Forty years later, memories of Central Catholic's tournament run still fresh

Forty years later, memories of Central Catholic's tournament run still fresh

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Forty years later, memories of Central Catholic's tournament run still fresh

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On a desk in the offices of a Phoenix information technology company sits a piece of Indiana basketball history.

The black-and-white photo has survived for 40 years. Time hasn’t diminished the elation and accomplishment captured on the faces of 12 young men.

Bob Riehle looks at the photo occasionally and remembers when he and his Central Catholic teammates achieved what some thought was impossible, even though the Knights believed it was inevitable.

“It’s something to look at as I go through and do other things and accomplish other things,” Riehle said. “It’s been there since ’73 to remind me of what we were able to accomplish as a team.”

In 1973, state boys basketball power Lafayette Jeff marched towards its 30th consecutive sectional championship. But Central Catholic, the little school from down the street, interrupted that run of dominance and made its own memorable charge to the semistate championship game at Mackey Arena.

For those who participated in or witnessed that historic state tournament, the memories have literally lasted a lifetime.

“It was a great example of what you can believe, you can achieve,” said Al Brown, Central Catholic’s coach in 1973 and now an assistant with the Duke women’s program. “I believed we could do it, and the players bought into it and believed they could do it. Over a period of three years, we got together and got it done.

“We were a group of people with a common purpose and a common belief that it could happen and were willing to work to make it happen, because those young men put in a lot of work over the summer and a lot of hours to make that a reality. What you set your mind to can happen, and against all odds.”

David vs. Goliath

In 1943, Monitor defeated Battle Ground 41-35 in the sectional championship hosted by Lafayette Jeff. The nation elected five presidents before anyone other than the host Bronchos again hoisted the sectional championship trophy.

Lafayette Jeff’s streak of 29 consecutive sectional championships stands as an IHSAA record today. In an era where class sports have created more parity in the early rounds of the state tournament, that record may never be broken.

In the first 58 years of state tournament play, Lafayette Jeff won 48 sectional titles, building an aura that towered over the area and was recognized statewide.

“Lafayette Jeff was kind of like a college,” said Bob Riehle, a senior on Central Catholic’s 1973 team. “It was the big deal. My grandparents used to take me to basketball games — they had season tickets. It was always sold out. I remember seeing Rick Mount play at Lafayette Jeff at the old, downtown place. It was big-time basketball.”

The 1973 Bronchos were led by Jim Fields, son of longtime Jeff baseball coach Paul “Spider” Fields, who later played at Ball State. Gene Bowen, a talented junior, had transferred in from Colorado, and Harold Vaughn and Dave Grenat were also top players.

Lafayette Jeff had its ups and downs that season, losing to county rival West Lafayette but also upending third-ranked New Castle, led by Kent Benson, in North Central Conference play.

With several thousand people packing Crawley Center for every home game, the sensation of being a Broncho has not faded over the decades.

“You’ve heard the statement, ‘It was like living the dream?’ That’s really the way it was,” said Fields, who now lives in Michigan and is the Chief Operating Officer of Pitt Ohio, a transportation supplies company.

“When I look back on it, it was almost a surreal experience, because everyone in the community wherever you went, people knew who you were. You don’t realize it at the time, but those are experiences you never forget, even 40 years later.”

Just a couple of miles away at Central Catholic, the experience was very different. While athletics were an important part of the school’s identity since its inception in 1958, the Knights had yet to break through with state tournament success.

The underdog mentality began to change before the 1970 season when the school hired Al Brown as its boys basketball coach. A Connersville native who played and coached at Purdue, Brown stressed hard work and discipline — and a sincere belief that Central Catholic was destined for success.

“He knew our potential and he just wanted us to reach it,” said Bill Lodde, a senior guard on CC’s 1973 team. “He put a little more fire in your brimstone to help you run a little faster, play a little tougher on defense.”

Brown provided the brains and motivation, but the Knights were also blessed with an abundance of talent. It started in the middle with Tom Cutter, a 6-foot-8 senior center who set a single-season team record of 618 points and later played at Western Michigan.

“He was 6-8 and he had great hands, and he was an excellent defender,” Brown said. “He was intimidating in the middle and also a scorer — he was very hard to stop. And he’s smart, very smart.”

Kevin Crowe ran the point, while Riehle, Terry Bahler and Mark Andrews rounded out the starting five. A confident Knights squad entered the state tournament with a 16-4 record.

“It definitely was a team we knew could do some special things,” said Dave Worland, a 1973 CC senior who later served as principal and boys basketball coach and is now principal at Cathedral. “It still came down to going up against Lafayette Jeff, and they were pretty good, too.”

The sectional

Will Tieman had only lived in Indiana for about three years when the 1973 state tournament opened. By covering the Lafayette Jeff Sectional at Crawley Center for WLFI, he gained an appreciation not just for the spectacle of that event but for what the state tournament meant throughout Indiana.

“Imagine games that were so big you didn’t need strobe lights and loud music,” said Tieman, now the radio play-by-play voice of Michigan State men’s basketball. “As soon as you walked in, you knew they were big.”

In those days, sectional games at Lafayette Jeff didn’t just sell out — they were standing room only. Fans were turned away when the arena reached capacity. Even players accustomed to big crowds could be unsettled by the noise and presence of Crawley Center.

