1963 Tiger basketball team had that little something extra that was special
By Brian McKim
On the heels of an 8-10 record for the 1961-62 basketball season, Coach Bob Henderson’s squad had five returning lettermen in the starting lineup, including Garry Schacht, who had lettered at Salem the previous season. Heading into the season-opener, Coach Henderson said, “we are as ready to play as we can be, we need to play someone else instead of just scrimmaging among ourselves.”
The Journal predicted the Bengals would have good balance, better-than-average height and boys capable of scoring.
Chick James, a starter on the 63 squad recently stopped by the Journal to discuss the magical season that ended with a state championship, the last time the Tigers have won a team title. In discussing the final game against Minden, James stated that the play in the final game was subpar compared to what they were capable of.
“We played nowhere near our best and still was good enough,” said James on the state championship win over Minden. “We just didn’t click like we did before. It was a great time, we had a really good season,” said James.
The previous season, FC was led by Ben Maze with 213 points, Ernie Strasil with 197, Chick James with 114 and Schacht scored 176 at Salem.
In the season opener, Falls City faced a Syracuse team that had gone 19-3 the year before and qualified for the Class B state tournament. The Tigers raced to a 36-19 lead at the half, before allowing Syracuse to fight back, but held on for the 62-52 win. Strasil led Falls City with 26 points while James added 16 on 7/11 shooting. With wins over Ralston, 62-51, Auburn, 61-48 and Nebraska City, 63-53, Falls City closed out the month of December with a perfect 4-0 mark.
In its first action of the new year, FC escaped Tecumseh with a three-point win, 38-35. The Journal’s Claire Hulbert called the Tiger effort “miserable,” but Falls City held on for the win in front of 700 spectators. Early in the fourth, Tecumseh tied the contest at 31, but free throws by James and a bucket by Steve Colerick gave FC some breathing room. Ben Maze led Falls City with ten points, while James added nine.
The next game out, FC easily handled the Pawnee City Indians, 58-39. The Tigers shot much better with four players reaching double figures. Strasil led the way with 15 points, Maze added 12 and Colerick contributed 11. FC put up 78 shots in the contest, sinking 23.
The Tigers moved to 7-0 with a four-point win over Crete in the next contest. With the scored knotted up at 49, Maze’s bucket with 1:50 to play put FC in front and with :24 seconds remaining, Strasil sealed the win with a pair of free throws. All five Bengal starters played the games’ entirety, resting only during timeouts, quarter breaks and halftime. Strasil led FC with 24 points and 17 rebounds while Maze added 17.
Three nights later, FC improved to 8-0 with a 62-49 win over Beatrice. The Tigers struggled in the first half but shot 14/30 in the third and fourth quarters to pull away. Trailing by eight, Beatrice began a full-court press in the fourth; however, FC ate it up, cruising to a 19-point lead, 58-39. Maze led Falls City with 21 points, nine in the fourth period.
After hanging on for another close win, 51-49, against Fairbury, FC was set to host Lincoln University High, 6-0, at Prichard Auditorium. Lincoln was winning contests by an average of 28 points heading into the Falls City match.
In front of 1,200 fans, Lincoln University handed FC its first loss of the season 67-58. The temps outside weren’t the only thing cold that January night in FC. The Tigers shot just 21/75 from the floor in the loss. Strasil led Falls City with 20 points, 12 in the second quarter and James added 13, eight in the crucial fourth period. FC never led in the contest and trailed by as many as 19, 46-27, with two minutes gone in the third period.
The Tigers rebounded with wins over Cathedral (58-37) and Pius X (52-47) before hosting Plattsmouth at the Auditorium. With the contest knotted at 60 with three seconds remaining, Falls City inbounded the ball to Strasil who heaved it to James for one last attempt. A collision occurred, the buzzer sounded and mayhem ensued. The Blue Devil defender collided with James, and no one noticed referee Hank Reichel had called a foul. James had to be brought back out from the locker room to attempt a pair of free throws in an attempt to send the game to overtime.
“Several players and I went into the locker room. I was there with three or four guys and complaining about a foul not being called. Someone ran in and said Chick you need to get dressed, you have to shoot two free throws; they called a foul,” said James.
James offered that he wasn’t a great foul shooter. Fresh from getting redressed and relacing his shoes, he sank both tries and sent the game to an extra period.
After making both attempts, James went back to the huddle and recalls telling the team, “Boys, let’s not lose this twice.”
With under ten seconds to play in overtime, Schacht won a jump ball and tipped it to Maze, who let a jumper fly at the buzzer that found the net, sending Falls City to the locker room with a 68-66 win.
Strasil finished with 25 points, James added 14, Colerick finished with 16 and Maze added 12.
