In the late winter of 1967, an iconic Hoosier dream of basketball success was unfolding in the small town of Oakland City, Indiana. Next to winning a state championship, achieving an undefeated regular season was the most difficult task in high school basketball. In the 1960s, for example, the number of undefeated teams in the regular seasons averaged less than three, and in 1967, the Oakland City Acorns were the only undefeated team left standing when regional play began.
Like all good dramas, the story of the Acorns’ drive to an unbeaten season featured the converging of several key elements, and local and state sportswriters of the time did a great job of telling this story. The first sign that something amazing was brewing emerged during the 1963 – 64 basketball campaign. A freshman named Larry Harris, already playing on the varsity team, began to receive notice from sportswriters and fans. He was 6’3” and referred to by one local newspaper as one of the “brightest prospects in Oakland City history.” Roger Kaiser, a professional basketball player and former college All-American at Georgia Tech had tabbed Harris as “the best freshman player he’s seen in some time.”
But trouble was also brewing. Harris’ talents coming to light may have made the Oakland City school board think about bringing in a new coach. The Acorns had not won a sectional title in basketball since 1940 nor a Pocket Athletic Conference title since the conference’s inception in 1937. In the last few years the Acorns had several strong teams but could not get over the hump, especially at the Princeton sectional. The varsity coach at that time, Bob Reinhart, had a break-even record of 32-32 over his first three years and was 9-11 for the 1963-64 season. With their eyes on the coming years, the school board decided not to renew his contract for the 1964-65 season. The well-liked Reinhart was supported by many locals, but the board stood firm.
The next converging element arrived when the school board offered a somewhat untested coach named Charlie Brauser the reins of the varsity team. Brauser accepted the offer and moved from nearby Mackey High School to Oakland City to become head basketball coach. The twenty-four-year-old Brauser had been a standout athlete at Mt. Vernon High School and Mr. Basketball at Oakland City College. He would open his first season at Oakland City against tiny Mackey, where he had coached the previous year. With the Mackey Aces, Brauser compiled a 14-6 season, making it to the final game of the sectional, where the Aces lost to the Princeton Tigers by only a few points. They also beat Oakland City at Charlie’s debut there.
Brauser was taking a chance with the new Oakland City job. He would be under a microscope, closely watched by both school board members and fans. There were other problems. When it came to a gym, Oakland City High School had a big disadvantage. The school’s old gym, built in 1938 during the depression, was truly a cracker box, with room for only one row of folding chairs around the sides and a very short distance from the court to a brick wall. In a heated game, fans were likely to end up with one of the players in their laps.
Fortunately, Oakland City College let the high school use their facility for most home games and for practices. Memorial Gymnasium, named in honor of WWI veterans, was an ancient brick structure built in 1922, and using this facility meant the new high school coach had to schedule practices and home games around those of the college team.
Another problem was the OCC gym itself. In its day, it was one of the larger gyms in the area and was used for high school sectional play, but by the 1960s, it was outdated. With only a few rows of permanent wooden bleacher seating on two sides and one end, the gym had supporting columns that stood at each corner of the bleachers, occasionally blocking part of the action for fans sitting behind them. Pairs of large windows made of opaque glass ran down the lengths of the building, with radiators in between. A stage at one end provided room for folding chairs. At best, the gym evoked a nostalgic aura of one hand push shots and constant jump balls.
Memorial Gym had a capacity of only 600, so the Acorns occasionally had to find an available larger gym to use when they were going to play a bigger school with many fans. To make the situation even more challenging, the college gym had a smaller than regulation-sized floor, so Acorns players had to adjust to longer and wider floors when playing in other gyms.
Brauser did not let these problems stop him. In his first year at Oakland City, the team compiled a 15 – 8 record and won a holiday tourney. Charlie had a deep, booming voice and a southern Indiana drawl, and his intensity and fiery instructions from the bench, his patrolling the sideline, giving directions to his players, greatly pleased the fans. Acorn fans were excited too, on the verge of 1965 sectional play, when Oakland City was labeled a strong “dark horse” contender by one sportswriter. The Acorns played accordingly, advancing to the semifinal round, and beating North Posey 60 – 57. This game thrilled the entire crowd that afternoon, as it was the closest game of the tourney, and sophomore Larry Harris showed his potential for greatness, scoring a whopping 30 points for the game. In the final game of the sectional, however, old nemesis Princeton dashed the Acorns’ hopes, winning 91 – 73.
