Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Chadron Prep: Athletic Powerhouse of Yesteryear!

By Con Marshall

Chadron Prep played a big role in Chadron’s athletic history, particularly in the late 1940s and 1950s under the guidance of Archie Conn, who for many years was recognized as one of the outstanding high school basketball coaches in the country and also had lots of success as a football and track coach.

Prep was the high school level of the Campus Laboratory School that was affiliated with Chadron State College so its education majors would have students to work with during the final phases of their teacher training.

Prep closed 59 years ago, in 1961, but still has many proud alumni living in Chadron as well as other places. In 1960, it was announced that the state was planning to build a new high school at the college. But before long, it was decided to use the funding it would have taken to construct the school to strengthen college programs instead and place the college’s student teachers in existing schools in the region.

The Junior Eagles, as the Prep athletic teams were known, also had their moments of glory in the mid-1930s, under Ross Armstrong, who was connected with Chadron State College for over 50 years and probably had the name most recognizable of anyone ever associated with Chadron athletics.

Armstrong arrived in Chadron in 1933 to start a Physical Education Department at the college and to serve as the college’s assistant coach for both football and basketball. Before long he also was asked to be the prep school’s head basketball coach.

It seems the Prep team was being coached by a math professor who knew very little about basketball. One of the team’s standouts, Sherman Crites, was the nephew of Judge Edwin Crites of Chadron, a member the college’s governing board for 22 years all told. At Sherman’s urging, the judge persuaded the college’s president, Robert Elliott, to make Armstrong the Prep basketball coach. Ross had the post three years with outstanding results, although his luck wasn’t the best.

Armstrong’s three-year record was 60-6. Both the 1935 and 36 teams qualified for the state tournament. The first time, the Junior Eagles lost to Holmesville 23-21 in double overtime in the opening round after two of the top players, Joe O’Rourke and Jack Geckler, missed the contest because of illness. The next year, Prep went to the state tourney undefeated, but lost to Blue Hill 20-18 in a single overtime period in the opening round. Jim Butler was another standout on both teams.

Old records show that Prep also went to state in 1926 in an era when any school that could afford to make the trip could enter the tourney.  The Chadron quintet beat Omaha North 17-6 in the first round and then lost to Plattsmouth 17-16.  Armstrong also coached basketball at Chadron Prep for two years during World War II, when athletics were suspended at the college after all the able-bodied men on campus had been drafted or joined the military effort. Once again, misfortune struck just as the basketball season was concluding.

After an outstanding regular season, the Junior Eagles were hit by mumps as they entered the district tournament. Nearly half the team was sidelined. Although Prep still reached the finals, it was defeated in the closing minutes by Cody to end the season. Jerry Hartman and Bud Heiser were the team’s top players.

After the war ended and college athletics resumed, Armstrong began coaching all three sports at CSC again. When the Prep football team lost all eight of its games in 1946, the decision was made to hire a capable coach for the Junior Eagles.  Archie Conn, a Bayard native who had been an excellent athlete at Chadron State in the late 1920s and early ’30s, was the choice.

During an interview years later, Conn recalled, in his humble way, that he scored a touchdown off the first pass thrown to him in college and then made the first three shots he took while playing basketball for the Eagles.

Conn’s first three football teams at Prep compiled a 21-1-1 record and during his first 12 years as the basketball coach he had a phenomenal 247-31 win-loss mark. At one stage of his career at Prep, Conn’s teams had won 184 of 199 games. They won three Class C state championships, 11 district crowns and nine conference titles.

The state championships came in 1949-50, 1951-52 and 1954-55. All three teams were undefeated.

Archie Conn, highly successful Chadron Prep coach and also director of the Campus Laboratory School that included Prep, received the Chadron State College Distinguished Service Award in 1976 from Dr. Edwin C. Nelson, the CSC president.
The 1950 champions were led by Bob Armstrong, Charlie Muma and Danny Kuska, who scored 33 points in Prep’s 47-37 win over Waverly in the championship game. Kuska finished as the state tournament’s leading scorer with 62 points and was an easy all-state choice that year, when he averaged 18 points a game.

Armstrong, son of Ross Armstrong, made all-state the following year.

In 52, the Junior Eagles squeezed past West Point 45-43 in the semifinals before toppling Gibbon 35-24 in the championship game. At 26-0, they were the only unbeaten team in Nebraska at the end of the season. Muma and Larry Lytle, who was later a basketball star at Chadron State, received all-state honors.

