By Galen SheltonI’m not sure where the term March Madness came from, but I would bet if you go back and consider some of the great “David vs. Goliath” matchups from the past, towns and villages like Hebron, Illinois; Cobden, Illinois; Cuba, Kentucky; Brewers, Kentucky and of course, Milan, Indiana, all exhibited symptoms of some sort of strange malady after basketball season ended.
For the young readers and folks like myself who don’t remember all the particulars I thought I would recall some of the more memorable state championships from a bygone era.
That era being when a school the size of Joppa could compete on the grand stage with a school larger than their entire village population.
First up is Hebron versus Quincy. Hebron is a small village with a current population of around a thousand people near the Illinois-Wisconsin state line about five or six miles south of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Their water tower is painted to look like a basketball and bears the inscription “Hebron — Home of 1952 State Champions”.
Hebron is the smallest school ever to win the Illinois State Championship with their 1952 enrollment at a whopping 98 students and a then village population of around 650.
Quincy, Illinois had a population of around 40,000 in the 1950s and a history of success on the hardwood.
Hebron’s basketball success probably got rolling in 1927 when the school hired Lowery “Red” Crane. Crane instilled a winning attitude in the community towards their school team. In 1935, Hebron won their first county title in 11 years. In 1940 Ed Willet took over the reins from Crane and guided an up and coming Green Giants team to the state tournament.
Despite losing in the first round, the flame was lit. In 1948, Russ Ahearn, a former semipro baseball player, took over and laid down the law. With basketball coming off the back burner after World War II, Ahearn figured his boys needed some guidelines and discipline and that they would be receptive to the ideas after the turmoil of the war.
Ahearn was a stickler for proper diet, plenty of sleep, vitamins and practice, practice, practice. He also brought on board a Chicago White Sox pitcher and former Hebron basketball player, Howie Judson. 1952 came and Hebron was on fire. They rolled through the regular season and their notoriety soared.
Game tickets were being scalped for multiples of face value and when they rolled into Champaign-Urbana they were on a mission.
In the Sweet Sixteen, they beat Champaign 55-46. In Elite Eight competition they beat Lawrenceville 65-55. In the semis they beat Rock Island 64-56 and then capped off their remarkable year with a scintillating 64-59 overtime win over Quincy.
In that final game, the ‘Giants starting five: Phil and Paul Judson [twins and younger brothers of assistant coach Howie Judson], Ken Spooner, Bill Schulz and the late Don Wilbrandt played the entire game never coming off the floor. That game was seen on TV and heard on the radio by millions of fans. The Green Giants went 35-1 in that magical year. Not bad for a bunch of farm boys!