Brauser’s first year at Oakland City with a record of 15 – 8, much stronger than the Acorns’ previous season record of 9 – 12, seemed to satisfy the fans. With Harris just a sophomore, the school and fans looked with tenuous hope to the next year. The team was losing some strong seniors; however, and many pondered who would step into their shoes.
That question was answered with two more converging elements at the beginning of the 1965-66 school year—a couple of transfers and the solid play of two rising sophomores. Junior Rick Smith transferred from Mackey, where in his freshman year he had been coached by Charlie Brauser, and junior Dayne Smith transferred from nearby Spurgeon. Sophomores Mark Duncan and Steve Nelson soon proved themselves strong players and were both regular starters by the middle of the season. The Acorns certainly increased their size with the addition of the Smith boys (no relation). Rick stood at 6’5” and Dayne at 6’3 ½”. Nelson and Duncan were close behind, both at 6’2”. Harris, who was still growing, measured in at 6’4 ½” his junior year.
The Acorns’ 1965 – 66 season began with a bang and then a near disaster. Oakland City quickly won their first three games, and with these victories under their belt, traveled across Gibson County to play arch rival Princeton. Many Oakland City fans were looking forward to beating the Tigers and avenging the last year’s regular season loss and the sectional title defeat. And for once, Oakland City was considered the favorite in the contest.
The game was a barnburner, with the Acorns ahead most of the first three quarters. Many Oakland City fans leapt to their feet with every Acorn basket. Temperatures only went higher in the packed gym when Princeton fought its way back, pulling within five points at the end of the third quarter. In the last quarter, Princeton’s full court press led to some Oakland City errors, and at the 3:19 mark, Princeton took the lead with a score of 61 – 60. Now both groups of fans were threatening to blow the roof off the gym with their thunderous shouting. Princeton kept the lead until the end of the game, which tallied at 72 – 67, despite Larry Harris’ 30 points. That night, however, would bring Oakland City something much worse than a stinging defeat.
Throughout the contest, a few Acorns fans grew agitated, and, unfortunately, at least one adult fan made threats to the officials and was removed from the gym by police. Immediately following the game, another Oakland City adult fan hit a Princeton fan, while others made threatening remarks to Princeton school authorities. Princeton went on to file a complaint with the Indiana High School Athletic Association about these acts.
All of this horrified the vast majority of the Oakland City fans, players, and coaches. After all, the players and coaches had shown good sportsmanship and had nothing to do with the bad actions of a few fans. As Coach Brauser said later, these team members were quiet young men—honor students. Moreover, Delbert Disler, who had been principal of Oakland City High School for all of three months may have, in fact, been surprised that he would be held responsible for these adult fans who stepped over the line.
The IHSAA did hold school principals responsible for student and fan conduct at games and had given warnings, probation, and suspensions to other schools in the past for these actions. Without a doubt, the punishment foremost in the minds of high school sports fans, including Oakland City folks, was the Muncie Central suspension of 1964. Muncie had been made an example of and was given a year’s complete suspension from all sports, the first for any school in almost 13 years. Oakland City fans were terrified this might happen to their team, destroying any chance for the Acorns to play the coming year and achieve their great potential.
Judgment day arrived on January 19, 1966. Fortunately, the IHSAA only placed the Acorns on probation for unsportsmanlike conduct. The probation would last until November 26 of the next school year. Oakland City High School had dodged a bullet but would have to take solid steps to corral those few fans who brought down this punishment on the team.
With the IHSAA’s sentencing settled, the Acorns charged ahead, winning seven of their next eight games with a comfortable average of 20 points per game, and the only loss, to Mt. Vernon, by two points. The 96 – 78 win over North Posey gave Oakland City its first Pocket Athletic Conference win ever, with an unbeaten record of 8 – 0. Three of the Acorn starters, all juniors, would be given a place on the five-member All-PAC team: Larry Harris at center, Dayne Smith at forward, and Rick Smith at guard. Harris was also a first team selection on the prestigious Evansville Sunday Courier and Press All-Area basketball team. One observer noted that the powerfully built Harris often simply “manhandled” other players, bulling his way under the basket for rebounds and shots. Rick Smith was selected on the second team.
Acorn hopes were sky-high going into the Princeton sectional, despite new sectional foe Mt. Vernon being designated as the likely winner by one local sportswriter. On the other hand, Evansville sportswriter Don Bernhardt, an expert forecaster, picked the Acorns to win the sectional. Oakland City fans were sure this would be the Acorns’ year. In the second Saturday game, Oakland City finally beat Princeton, leading at all four quarters. Fans, players, and Coach Brauser were ecstatic, feeling on the verge of winning their first sectional since 1940.
