con Marshall, these newspaper stories were originally published in August of 2011.  Thank you, Con!

Chadron Assumption had many athletic highlights
by Con Marshall

While Mike Smith and his wife Jo were avoiding the heat in Arizona and resided in Chadron during much of July 2011 (When our high temperature reached at least 90 on 20 dates and topped 100 degrees seven times.), I wrote a sports column about Chadron Prep and Assumption Academy closing 50 and 40 years ago, respectively.

The column recounted numerous athletic highlights that the two high schools had during their existence.  Bolstered by its three Class C state basketball championships of the 1950s and the limelight that went with the titles, Prep received quite a bit of the spotlight.

Mike, a 1953 Chadron High graduate whose career included being sports editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, didn’t quibble with that. But he gently suggested that I could have named some of the Panthers who made Assumption a small-school powerhouse at times.

Assumption Academy in its early years
Since the column already contained more than 1,500 words (so does this one), I had avoided listing names by noting there were too many standouts to mention.  There were definitely a lot of exceptional athletes who wore the Blue and Gold through the years.

But Mike was convincing and helped by asking Dan Konrath, a loyal Assumption alum who has a wealth of information about the school, to loan me a copy of the 2010 Alumni Directory that Dan put together. It is a masterpiece that contains individual photos of all the 597 graduates during Assumption’s 48 years of operation.

Mike’s prodding and Dan’s book inspired some additional digging. It was interesting.  I found so much material that it will stretch over two issues of the newspaper.  This episode will discuss some interesting events from “way back when.” Next week, we’ll talk mostly about the final 20 years that the school was open.

Some great Assumption teams

Mention was made in the earlier column about Assumption’s undefeated and unscored upon 11-man football team in 1932. Despite considerable research nothing more has been learned about that team.  Since there are only 15 players in the team photo, they had to be iron men and it had to be a fantastic season. Few teams anywhere have duplicated it.

Nearly 80 years later, it seems fitting that their names are printed again. In alphabetical order they are Jack Berkheimer, Eugene Chalfant, Lester Clemens, John Coyle, Dan Jordan, Richard Lecher, John Masek, John McDermott, Richard McGannon, Francis Joe Montague, Don Rapp, Bill Riley, Orin Riley, DeLong Satterlee and Lester Wilson.  As noted in the earlier column, their coach was Claude “Bud” Rook, who had played on Chadron High’s undefeated football team in 1927 and was the founder and long-time owner of ABC Electric in Chadron.

Even before that, Assumption had at least one big moment in sports. In 1929, when Assumption was in just its fifth year, the basketball team went to the state tournament.  I learned about that team in May 1990, when Marion Talcott, the team’s coach, visited his hometown. He was 84, but still full of energy and information.

Talcott was a 1925 graduate of Chadron High and a 1929 graduate of Chadron State. He said during his senior year of college, the priest, a Father Nolan, asked him to coach the basketball team. Talcott thought it was the Academy’s first.

After the team won a majority of its regular-season games, Assumption supporters collected the funds to send it to Lincoln.  Prior to 1930, when qualification standards were initiated and the tournament was cut back to 32 teams in two classes, hundreds of teams annually played in the Nebraska State Tourney.  If a school or a community had enough money to send its team to state, it could go no matter what its record might be.

According to the late Jerry Mathers’ book, “Nebraska High School Sports,” printed in 1980, the state had 830 high schools in 1930. He wrote that 339 schools sent their cagers (as basketball players were often called then), to the state tourney in 1926 and 263 made the trip in 1928. In 1926, the classes dipped down on V.  Mathers wrote, “No wonder so many schools could proclaim themselves ‘state champions.’ “

Assumption didn’t win the championship in 1929, but it was one game away from reaching the Class E championship game.  It defeated both Minden and St. Edward by 13-11 scores before losing to Belgrade 16-12. Belgrade then won the Class E title by beating Dunbar 20-12.

Although it had been 61 years since Talcott had coached the team, he remembered quite a bit about the experience during our interview.

Here’s a quote from his story: “The courts weren’t very big in those days and you didn’t have to advance the ball if you didn’t want to (There wasn’t a 10-second line.). We concentrated on defense and could nearly hold hands across the court. They (the games) must have been terrible things to watch.”

We determined that the team members included Keith Lessert, Charles Sweat, Joe Pope, Gerald Burns, Max Miller, Miles Coyle, Theodore Brown and Raymond Lecher, whose widow, Belle, is still an active member of the community (still true in 2015, too.)

