ARGOS – For all but four of his 77 years, Gene Snyder has lived right here in this Marshall County community of 1,700 in Northern Indiana.
The black and gold of Argos High School practically courses through his veins. Snyder graduated from here in 1956. He’s been the boys basketball coach, athletic director, girls basketball coach and soccer coach among his many titles.
When Snyder travels the state, or goes on vacation to Tennessee, he’ll often wear an Argos Dragons sweatshirt or hat. Occasionally, a stranger will approach him with a knowing smile.
The conversation usually begins like this: “Argos – they had a good basketball team there, right?”
“They still know,” Snyder said. “I could be at a restaurant or a rest stop. People from Indiana still remember.”
There was a time, not all that long ago, when tiny Argos was poised to become the “next Milan” and follow in the footsteps of the most famous of the small school single-class champions of the 1954 boys basketball tournament.
Those stories have bubbled to the surface again this week as the Argos girls basketball team is knocking on the door of the state finals. With a win over Tri-Central on Saturday in the Class A semistate at Crown Point, the sixth-ranked Dragons would clinch a spot in the state finals for the first time in program history.
But it’s not the first time for Argos. In 1979, the boys team captured the state’s imagination with an incredible tournament run. Many of the same supporters were there 37 years later, last week in Caston when the girls won the regional.
Before the regional semifinal game against Bethany Christian on Saturday, Argos senior Valerie Rospopo opened the locker room door and looked to her left. The sight of the bleachers packed with fans wearing black and gold sent a chill down her spine.
“The saying, ‘Everybody and their brother was there’ applies,” Rospopo said. “It meant so much to us. I can’t even explain what it means to have that kind of support.”
Much has changed in Argos over four decades, like it has for many small Midwest communities. There were once three grocery stores, a clothing store, a dime store, a hardware store and other businesses lining Michigan Street that runs through downtown.
Many of those businesses are gone now. But Argos has survived. And despite its status as the 32nd-smallest basketball-playing school in the state, the support is arguably as strong as ever.
“If we didn’t have this, what would we have?” said 1949 Argos graduate Jack Thompson, eating dinner in the school cafeteria prior to Tuesday’s boys game. “We get behind our teams. If the girls play like they did Saturday, they’ll have a chance to win it all.”
The team that put Argos on the Indiana basketball map began its journey long before March of 1979. In fact, some credit may be given to the school adding soccer all the way back in 1963.
The basketball coach at the time, Ralph Powell, was interested in finding a sport to condition his team in the offseason. Argos, along with nearby Culver Military Academy, spearheaded what became an eight-school soccer conference starting in 1969.
Argos, under the umbrella of the Indiana Soccer Association, won the state tournament in 1973, ’76 and ’78. Snyder, who knew little about soccer, coached those teams.
“The boys taught me, more or less,” he said. “But by basketball season, they were in shape.”
The first week of soccer practice, Snyder didn’t even bring a ball. Mike Scheetz, a sophomore in 1978-79, remembers the 10-mile runs. One in the morning and one in the afternoon for a week.
“Soccer helped us with endurance,” Scheetz said. “Our success in basketball was really a continuation of what we did in soccer.”
The tournament run in 1979 didn’t come completely out of nowhere. Led by coach Phil Weybright, a former assistant under Snyder, the Dragons won the school’s first sectional title in 1978 at Plymouth and advanced to the regional final at Elkhart before losing to eventual state champion Elkhart Central.
Scheetz attended the 1978 state finals at Market Square Arena with his father, Dave, who starred at Plymouth and Butler in the 1950s.
“We had seats right behind the basket,” Scheetz said. “We were talking to the guy behind us and I told him we’d be there next year – never dreaming that we actually would be.”
The 1978-79 season was a dream. Weybright started two seniors, Mark Malone and Bill O’Dell, and juniors Doug Jennings, Don O’Dell and Dave Calhoun. Eleven of the 12 players on the varsity roster had played on the state championship soccer team.
Argos rolled to a 20-0 mark in the regular season with only LaVille (a 54-53 game in the championship of the Bi-County tournament) coming within 10 points. The Dragons beat Bremen, Plymouth and LaVille – for a third time – to win the sectional for a second consecutive year.
“That team could score 25 points in a quarter just like that,” Thompson said.
In the regional at Elkhart, Argos pounded Whitko 70-54 and knocked out the host and defending state champion Elkhart Central, 84-68, as it shot 70 percent from the field.
“Elkhart was extremely talented and big,” Scheetz said. “We just didn’t miss.”
The statewide media attention didn’t hit full-throttle, though, until the following week. Argos, with its 271-student enrollment, faced Fort Wayne Harding in the afternoon game of the semistate at Fort Wayne. Argos was familiar with Harding star Jim Master, a junior who had transferred from Plymouth and would go on to win IndyStar Mr. Basketball in 1980.
Thompson, then a railroad locomotive engineer for the Nickel Plate line from Fort Wayne to Chicago, went to the game with a co-worker whose kids attended Harding.
“I told him Harding didn’t have a chance,” Thompson said. “Our kids kicked Master’s butt when he was at Plymouth. When we beat them, he was so upset he didn’t even go to the night game. He was just sick about it.”