In the final game, a few hours later, North Posey employed an effective defense on a shell-shocked Oakland City team, holding Harris to ten points. Further frustrating the Acorns’ efforts, Harris and Dayne Smith both fouled out, enabling the Vikings to score more easily the final quarter. In the end, the Acorns lost 50 – 43. Only later would the disappointment of not winning the sectional fade, allowing the players, coaches, and fans to relish their strong season record of 19 – 4 and their first P.A.C. conference title. Also, fans knew everyone would be returning for the 1966 – 1967 season, and, in the meantime, the Oakland City community dreamed of what the Acorns might accomplish. Sportswriters all over the state would come to feel the same way.
If Oakland City’s height in the 1965 – 66 season was mentioned often by sportswriters, in the 1966 – 67 season, it was usually the lead. Some of the Acorn team members had continued to grow, and now Larry Harris joined Rick Smith at 6 ‘5”. Dayne Smith and Mark Duncan measured 6’4.” The fifth starter, Steve Nelson, was a 6’2” guard, and substitute Terry Hoskins was 6’3″. “Towering Oaks’ and “Jolly Green Giants” (the school’s colors were green and white) became common monikers for the Acorn team. One impressive sub who did not have height going for him, sophomore Rick Dixon, could be a scoring dynamo and was expected to see a lot of play.
Newspapers quickly picked up on the Acorns. Larry Stephenson, sports columnist for the nearby Evansville Courier, surprisingly gave Oakland City the number one slot in his regional “top 10 teams” for the start of basketball ’66,” followed by Evansville North in the number two position. The North Huskies were formidable, with 6’5” Bob Ford, one of Evansville’s top scorers. North also played a very tough schedule.
Being touted as the chief regional contender brought forth a new reality for the Acorns in the 1966-67 season: tremendous pressure. With their previous year’s successes and the team’s height and superb skills, expectations went through the roof. Already fired up, Oakland City fans eagerly awaited the beginning of the new season, excitedly talking about the possibility of an undefeated season, another PAC championship, and a sectional title.
The Acorns did not disappoint in their first outing, at home, destroying Mackey 82 – 39. Brauser “shuffled his line up throughout the Acorns’ opening engagement, while holding the powerhouse team under wraps for better than half the game.” When Larry Harris, Dayne Smith, and Rick Smith were all in the game, they “controlled both boards and put on a nifty shooting exhibition from various ranges.” Steve Nelson contributed 10 points, and Mark Duncan 9. In his first debut as a starter, sophomore Rick Dixon turned in an excellent defensive game, as well as adding 4 field goals and 1 of 2 free throw attempts.
Perhaps the easy victory over Mackey brought out some hubris in the Acorns. In their second outing, the possibility of an undefeated season almost came to a halt. The game, one between Oakland City and Fort Branch, was moved to the much larger Princeton gym to accommodate an overflowing crowd. The tall Acorns held off a surprisingly tough charge from the Ft. Branch Twigs and had to hold the ball for the last minute and a half to win 52 – 48. This close call saw the beginning of a constant refrain from the coach: wins were not all going to come easily, and the players would need to bring their best game to every contest.
The Acorns next traveled to Boonville and played the game fans and sportswriters were expecting, beating a strong Pioneer club 85 – 63. Rick Smith had an especially solid game, both offensively and defensively, scoring 18 points, despite having to sit out most of the last quarter. Boonville played a zone defense to try to shut down Larry Harris, who still managed to score 22 points, 10 of them free throws, as he went inside to score and draw fouls. One sportswriter also noted that “Dayne Smith unleashed some twisting, driving moves against the Pioneers and hit from all angles, scoring 15 points.” The Acorns were now 3 – 0, and fans were loving it.
At this point, Oakland City began receiving notice from sportswriters outside the “pocket” of Southern Indiana. Max Stultz, with The Indianapolis Star, noted, for example, “…the Acorns already are about the size of oak trees, and many people feel they’ll be almost as tough to chop down in the months to come—right through the Ides of March.” At the end of the column, Stultz revealed that Evansville North coach Jim Rausch and Dale coach Jim Cawood considered Oakland City to be “the team to beat in the southwest.”
