H&R Community News Editor
MACON - Graduation ceremonies at Macon High School on Friday, June 4, 1971, were delayed until 11 p.m. The wait was for the baseball team, which included five seniors. Macon played two games in the state baseball tournament finals in Peoria, then had to hustle back home.
The Mod Squad from Macon, the country bumpkins, the hillbilly team, bumped off Chicago Lane Tech, the tournament favorite, 6-4 in the morning in an improbable outcome. In the afternoon, reality prevailed, and Waukegan won the championship game 4-2, ending a 13-game Macon winning streak. Still, it was an unforgettable surge, a David vs. Goliath tale which has prompted two screenplays and a recent visit from a Sports Illustrated writer.
The screenplays, by a New York woman and by Chris Collins of Houston, Texas, a 1977 Macon graduate, haven't been sold. However, the Sports Illustrated article by Chris Ballard appears to be a sure thing.
"When I look back, it was an amazing accomplishment," said Dale Otta, the shortstop. "The irony is that people remember us, not Waukegan."
With an enrollment of 250, Macon was the smallest school in the eight-team tournament. Lane Tech had the largest enrollment, 5,200, all boys, and was a two-time state champion, 1945, 1956. It was a one-class tournament with small schools unable to break through.
Macon has since merged with Blue Mound to become Meridian High School. The memory of the 1971 team remains vivid, especially freshened with the recent attention.
The Mod Squad was christened by James Bond, a Herald & Review sports reporter, for these reasons:
* The players had long hair and wore the peace symbol on their mismatched uniforms, wrinkled shirts, baggy pants.
* Warmup music was "Jesus Christ Superstar" on a tape recorder.
* The coach, L.C. Sweet, had long hair, a Fu Manchu mustache and an easy-going style. When asked about the team's main weakness, he said "coaching." He was not your typical dominant coach.
* The scorekeeper was a girl, Barbara Jesse, who wore a team shirt and sat on the bench.
"I've always believed that our unorthodox behavior and looks were to our advantage when playing the large schools. I'm sure they must have thought, 'Who are these guys, and what are they doing here?' Looking at the team picture, you see some of us had different style shirts and caps. Some of the players wore helmets instead of caps. Of course, our looks and behavior were somewhat deceiving because most of us carried an A or B average in school and would go on to attend college," said Dale Otta.
Unorthodox was the word for Coach Sweet. He was an English teacher. "I'm the coach because nobody else wanted to be," he told the players. "I'm here to have fun," he emphasized. Asked about practices, he said, "when the boys feel like it. We don't stress fundamentals, we just let the boys have fun. We hunt and fish together, too. I had a gun in my truck parked at the school. I might go pheasant hunting at the noon break."
Thirty-nine years later, Sweet, 68, sat in the Whit's End restaurant and talked about 1971.
"I came to Macon from Champaign because I needed a job and my dad told me to move on. The players knew as much about baseball as I did. We didn't have a lot of money, a lot of equipment. One time, we had to have an emergency run for bats when two of the four broke.
"We didn't have signals. The pitcher, Steve Shartzer or John Heneberry, decided what to throw. When John pitched against Lane Tech, they threw their bats in disgust. They couldn't hit his 70-mph fastball and curve.
"My goals were read, fish and philosophize. I taught for 35 years at Macon, coached baseball seven years, was an assistant football coach, was girls track and field coach for 20 years and was golf coach. I'm 68 years old. I retired in 2000 and live on a farm south of Moweaqua. And right now I'm reading 'Ulysses.' " That's the book by James Joyce regarded by many as the best in the 20th century.
Sweet's almost-champs lost twice in the regular season to Mount Zion, then beat Mount Zion 8-2 in the district tournament at Stonington, followed by a 10-0 romp over Blue Mound on Heneberry's one-hitter.
In the regional tournament at Warrensburg, Shartzer pitched a three-hitter, and Macon beat Decatur Eisenhower 6-0. Macon then scored five runs in the seventh inning and got past Mount Pulaski 9-4.
In the sectional tournament at Champaign, Shartzer baffled Potomac in a 9-0 game. With the state tournament berth at stake, Macon edged Bloomington 3-2. One article pointed out: "David met Goliath, and just like in Biblical times, the little guy came out on top."
At Peoria, Macon was matched against Nashville, another small school. Shartzer was dominant. Macon won 5-0 to set up the game with Lane Tech, a school 21 times the size of Macon.
The Macon lineup:
* Mark Miller, second base. He died of prostate cancer.
* Dale Otta, shortstop. He lives in Decatur.
* Steve Shartzer, third base-pitcher. He had an 8-2 pitching record and was the runs batted in leader with 47 in the first 19 games. He's a girls softball coach in Gulf Shores, Ala.
* Stu Arnold, center field. He died in an auto accident. He stole four bases in the Lane Tech game.
* Dean Otta, catcher. He lives in Mount Zion.
* David Wells, left field. He lives in Mount Zion.
* Jeff Glan, first base. Batted .556 in the state tournament. He lives in Decatur.
* Brian Snitker, right field. He's the Atlanta Braves third base coach. Sweet and several of the 1971 players plan to have a mini-reunion with Snitker when the Braves play in St. Louis this week.
* John Heneberry, pitcher-third base. He lives in Moweaqua.
"Losing the final game left us with sadness and disappointment, but the journey getting there was our reward," Dale Otta sums up.
Macon kept rolling. A Meridian Conference winning streak reached 58 games in 1975.