DECATUR – Fifty years ago in March on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the Assembly Hall in Champaign, the Stephen Decatur High School basketball team was poised to win the state championship.
This was undoubtedly the best Decatur team of all time, better than Coach Gay Kintner's state champion teams of 1931, 1936 and 1945 and better than John Schneider's 1962 state champion team. Led by all-staters Jack Sunderlik and Charlie Currie and the scoring of Dave Scholz, Decatur had a 37-1 record and had trounced Evanston 73-59 in the quarter-finals of the one class tournament.
Cobden was the semifinal opponent. Located on the fringe of the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois orchard country, Cobden had a population of 900 and a school enrollment of 147, including 84 boys. The team's unusual nickname was “Appleknockers.”
The Stephen Decatur players were heard to shout “we're going to make applesauce” on leaving the dressing room.
Instead, the Stephen Decatur players were baffled by the tall farm boys, their deliberate style of play and their 1-2-2 zone defense. Seniors Kenny Flick and Kenny Smith and junior Jim Neal were each 6 feet 5 and Chuck Neal was 6 feet 6. Flick, the leading scorer, was married and had a baby son.
At halftime, Decatur had 14 points after missing 13 of its first 15 shots. The misses continued.
Final score: Cobden 44, Stephen Decatur 38. Sunderlik scored 20 points as the only Decatur threat.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. A few hours later, Cobden fell to Pekin in the championship game 50-45.
Those games and the astounding 1963-64 season are remembered in a book, “The Amazing Appleknockers, Illinois' Cinderella Basketball Team of 1964.”
The authors, Teri Campbell and Anne Ryman, go through the baskets and free throws game-by-game, detailing the obstacles, tragedies and triumphs, finishing with chapters on the games with Stephen Decatur and Pekin and then the ride home.
Coached by Dick Ruggles, the Cobden players dedicated the season to Tom Crowell, the 6 foot 2 point guard who drowned in a swimming accident in Little Grassy Lake in May 1963. Crowell had led Cobden to a 29-2 record in 1962-63.
This was indeed an historic team. Cobden won the sectional tournament for the first time, nudging Harrisburg 64-62. Ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press Sweet 16 rankings, Cobden then edged Pinckneyville 68-66 in triple overtime in the super-sectional in West Frankfort to advance to Champaign.
Taking a train the 220 miles to Champaign, Cobden continued its success, winning another squeaker 60-57 over Galesburg. Now the Appleknockers were set to move from obscurity to Illinois sports folklore.
The book quotes Stephen Decatur Coach Jack Kenny: “The main reason we lost is because we couldn't handle Cobden's size. It was one of those games where nothing seemed to go right. We never shot so poorly (26 percent). We had trouble shooting over them from the outside."
Cobden was the darling of the state tournament, even though Pekin ended the Cinderella run. The book points out: “The Appleknockers were a 'feel good' story, an underdog team that had persevered despite the steep odds against it. As each community's local high school basketball team was eliminated from the state competition, its supporters often than not threw their loyalty behind Cobden. The fan base grew larger with every 'Goliath' the 'Little David' slew.”
The book also has an extensive account of Coach Ruggles' background. He left Cobden after the amazing season and coached at Nashville High School for 29 years. He retired, then returned as the girls volleyball coach for three years.
Both of the book's authors are Cobden graduates who began compiling Cobden achievements in 2003. Teri Campbell still lives in Cobden. Anne Ryman lives in Phoenix, Ariz. The book ($28) was published in 2011 by Lusk Creek Publishing, Makanda, and has had a second printing.
The book was delivered to me, along with an Appleknockers T-shirt, by Terry Mason of Decatur, who became fascinated with the Cobden story.
“While camping in Giant City State Park south of Carbondale,” Mason explains, “I noted the apple orchards in the area and they reminded me of the 1964 Appleknockers. I was a freshman at Stephen Decatur when the Cobden upset happened. My brother, Wes, was a bench warmer on the Stephen Decatur team.
“Cobden was a short distance away, so I drove there, saw a big billboard about the 1964 team outside town and talked to some of the people, including the present athletic director and Ken Flick, the leading scorer. The townspeople are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the game like it happened a week ago.
“It's an unusual story, similar to the 1971 Macon High School Cinderella baseball team finishing second in the state tournament and the subject of the book 'One Shot at Forever.' ”
Long live the Appleknockers.