Long time archenemy Princeton was next on the Acorn schedule. The upcoming game was a reminder to the Oakland City team and fans of the probation that still threatened their season. There was no denying, however, how badly the Acorns and the Oakland City community wanted a win here. One reporter noted that despite the fact that Oakland City had beaten Princeton in their sectional game last February, it had been a long, long time since the Acorns had beaten the Tigers “in regular season play …way back in 1948, when the Acorns slapped a 47 to 30 shiner on the Tigers.” Besides wanting to beat Princeton because they were Princeton, all of Oakland City was aware of the Acorns’ unspoiled record thus far, and adding another win would keep the streak going. Thankfully, for the team and the town, the few errant fans from last season stayed in line, and the Acorns defeated the Tigers 69 – 43, a solid win. The Acorns’ win streak was intact at 4 – 0.
Next on the schedule were the always tough Holland Dutchmen. Charlie McPherson, of the Jasper Herald, reported that Holland coach Woody Neel was working overtime to try and figure out how to combat the Acorns’ size and that local fans “will be watching to see whether all that has been written about the Acorns is really true.” Meanwhile, the day before the Holland game, Delbert Disler nervously phoned the Indiana IHSAA Board of Control office and received official confirmation that their period of probation was finally over. It was later said that a heavy sigh of relief was heard coming from the principal’s office.
After the Holland game, sports columnist Mel Bolling wrote, “Mighty Oaks from little Acorns grow . . . . You better believe it. Coach Charlie Brauser’s Oakland City Acorns drubbed the Holland Dutchmen 69 to 57.” Bolling talked about the strong defense and the height of the Acorns, and likened the latter to “shooting through a clump of trees.” The Acorns gained their fifth straight victory of the season in front of a standing room only crowd at the OCC gym.
The hits just kept on coming. The Acorns made it 7 – 0 by defeating a solid Dale Golden Aces team 45 – 35 and the Cannelton Bulldogs 79 – 63. The Acorns next traveled to one of the largest gyms in the state at Huntingburg to play the Happy Hunters who were, so far in the season, winless. Charlie McPherson announced that Huntingburg would be facing, “the best team in Southern Indiana outside the Evansville schools.” After the game, many may have wondered if McPherson knew what he was talking about.
The Huntingburg gym, with a 6,000-person capacity, was quite a contrast to the Acorns’ tiny OCC gym, with a capacity of 600 and its smaller than regulation floor. Maybe the Acorns were trying to adjust to the floor size, because even though they ended up winning their 8th straight game, they “never could quite shake the Hunters until the last quarter.” In fact, the Acorns played their worst game of that season. Sportswriter Jim Flack noted that “Seldom have two teams with such contrasting records played such a close game.” Bob Cummings of the Cannelton News wrote that the Acorns “left us unimpressed as Indiana’s number one basketball team as one Southern Indiana sportswriter has dubbed them.”
Oakland City next conquered Owensville in more the manner sportswriters and fans expected, for its ninth straight win, “blasting the game open in the second period” and finishing the game on the winning end of 82 – 43. As the regular season high school basketball competition entered its half-way point, and teams began looking to holiday tourneys, only 17 teams in the state were still undefeated, and tiny Oakland City was in some rare air as one of them.
Many basketball experts looked to the Washington Holiday Tourney to help them judge whether the Acorns were for real. The Holiday Tourney would be held in Washington’s new gym, seating 7,000, and, in addition to Washington and Oakland City, would include North Knox, and Lafayette Catholic. The Acorns would be playing the Lafayette Catholic Knights in the first round, a team that played a rigorous regular season schedule.
In this first game of the tourney, Oakland City jumped into a 14 – 4 lead, but the Knights battled back to a closer 20 – 15 deficit at the end of the first quarter. The Acorns poured it on again, however, and outscored Lafayette Catholic in the second quarter 23 – 14. Their 43 – 29 lead at half time was never in jeopardy the rest of the game, and they won 93 – 74, their tenth victory. Harris scored 21 points, and a sportswriter noted that junior Mark Duncan played especially well in the game, scoring 18. Sophomore guard and sixth man Rick Dixon hit his season high thus far with 19 points.
Fans were fortunate that the Hatchets’ new gym was of cavernous size, as the championship game of the holiday tourney between Washington and Oakland City drew a large crowd. In those days, people could smoke in such a facility, and as the evening wore on, a bluish-gray cloud of smoke lingered in the rafters.