By 1973, fans of the rest of the teams in the sectional field were desperate for someone to end Jeff’s reign. Before that year’s sectional, the late Lafayette Jeff coach Joe Heath acknowledged the difficulty of continuing the streak.

“It’s getting tougher each year to win the sectional, and everybody knows that the string will be stopped sometime,” Heath told the Journal & Courier. “The competition and coaching is much, much better than it ever has been, and with fewer teams in the area, the talent on each squad is vastly better than in the days of the old 15-team tourney.”

Central Catholic defeated Harrison in its opening-round sectional game, then slipped past West Lafayette 50-49 in overtime thanks to Andrews’ free throw. Lafayette Jeff, which had beaten Delphi, assumed its customary place in the championship game.

“Of course it’s packed and everybody is going crazy, and I’m thinking, ‘This is the place and the time I had always hoped for,’ ” said Cutter, who still lives in Lafayette. “If I ever get to play in a sectional championship game, will it be against Jeff? I’m getting a chance to do what I’d always hoped to do.”

After a back-and-forth start to the first half, Jeff pulled out to a seven-point lead and settled for a 29-26 advantage at halftime. That didn’t sit well with Brown, who let the Knights know what to expect if things didn’t turn around.

“I told the players they had to go back out there and finish the job, and if we lost they were walking back to Central Catholic,” Brown said. “I wasn’t a person who blew smoke, so to speak. They knew that’s what they’d have to do if that happened.”

Cutter said his father, Willard, unable to stand the tension of the game, left at halftime, as his family had done the night before against West Lafayette. He walked from Lafayette Jeff’s 18th Street campus to the family’s home on Fourth Street, arriving in time to hear the stirring conclusion.

The game was tied into the final minute when Cutter hit the front end of a 1-and-1 to put CC up, 57-56. The scored remained the same when Riehle stepped to the line in the final seconds with a chance to seal the victory, but he missed twice.

Jeff’s Vaughn grabbed the rebound, took a few dribbles and heaved a halfcourt shot that fell short. It was over, and the Knights had their one-point victory.

“I was standing there kind of stunned and being mobbed by the crowd and thinking, ‘Wow, there it is,’ ” Cutter said. “We did it. Is it real? Is it real?”

Cutter’s two older brothers, Bill and Gordy, were both most valuable players for Central Catholic who never experienced a sectional championship. The moment resonated the most with people in the school community who thought they might never see a Knights team cut down the nets at Crawley Center.

Worland remembers the postgame celebration spilling back to the gymnasium at Central Catholic.

“We spent an hour back at the school telling stories, about people we wished could have been there or why it was so neat that Henry Ebershoff was able to be there, because Henry was a great player, but he was never able to be on a team that won the sectional,” Worland said. “And he was our biggest fan.”

March to Mackey

After what some might consider the victory of a lifetime, Central Catholic had to regroup for the rest of the state tournament.

The players say one of Brown’s biggest achievements was shielding them from all of the midweek distractions during the tournament. In addition to the new level of the tournament, the Knights faced a Fountain Central team in the semifinals that they had never faced.

Andrews’ 22 points led CC past the Mustangs, 92-68, and into a championship matchup with Frontier. Now one of the Knights’ Class A sectional rivals in several sports, the Falcons could not stop Cutter or Bahler, who combined for 26 points and 30 rebounds in a 74-55 Knights victory.

At that time, the semistate was played at Mackey Arena. First up was a Lebanon team, led by brothers Brian and Steve Walker, that had beaten Central Catholic during the regular season. (Coincidentally, Brian Walker’s three children later attended CC and excelled in athletics.)

Yet in the rematch, Crowe scored 25, Cutter produced another double-double, and the Knights rolled to a 76-64 victory.

“We had played them at their place in the regular season, and they had beaten us pretty bad,” Cutter said. “It left a bad taste in our mouths, and we were able to correct one of our wrongs from the regular season. That one had special meaning for us.”

One win away from a berth in the state finals at Bloomington’s Assembly Hall, the magic ended for Central Catholic. South Bend Adams, led by Indiana All-Star Jimmy Webb, toppled the Knights, 87-80. Cutter finished with a flourish, scoring 25 and grabbing 25 rebounds.

Despite the pain of the loss, Worland said within a day the Knights were able to put their accomplishments in perspective.

“It was a great bunch of guys, guys that I’ll always remember,” said Lodde, whose sons Wiley and Alex eventually played sports at CC. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget. I talk to my two sons about it, how things that can happen in sports even if you’re the underdog.”

The lasting bond

Several members of that team remain in the Lafayette area. Some are scattered across the country. Two, Bahler and Willie Keller, are deceased.

But the 1973 Knights say that state tournament run brought an already tight-knit team even closer together.

“We kind of became like brothers, true brothers,” said Worland, whose best friends to this day are the seniors from that team. “We were more than friends because of that experience, because we went through the emotions, and most of it was pretty good.”

Brown served as an assistant coach under Pat Summitt on national championship women’s teams at Tennessee. He is the only person to coach with both men’s and women’s teams in the NCAA championship game.

Yet that magical March of 1973 still stands out in a career full of special memories.

“No question, that was the most rewarding and most fun and most exciting coaching experience I’ve ever had,” Brown said. “That was absolutely the best. Winning national championships and all that at the college level can’t even compare.”

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Forty years later, memories of Central Catholic's tournament run still fresh
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