by Rick Conrad
For the Pharos-Tribune
This basketball season marks an anniversary that many folks in the Royal Center area still vividly recall.
Fifty years ago in their last season of existence, the Royal Center Bulldogs put together a tournament run that many quickly began comparing to the “Milan Miracle” just nine years earlier.
Members of the 1962-63 team will be honored at halftime of Pioneer’s boys basketball game against Delphi Saturday night in Royal Center.
Prior to the ’62-63 season head coach Berlin Rowe and his team felt it could be a special year. Many in the Royal Center area weren’t as certain. With his quiet reserved demeanor, there were those that felt Rowe was not the right man for the job. They just didn’t feel he would be effective in his duties. All the naysayers were quickly silenced though once the Bulldogs began to roll.
The team that year was a fairly young one with just one senior on the roster. Many basketball fans in the county figured the Bulldogs to be a year away from any real success. Rowe and his squad didn’t get the message as they tore through the regular season with a 16-5 record, setting up their unforgettable run into Hoosier Hysteria.
Former Bulldog Rick Morphet remembers the close bond of everyone on the team that year.
“Nearly every one of us had been playing ball together since grade school. We were friends and there was a genuine caring for each other that we all felt.”
That closeness and caring continues to this day as several members get together on a regular basis along with their families.
There were no stars on the Bulldog roster nor was there the go-to guy that every team likes to have. Instead, every member of the team was looked upon to be a contributor. If someone was having an off night, the next team member would step up. Proof came at the end of the season when Bill Hammer, Morphet, Gerald Garrison and Fred Lind all finished in the top 20 in scoring in Cass County.
The closeness and ability to play as a team proved beneficial once the tournament began. First up for the Bulldogs in the Logansport Sectional was Lucerne. The squad stepped up its play and easily dispatched of the opponent 78-49. Next came Kewanna, who nearly ended Royal Center’s season. At the end of a hard-fought game the Bulldogs escaped with a 49-47 win.
With the win Royal Center had earned a trip to the championship game against the big-city Logansport Berries. Though the Berries played in the mighty North Central Conference, the small town Bulldogs were up for the challenge. When the final horn sounded the big-city bullies fell to the Bulldogs 60-50. It was reported that during the game that Dick Jackson, broadcaster for WSAL radio, was in disbelief that Logansport was going to lose the game.
“Someone told me after the game that the radio guy was just shocked that Logansport was getting beat,” Rowe said. “He said on air that he couldn’t believe that Logansport was losing to next year’s Royal Center team. I’ve always found that to be somewhat funny.”
Hammer was named to the all-sectional team. Morphet, Ed Schmaltz, and Garrison were named to the second team while Glen Minks was honorable mention.
The Bulldogs then made the short trek down U.S. 35 to face a strong Rensselaer squad in the Logansport Regional. Intimidation wasn’t known to Royal Center as the Bulldogs downed the Bombers 72-60 to advance to the regional championship against a Monticello team that had beaten them earlier in the year at Monticello. In that game several of the Bulldogs felt they hadn’t played particularly well but when it counted, they easily redeemed themselves 66-51 in capturing the regional title and earning the right to play the next weekend in the Lafayette Semistate at the old Purdue Fieldhouse.
Greencastle was first up for the Bulldogs in the morning game. According to Schmaltz, he doesn’t remember anyone on the team having doubts about playing the bigger schools.
“We all had the confidence that we were going to win every time we took the floor,” he said.
Their confidence spoke volumes when they destroyed Greencastle 67-46, earning them the chance to play state power Lafayette Jeff in the championship game. A win against Jeff, and the tiny school in northern Cass County would set the state abuzz about the possibility of a Milan repeat.
Unfortunately, the trip to Indianapolis wasn’t meant to be for the Bulldogs as they fell to Lafayette 81-66, ending their magical season. Hammer and Morphet represented Royal Center well by being named to the all-semistate team.
Each team member had fond memories from that season. For coach Berlin, he remembers the police escorts back to Royal Center after the sectional and regional championships.
“It was quite an experience we had and it happened to a great group of kids,” he said. “They kept positive attitudes throughout the season and I believe they were all members of the NHS.”
Minks, too, remembered the caravans.
“After the semistate the police picked our bus up around Clymers. There were police cars and fire trucks and someone told us the caravan home was nearly five miles long,” he said.
Schmaltz remembers the backing the team received from the community.
“I can always remember Pearl’s Cafe opening for us when we returned from road trips. They weren’t the only ones to support us, it was the whole town. The closest thing I can compare that season to was the ’97 football season when Pioneer won the state title.”
Assistant coach Mike Pohlien remembers fondly his admiration for Coach Rowe.
“He was the one that gave me my first coaching job. I was in awe of the man and just really amazed by him,” he said. “He was so patient with everyone and never seemed to get upset over anything. And I never heard him swear at anytime.”
Both Schmaltz and Minks can recall the Bulldogs being a good free throw shooting team. According to Schmaltz, “We played pretty smart on defense and we could hit our free throws. Mosier’s Drugstore gave us cards for free malts and hamburgers, and Coach would pass them out at practice to whoever hit the most.”
Just nine years had passed since Milan shocked the state by winning the tournament title. The 1962-63 Royal Center Bulldogs did what they could to capture the magic that season. Though the squad came up a little short, they did indeed capture the magic. Magic that many from the area still remember 50 years later.
Pioneer’s first year of existence was the next year in 1964, and the Panthers won the sectional title that season as well.
1962-63 Royal Center Bulldogs
Coaching staff: Head coach Berlin Rowe, assistant coach Charles Manning and assistant coach Mike Pohlien.
Players: Bill Hammer, Butch Cookerly, Ed Schmaltz, Gerald Garrison, Rick Morphet, Charles Pufhal, Glen Minks, Fred Lind, Larry Nies and Jim Conn.
Managers: Mike Pufhal and Jerry Tilley.
Cheerleaders: Bonnie Cookerly, Shirley Ploss, Sally Myers and Delores Hale.