One sports writer summed up the title game of the tournament by saying, “The Acorns ran up a big lead and held off a determined Washington charge to win….The Acorns led 68-53 with 3:30 left, and it appeared the game was all but over. However, Washington refused to play dead [they had not yet had a loss in their new gym] and ran off 15 straight points to make it 68-58 with 1:15 left….Oakland City, with Larry Harris leading the way, managed to hold off the spirited Hatchets in the final minutes for a win.” Against a good team that played larger schools, the Acorns gained their 11th straight victory for the year. The number of Indiana high school basketball teams remaining undefeated after the holiday tourneys was sliced from 17 to 10, and Oakland City was one of them. Unbeaten Evansville North had on its own taken out two undefeated teams, Bosse and Harrison, in the Evansville Holiday Tournament.
After the Acorns’ important holiday tournament win, Tom Tuley, sportswriter for the Evansville Press, paid a visit to Oakland City to pose this question to the Acorn coach: “Is this just another good small school team, or a good team, period?” Coach Brauser readily admitted that at 250 students it was a small school but added, “I think we can compete with the big city teams.” Having watched the afternoon round of the Evansville Holiday tourney, he felt that “if we play our game, we’re in the same league as those teams.” Brauser had facts to back this up, noted Tuley. “His Acorns are shooting 46 per cent for the season as a team, play an aggressive man-to-man defense, and have four players averaging in double figures.” Tuley added,
Oakland City is definitely the biggest team in southern Indiana and possibly in the whole state…. These same five were starters the previous year, but one thing Brauser felt they were lacking last year was a strong sixth man. Brauser designated 5’7” sophomore Rick Dixon as their sixth man, noting he was ‘a ball of fire on the floor and gives us extra speed.’ In the recent Holiday Tourney, he scored 19 and 14 points respectively in the two games.
Brauser also pointed out how important the skills and strengths of all their subs were to the team’s overall playing ability. In practice, he noted how the starters would play the subs, who played hard and were skilled enough to give the starting five a ton of competition. This only made the starters better.
The Acorns took their performance up another notch, traveling to Paradise and making it 12 straight in a Friday night game, with an 84-67 win over the Castle Knights. The Princeton Daily Clarion wrote that “Larry Harris poured through 27 points, most of them from short range around the basket; Dayne and Rick Smith provided the long-range bombing at 17 points each.”
Oakland City continued to gain more notice as its winning record grew, but with each newspaper report came more pressure. Tom Tuley, always curious, talked again with Coach Brauser about how a potential undefeated season might affect a team. Brauser told the reporter, “I’ve heard some of our people talking about hoping we get beat before tournaments start, so the pressure will ease off a little.” Unknown to the general public, Brauser had his own unique ways of training that may have helped with the pressure.
One technique he used at this later point in the season was to have his team sometimes play volleyball at practice instead of basketball. The change took their minds off the stress of the season, made the players loosen up and laugh, and helped keep them in shape while improving their timing. The coach further noticed that this approach made his players especially eager to get back to basketball. Another unorthodox tactic Brauser sometimes used was to have the team practice while wearing brown jersey gloves. He thought players concentrated more on their grip and catching passes while wearing the gloves, improving their play when the gloves were off.
On the eve of a Tuesday night basketball game with Petersburg, the Acorns were touted as “one of the three winningest teams in the state” by newspapers throughout Indiana. Oakland City fans, and most sportswriters, saw little to nothing left in the way of an undefeated season. For that very reason, it had to be a jolt to Oakland City when their team battled down to the wire to win their 13th victory against the Petersburg Indians. The Princeton Clarion said that although the “Acorns opened up like they were going to blow the Indians out of their own gym,” that did not occur. The Petersburg crowd went wild when their team tied the game going into the last quarter. With 1:35 left on the clock, the Acorns still hadn’t been able to put the persistent Indians down, and the score was again tied at 61 – 61 with 1:35 left in the contest. Finally, Harris hit two short jumpers, giving the Acorns their 13th win. This victory must have left the team, coaches, and fans reeling to see how close the Acorns came to blowing an undefeated season. Many wondered what had happened. Sports savvy fans, however, might have noticed in the box scores that scoring dynamo Rick Dixon had one foul and no points in the Petersburg tilt, and although Brauser had noted that the team had finally found its sixth man in Dixon, by the next game Dixon would not show up at all.
Despite the closeness of the Petersburg win, Evansville sports columnist Larry Stephenson still ranked Oakland City as number one in his top ten rankings in the region. When it came to the state-wide rankings, Oakland City was sometimes mentioned for its undefeated status, but was never ranked among the top ten teams, although they did climb to the twelfth spot. Coaches were ranked too, and Coach Brauser was listed as the second of the top 12 coaches in southern Indiana for winning records—Brauser’s 63-18 count behind only Jack Butcher, the legend from Loogootee.