Argos beat Harding, 66-64, as Malone hit two free throws in the final seconds. That set up a semistate championship matchup that night against perennial power Marion. It was a thriller. Marion’s Larry Pettiford rallied the Giants in the fourth quarter, hitting a jumper with eight seconds left to give Marion an 83-82 lead.
On the final possession, Bill O’Dell missed a short jumper but followed his shot and scored on the putback as time expired. Indiana governor Otis R. Bowen, a native of nearby Argos’ neighbor Bremen, was among those in attendance that night.
A radio call of the game’s final seconds is posted on YouTube. In it, the duo of Rick Derf and Corky Lingle of WTCA in Plymouth share a few moments of unrestrained joy as O’Dell’s shot falls.
“It’s good! It’s good!” Derf shouts. “Argos wins the semistate!”
“If there was instant replay, it would have been close,” Scheetz said of O’Dell’s buzzer-beater. “It happened so fast. It was really a fairy-tale ending. We weren’t scared of any team.”
If O’Dell’s shot had come in the state finals, it might have prolonged the existence of the single-class tournament. There’s no way to know for sure. Even at that time, there was talk of going to a class system, which eventually came to fruition in 1997 with the four-class model.
Argos was one of only a handful of small schools to make a deep tournament run after Milan. There was Loogootee in 1975 (lost to Marion in the state championship). There was Lyons & Marco in 1985 (lost to Southridge in the Evansville Semistate final). There was White River Valley in 1993 (lost by two to state champion Jeffersonville in the Evansville Semistate final).
And there was Argos.
In the week leading up to the 1979 state finals, the Dragons were on spring break. Print and television reporters descended on Argos to chronicle the Cinderella story. Joining the Dragons in the final four were bluebloods Anderson, Muncie Central and Terre Haute South.
“There was a lot of talk about Milan that week,” said Snyder, who was the athletic director in 1979. “The papers were writing about us and the TV stations were talking about us. It was unbelievable for a small community like this.”
Argos couldn’t recapture the magic against Anderson. The Dragons played from behind the entire way and struggled to stop standout Pat Skaggs, who finished with 24 points in a 74-64 Anderson win.
“It was our worst shooting game,” Scheetz said. “We were out of school that week and got out of rhythm. You can’t take anything away from Anderson. They were bigger and we couldn’t score like we had all year. Pat Skaggs just shot right over us.”
Bobby Plump spoke at the postseason banquet, adding to the team’s Milan connection. Dave Scheetz had played with Plump during his time at Butler and asked him to make the trip.
The Argos story didn’t end there. Jennings, the father of 2014 IndyStar Miss Basketball Whitney Jennings of Logansport, returned for his senior year in 1979-80. Don O’Dell and Calhoun were also returning starters. If anything, the Dragons were probably more talented overall the following year.
Argos was 21-0 in the regular season with only LaVille (a 54-50 regular-season win) coming within 10 points.
“That team was probably better individually,” Snyder said. “We had more players. We did miss Bill O’Dell’s height, though.”
Argos advanced to the regional final at Elkhart for a third consecutive season, this time facing Warsaw. A controversial foul call hurt Argos and the Dragons missed some key free throws late in the game. Warsaw won, 52-51.
The following season, Argos snapped the state record of 61 consecutive regular-season victories established by Madison from 1959-62. The Dragons completed a third unbeaten season in 1981 before losing to Whitko in the regional semifinal at Elkhart.
Argos’ regular-season winning streak was finally snapped, at 76 games, the following season. The record, known around Argos as “The Spirit of 76” remains the all-time mark.
“You still hear stories about it,” said Kelsie Hollabaugh, an Argos native and assistant girls coach. “My dad (Boyd Hollabaugh) was on the team that lost when the streak was broken. People still say, ‘Aren’t you that little small school?’ Yep, that’s us.”
It doesn’t take long to find ties that bind this year’s girls team to Argos’ past basketball success. Emily Calhoun, a junior, is the niece of 1979 starting guard Dave Calhoun. Almost all of the players on the varsity roster had at least one parent graduate from Argos. Snyder and Hollabaugh, the two assistant coaches, span multiple generations.
A decade ago, the girls program won a sectional and a regional for the first time.
The star of that 2006 team was Amberly O’Dell. Her dad, Don, started on the ’79 team. Hollabaugh was a freshman in 2005-06. O’Dell and Hollabaugh graduated as the program’s top two career scorers, respectively.
That team, like the ’79 group, came one game away from playing for a state title.
This one, led by 5-9 junior Courtney Dunlap (17.4 ppg, 6.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists) and 5-7 senior Rospopo (11.3 ppg) could knock the door down. The Dragons pulled off a dramatic 17-point second-half comeback to be South Central 49-47 in the sectional championship before pounding Bethany Christian and North White by 20 points apiece in the regional.
“I haven’t thought about state yet,” Dunlap said. “I try not to. Now that it’s here, I don’t know if it’s hit us yet that we’re playing in the semistate.”
If not before, it’ll hit at 1 p.m. Saturday at Crown Point.
“To be one step away from the state finals is a dream come true for all us,” said coach Gary Teel, 66, in his fourth year at Argos. “It’s something they can tell their daughters some day and show them the picture when they come back to school. Very few kids get to that point. It makes you feel good. That euphoria lasts a long time.”
No need to remind those in Argos. The “Spirit of 76” means more here than just a number.
Call Indy Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.