The Prepsters had their 42-game winning streak snapped on Friday, Feb. 13, 1953 at Hay Springs, where Verne Lewellen, later the Chadron High coach, was tutoring the Hawks.  Hay Springs kept the Junior Eagles from scoring in the third period. Prep’s only other loss during the 20-2 season was dealt by Lyman 47-43 in the finals of the District Tournament in Hay Springs.

The Junior Eagles went 24-2 the following year. Behind 24 points by Marv Tackett, Crawford won 55-51 about mid-season in the Chadron Community Building. Syracuse got 20 points from all-star Lyle Nannan and defeated Prep 42-37 in the state tourney semifinals before knocking off Franklin 47-28 in the championship game. 

Those score comparisons prompted Omaha World-Herald sportswriter Gregg McBride to rank Prep No. 2 in his final Class C rankings. He also placed Jim Hampton, a 5-5 sophomore starter on the 1952 state championship team but a 6-foot senior in 1953-54, on the Class C all-state team. Prep had a 70-4 record during his three years as a starter. 

Hampton went on to be a three-year starter at Chadron State and led the Eagles in scoring with 14.8- and 16.3-point averages his final two seasons.  He concluded his college career with 1,043 points.
Before the 1954-55 season began, Conn said that team could be his best and it went on to post a 24-0 record. It featured Ed Kuska, Danny’s brother, Jay Muma, Charlie’s brother, 6-foot-6 Jim Link, and brothers Tom and Dick Mingus.

Prep beat Trenton 60-28 in the regional playoffs and then topped Beaver Crossing 54-40 behind Link’s 28 points and Clarkson 54-50 in Lincoln.  

The championship game was a donnybrook. The score was tied eight times and the lead changed hands seven times before Prep won.  Kuska was an all-state selection and Conn was named Nebraska’s High School Basketball Coach of the Year.
Fifty-one years later, Conn was inducted posthumously into the Nebraska State High School Athletic Hall of Fame and his three state championship teams from the ’50s were recognized as the Golden Anniversary Teams.

Archie Conn, the head coach when Chadron Prep won Class C state tournament basketball championships in 1950, 1952 and 1955, was inducted into the Nebraska State High School Athletic Hall of Fame posthumously in 2001. During the ceremonies the three championship teams were designated Golden Anniversary Teams by the Hall of Fame. These Prep athletes and those who had been Prep students were in attendance. In front, from left, are Tom Mingus, Doug Wilson, Cal Clark, Glen Wyatt, Bob Armstrong, Franklin Clark, Charlie Snook and Barb Snook. In the back are Kenny Churchill, Hope Hampton Weaver, Jay Muma, Marion Shellhorn, Bob Buchanan, Jim Hampton, Jim Link, Danny Kuska, Dick Mingus, Bob Egly, Phil Williams, Gary Clements, Dave Roberts and Janet Redfern Adams.

(EDITOR'S NOTE:  Higher resolution images of the above photo – and others – may be viewed in our Dawes County Journal Schools Gallery.)

Even though, Jay Muma and Dick Mingus were the only returning starters on the 1955-56 team, the Junior Eagles finished 21-2. Torrington snapped Prep’s 37-game winning skein 62-55 in early February behind 23 points by Ron Theiman and Spencer won 59-54 in the regional playoffs in O’Neill to end the season.  Prep led 36-27 the final game at halftime, but had 13 fouls called against it in the third quarter and both Muma and Mingus fouled out. 

McBride put the Prepsters third in his Class C rankings and tabbed Muma as an all-stater.

A third Muma, Dick, was another excellent basketball player for the Junior Eagles. He started as a freshman on the 1955-56 team and joined with Dick Rickenbach to lead the 1957-58 quintet to a 19-3 record during an era when just four teams went to state in each class.  Both Prep teams won the district championship but lost out in regional play.

The same thing happened in 1958-59, Dick’s senior season. The Junior Eagles finished with an 18-5 record, but lost to Lodgepole 55-50 in the regional championship game. Prep had to play the regional tourney without Harlan Hakanson, its second best player, because he had the flu and Muma collected four fouls in the first half and drew his fifth halfway through the fourth quarter of the title game.   

During the District Tournament, Dick poured in 42 points against Lyman to break Danny Kuska’s single-game school scoring record of 38 set in 1949.  The next night he was 16-18 from the free throw line while tallying 28 points against Hay Springs in the district semifinals.  Prep barely squeezed past Minatare 36-35 in the district championship game and edged Loup City 45-42 in the first round of the Regional showdown before Lodgepole won the title tilt.

Dick, who averaged 22 points his senior year, was Prep’s only two-time all-state player and was listed as the Class C Player of the Year by Nebraska High School Sports published in 1980.  