After that win, FC continued to move forward, defeating Nebraska City and Tecumseh to improve to 14-1 heading into the final game of the regular season.
In the season-finale, Falls City faced the 6-9 Auburn Bulldogs with the Southeast Conference Title on the line. Unfortunately for FC, Auburn wasn’t fazed by the Tigers impressive record, downing Falls City 64-63.
In the first round of the Class B District Tournament, a free throw by Gary Schacht after the buzzer had sounded gave Falls City a 51-50 win over Ralston at Wesleyan in Lincoln.
In the second-round match, FC got a rematch against the Plattsmouth Blue Devils, with the winner moving on to the District Final. FC trailed by as many as 13 points in the second period against the Blue Devils but fought back to persevere 43-41 and earn a rematch against Lincoln University for a shot at the state tournament. In the win, Strasil secured a missed shot with just under a minute to play and sank a free throw with ten seconds left to solidify the win for FC. The Tigers led for just two minutes and 35 seconds in the contest and never by more than two.
In the District Finals, Falls City surprised everyone by defeating the favorited team from Lincoln, 68-62.
James remarked the win over Lincoln University gave the team the confidence they needed to realize they could win the state title.
After the loss to Lincoln in January, Coach Bob Henderson was quoted as saying, “If we can catch them again in the district, we’ll whip them.”
Ben Maze smoked the nets for 27 points as FC converted 20/25 free throw attempts in the win. Strasil added 24 points and nine boards.
Coach Henderson and Ray Graves took the 12 ballers to Lincoln, along with student manager Bill Beasing, for the entire tourney, not to return to FC until the weekend was over. The first-round contest pitted FC against 18-4 Madison.
The experts around the state picked Ogallala to win the title, the Bengals had something different in mind.
At the Pershing Auditorium, FC pulled out another close win, advancing with a 50-48 win. Falls City took the lead for good in the third period, but the Tiger faithful couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief until Strasil sank two from the charity stripe with 14 seconds remaining to give the Bengals a four-point edge.
“We didn’t play well and that’s about all there was to it,” said Coach Henderson.
Strasil and Maze each poured in 16 points and James added ten. Schacht finished with a game-best 18 rebounds to go along with six points.
In the semifinals, FC raced past Pierce 64-55 to earn the school’s third trip to the state championship contest. FC pulled away early to lead 33-17 at intermission and survived a second-half charge to get the win. The one-two punch of Maze and Strasil led FC with 25 and 23 points respectively.
The finals matchup pitted the 19-2 Tigers against the 17-3 Minden Whippets at the Coliseum. Falls City outdueled Minden 56-51 to earn the school’s third state title in the 53 years that the state eliminations had been held. Jug Brown’s team won in the three-class system in 1939 and Jack McIntire’s team won in the six-class setup in 1956.
FC led for most of the contest, but had to battle back late after trailing 47-49 with 4:41 to play. Buckets by Schacht and Steve Colerick put FC in front 51-49 with two and a half to play. A basket, followed by two free throws by Maze made it 55-49 with only 52 seconds remaining.
According to the Journal, Maze and Strasil’s long-range artillery firing brought ohs and ahs from the standing-room-only crowd. Strasil led FC with 21 points while Maze added 18.
Strasil and Maze were rewarded for their outstanding play by being named to the Class B All-State team after the tourney. The pair was joined by George Zarins of Lincoln University, Larry Hoefener of Pierce and Dick Beckler of Seward
“I would have to say that 75-80 percent of Ernie’s shots came from beyond the three-point line that there is today,” said James, “and Benny’s too. If we had the three-point shot back then, these two-point games would have been not even close. You saw they (Strasil and Maze) had 18-20 points apiece, those points were most all beyond the three-point line of today. So, you could add ten to 15 points on our score.”
The 1962-63 final ratings had Falls City on top of Class B, followed by Minden, Lincoln University, Ogallala and Crete.
Not everyone who wanted to got to cheer on Falls City as they won the programs’ third basketball title.
In an editorial written by Wilber H. Roesch, he strongly opposed the ticket buying process for the teams playing in the championship. Roesch stated tickets were sold for the game in Omaha, but not Falls City, and by the time the doors opened, the main floor area was already half full. He stated the pep band, cheerleaders, parents and followers were left out in the cold. Not until the game was ready to begin did the cheerleaders finally gain access to the venue. (Note, it was reported some cheerleaders bought tickets from scalpers to get in)
In a story that appeared on the front page of the Journal by Bill Schock, he said a pitfully small number of Falls City fans were able to watch their beloved Tigers in action. Most of the Tiger faithful watched the game on TV in rented motel rooms in Lincoln. It was estimated over 250 Tiger fans were turned away at the door.