That was the only time an Assumption team went to state prior to 1971, the final year the school was open.

Assumption grad in CSC Hall of Fame

Also going “way back when,” Assumption had an athlete in the mid-1930s who became a standout at Chadron State.  Dale Tangeman graduated from the Academy in 1937. I don’t know anything about the Assumption teams he played on, but after his high school days were over, he played both football and basketball at Chadron State.   In 1984 he was in the second group that Ross Armstrong inducted into the CSC Athletic Hall of Fame.

Tangeman was the fullback on the CSC football team and played on basketball teams that had a cumulative 55-12 record. The first three went 16-4, 15-3 and 17-4, capped by a trip to the National Intercollegiate Basketball Association Tournament in Kansas City in 1941-42.

Like those of most other able-bodied men, Tangeman’s college days were interrupted by World War II, when he served in the Army Air Corps. Four of the five starters from the national tournament team returned in 1945-46, when the Eagles went 17-1. Tangeman then taught and coached at Provo High near Edgemont and Kimball before serving as principal of Carey High in Cheyenne for more than 20 years. He also was a busy referee who officiated at the Wyoming State Basketball Tournament for 13 consecutive years.

Don Lecher was the only Assumption athlete mentioned in the July 6 column. He apparently could run as fast as anyone who ever grew up in Chadron and netted the town its first state championship.
As noted previously, Lecher scored 31 touchdowns and nine extra points during the 1940 football season when the Panthers went 7-0.  The following spring he won the 100 and 220-yard dashes and the broad jump at the state track meet to single-handedly win the Class D state championship.  Old newspaper stories indicate that Harold Munkres was another excellent player on the undefeated team, which apparently played 6-man football because the 8-man variety didn’t debut in Nebraska until the early 1950s.

Six-man football got its start at Chester, Neb., in 1934.

The 1940s were a tough time for many schools.  Both Prep and Assumption dropped football during the height of World War II. After the fighting stopped, the Academy class photos indicate the enrollment was so low that there were only a dozen or so boys in the school the final few years of the decade.  However, long-time Dawes County rancher Charles Iodence, one of two boys in the Class of 1946, said he played football at least one year at Assumption.

More basketball stories

George Shinker, who just three years later while he was still attending Chadron State, coached all the sports at the Academy, was one of just five boys in the Class of 1950. He apparently was an excellent basketball player. He once told me that several of his Chadron Prep buddies urged him to transfer to their school, but his family’s Catholic ties were too strong.

During the Grand Island Catholic Diocese Tournament in Sidney in February 1950, the Panthers lost both of their games, but Shinker shared the most valuable player award.  He poured in 25 points during a 54-45 loss to St. Mary’s of Grand Island in the first round and scored 15 the next night when Spalding Academy won 58-25.

Assumption’s basketball team got a major boost in 1951-52, when Rich Fahey transferred from Provo High at Igloo, S.D., near Edgemont. He was a scoring machine. He set the school’s scoring record of 45 points against Oelrichs and tallied 35 twice that season. The Panthers won the district championship, but lost 48-46 to Mullen in the regional playoff game to determine which team would go to state. Fahey scored 28 points before fouling out.

Fahey’s 45 points are the most ever scored by a player from any of Chadron’s three high schools.   He also attended Assumption the following year and graduated in May 1953, but he was too old to participate in athletics his senior year.  A long-time businessman in Sidney, Fahey said during our telephone conversation last week that he made lots of friends during his two years in Chadron and nearly always attends the Assumption reunions.

Fahey said he developed his basketball skills while his father worked at the Black Hills Army Depot at Igloo, S.D., where ammunition was stored in “igloos” made of concrete. “There were two gyms that were always open,” he noted. “I made use of them.”

The Fahey name has remained prominent in Nebraska basketball circles. Rich’s son, Randy, was a standout at Sidney St. Pat’s in the late 1970s and, after attending a couple of other colleges, was the leading scorer on the Chadron State team in 1983-84. That year, Randy met and later married Chadron native Laurie Nydahl.  Their sons, Spencer and Turner, were all-staters at Grand Island Central Catholic in recent years.  Turner averaged 25.8 points a game last winter. Both plan to play at Briar Cliff College in Iowa this year, although Spencer is bothered by a torn Achilles tendon, his grandfather reports.

                (More about the Panthers will be in this space next week.)