Monday, March 9, 2009

Part I: Remembering A State Championship Worthy Of 'Hoosiers'

Frank Clouser bought his first insurance policy from Bobby Plump, who's more famously remembered for making the game-winning shot for Milan High in the 1954 Indiana High School Athletic Association title game against mighty Muncie Central.

Clouser, who was born and raised in pint-sized Colfax, Indiana, was the longtime baseball coach, assistant boys' basketball coach, head girls' basketball coach and down box linesman during the football seasons at now-closed Royal Oak Kimball High. The longtime gym teacher also had a two-year stint as diamond coach at Troy Athens, winning two OAA titles. I recall Clouser telling me this story because history has a funny way of condensing a lot of important little facts into one single event.

Bobby Plump and Milan High was the inspiration for the 1986 movie 'Hoosiers' and Plump was characterized in the movie as town sharp-shooter Jimmy Chitwood. This is the story of the 1963 Ferndale High School Eagles, who won the Class A basketball title. At first glance of the MHSAA online records page, you might think Ferndale was a runaway train, marching to the title with a 22-0 record plus the Eastern Michigan League (EML) title to go with district and regional championships.

The '63 Eagles had more in common with the fictitious Hickory Huskers in 'Hoosiers' more than Milan High did. Further, to grasp how special Ferndale's '63 campaign was -- and how unique even an undefeated championship can be -- you have to first understand 1962, the year the Detroit Public School League ended its' self-imposed 31-year absence from the state tournament. The Detroit Pershing Doughboys made a long run in the Class A bracket, defeating Ferndale in the opener and Royal Oak Dondero in the district final. After crushing Warren Fitzgerald, Pershing beat Royal Oak Kimball in the regional final and Detroit King in the quarters before losing in the state semifinal at Michigan State University's Jension Field House.

Fast forward to Ferndale's magical 1963 tourney run, made possible when Coach Dave Gunther's Royal Oak Kimball team earned a stunning 39-32 win over Coach Will Robinson's Pershing team in the district opener. Pershing had upset regular season PSL champion Detroit Northwestern in that league's title game and was a defending state semifinalist but lost to a five-year-old school that played in exactly one quarterfinal in the 49 seasons the school was open. Kimball, however marginal the school's overall basketball success was, earned a 9-3 record versus the PSL in tourney games.

With the Doughboys eliminated, Grosse Pointe High's undefeated Blue Devils were considered metro Detroit's best team when Coach Roy Burkhart and Ferndale met the 'Pointers' in the '63 quarters. Ferndale was already battle-tested, having bested the always-gritty Highland Park Polar Bears in the regional final the previous Friday. Bruce Rodwan (pictured above) scored a basket with 37 seconds remaining to give Ferndale a 43-42 win.

Coach Chuck Hollosy and Grosse Pointe didn't know it but they had been tabbed as victims of destiny. Guard Jeff Hicks made two late free throws to give Ferndale another thrilling one-point win, 56-55, and pushed the Eagles into a date at Jenison Field House with Detroit's Northwestern High Colts.

Wednesday: The thrilling conclusion to Ferndale's 1963 Class A championship. On Friday the magic returns to Pinecrest Avenue in 1966.

(Photo courtesy 1963 Ferndale High Talon/Ferndale Historical Museum)

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