All three of the Muma brothers topped the 1,000-point mark during their careers. Charlie tallied 1,090, Jay 1,198 and Dick 1,545. No one else apparently ever reached four figures for the Junior Eagles. Dick also averaged 20.8 points as a senior at Chadron State in 1963-64, the only full season he played at CSC after attempting to break into the University of Nebraska lineup earlier. 

Folks who knew the Muma family have often wondered how many points Mary Ann, the youngest member of the family and a six-footer who was frequently seen shooting baskets with Dick in their yard, might have rung up if she would have had the opportunity to play the game.  A story in the Chadron Record about Dick becoming a two-time all-stater noted that Mary Ann may have been a better shooter than any of her brothers.  

While Conn is often remembered as an outstanding basketball coach, he also had lots of success as a football mentor at Prep.

Conn’s first football team at Prep in 1947 went 7-1, losing only to Rushville 19-14.

In 1948, the Junior Eagles, stocked with 13 seniors, finished 8-0 while outscoring their foes 205-27. The next year, despite the fact that half of the 30-man squad were freshmen, the team went 7-0-1 with a 0-0 tie with Rushville the only blemish.

Danny Kuska, who played end on offense and “all over on defense,” according to his coach, was the standout of the 49 team. He caught eight touchdown passes, returned three interceptions for touchdowns and kicked 15 extra points while earning all-state honors. One of his interceptions came with 10 seconds left and gave the Junior Eagles a 27-20 win over the Provo Rattlers after he also kicked the PAT.

Kuska was the only high school athlete in Chadron to earn all-state honors in both football and basketball and also place at the state track meet until Michael Wahlstrom accomplished that feat at Chadron High 50 years later. 

Prep had a couple more excellent football teams in 1957 and ’58 when Rudy Pinsky, a Chadron State history professor, coached the Junior Eagles. Their only loss the first year was to Edgemont, but they beat Rushville 26-13 for the first time in 10 years to tie Gordon for the Northwest Nebraska Conference championship.

Pinsky said the backfield, comprised of Dick Muma at quarterback and Bob Broberg, Jim Heidebrecht and Dick Rickenbach, had great balance and credited Glen Gray, Keith Benthack and Ken Cullers with excellent line play in 1957.  The ’58 team finished with a 5-2 record and edged Chadron High 20-12 in the only football game between the Junior Eagles and Cardinals that anyone seemed to remember.

With just two seniors on the roster, the Cardinals had sophomores playing most of the skill positions in 1958, but went 7-1 the next year and were a juggernaut two years later when they finished 8-0 and outscored their foes by an average of 34 to 9 points. The 1960 Cards were one of the three undefeated football teams Gordon “Fuzz” Watts had during his spectacular coaching tenure at Chadron High.   

Prep Coach Archie Conn
Conn also coached the Junior Eagles to a couple of Northwest Nebraska Conference track and field championships early in his tenure at Prep. Led by sprinters Rob Garfoot and Glen Wyatt, Prep overwhelmed the opposition in 1949 with 41 7/10 points while runner-up Hay Springs had 24.

In 1950, Prep scored exactly the same number of points while Hay Springs was again second with 23 ½. Wyatt set conference records of 22.7 in the 220 and 51.4 in the 440 that spring. Kuska won the broad jump and was second in both hurdle races and the pole vault in 1950.

Prep had three state champions at state track and field meets in the 1950s.

Wyatt won the Class C 440 in 51.9 seconds in 1950 after placing second the year before in 51.5 seconds. His times were second in the all-class medal standings in the race both years.

Wyatt also was third in the 220 in 1949. Danny Kuska was third in the long jump in ‘49 and placed second in the low hurdles and fourth in the highs at the state meet in 1950.

Pole vaulter Tom Williams cleared 11-3 to tie for first in Class C in 1955. He improved to 11-9 the next year, but had to settle for second.

Prep’s final state champion was Emmett American Horse, who transferred from Gordon for his senior year in 1958 and won the Class C 880.  He also had been the Class B state champion in the half mile at Gordon the previous year.

Emmett’s older brother, famed distance runner Joe American Horse, won the Class B mile run three times and was the all-class mile champion twice for the Gordon Broncs in the mid-1950s.

Besides being strong in athletics, Prep had an outstanding academic reputation. Many of its instructors also were Chadron State College professors, and numerous Prep graduates went on to earn advanced college degrees and became successful professionals.  

Prep students went out on a high note in 1961.  Just a few weeks before the high school was shut down, Prep won top honors at the Chadron State Scholastic Contest.