The Acorns’ next contest was a Friday night home game with another PAC opponent, South Spencer. A chill went through the Oakland City crowd when word spread that Rick Dixon had been diagnosed with mononucleosis, an illness that has a long recovery time. Despite the bad news, Oakland City opened the game with South Spencer in a powerful rush, racking up a 24 – 6 lead at half time, this despite a stall on the Rebels’ part, and increased their edge to 58 – 19 with six minutes to play. At this point, Brauser had benched his usual starters and put in the second string. The Acorns left with a much more secure 14th win at 68 – 36 and a perfect 6 – 0 tally for the PAC.
The Saturday home game against Ireland again saw more consistent Acorn play. They led the Spuds from beginning to end, with a finish at 69 – 43, keeping them undefeated at 15 – 0.
One Evansville paper now ranked the Acorns 4th out of southwest Indiana’s top 10 teams (preceded by Evansville North, Harrison, and Bosse). The Acorn’s next opponent, the Mt. Vernon Wildcats, were ranked 10th in the same poll, and it was important to note that the only teams that had defeated the Wildcats were the above mentioned Evansville teams. Despite this fact, the Oakland City club secured a satisfying 64 – 47 point victory. Larry Harris had the game high for any Acorn of the season at 32 points, with Dayne Smith following at 20.
With the team now at 16 – 0, Coach Brauser, perhaps a little superstitious, discouraged any talk of an undefeated season. One of the players must not have listened. The Acorns traveled to Knox County and faced the solid Wheatland Jeeps in their 17th contest. Wheatland opened a 21 – 13 lead in the first quarter and held on to its advantage to the second half mark. In the third quarter, the Acorns took charge, taking a lead of 51 – 43 into the final quarter. However, the Jeeps came roaring back and tied the score with two minutes to go. Getting the ball back on an Acorn error, they elected to hold the ball for a last shot.
Oakland City fans held their breath as the team’s undefeated status hung in the balance. When Wheatland failed to connect on their shot, the Acorns grabbed the rebound, giving Dayne Smith a chance to hit a jumper from the free throw line with 13 seconds left, sealing the Jeeps’ fate. Rick Smith led the Acorns in scoring with 23 points; Dayne Smith hit for 20, and Harris had his lowest tally of the year at 11. Rick Dixon’s sparkplug role was much missed; nevertheless, the Acorns had escaped and were now 17 – 0.
The following night the Tecumseh Braves traveled to Oakland City. At this point the Acorns were one of only a handful of undefeated teams in the state, including number one ranked Michigan City. In addition, the Acorns had a perfect record in the P.A.C. A victory over Tecumseh and later North Posey would clinch the conference title for them. With a balanced scoring attack, Oakland City racked up a 54 – 31 third quarter lead against the Tecumseh Braves, and all the reserves got a chance to play in the final minutes. The Acorns won it 66 – 50. The victory, however, came at a price, Dayne Smith leaving the game with a wrist injury.
Oakland City next played the 13 – 4 Winslow Eskimos. Winslow teams were always tough, and to accommodate the anticipated large crowd, the game was moved to the spacious Huntingburg gym. Sportswriter Mike Boaz predicted the game would be one of Oakland City’s “stiffest tests of the year.” Besides facing a scrappy, confident team, the Acorns had Dayne Smith still limited by his wrist injury from the Tecumseh game, and sixth man Rick Dixon was missing his sixth straight game.
The game was maddening for Acorn fans, the contest tipping back and forth. Oakland City kept building up a lead, with the Eskimos always catching up, and in the fourth quarter, with only 3:36 remaining, Oakland City was only one point ahead. At this juncture, a Winslow player, dribbling the ball in the front court, set up his team for the last shot. For some strange reason, the Winslow player started daring Mark Duncan to try and steal the ball from him, taunting Duncan, hoping perhaps to draw a foul. Instead, Duncan did steal the ball and took off to try and score at the other end of the gym. He missed the layup but was fouled on his attempt. A sportswriter noted this as a turning point. When the Eskimo player was called for fouling Mark Duncan, the Winslow player protested, and a technical foul was assessed on him. Winslow fans loudly contested this call, and the noise and pressure may have caused Duncan to miss the first of his one and one free throw attempts. Then Harris missed the technical shot. However, the Acorns scored on the ensuing inbound pass. With only 11 seconds to go, Harris hit two free throw shots to make it 52 – 47, and Mark Duncan hit a thrilling 35 foot shot with only one second to go, giving Oakland City the win at 54 – 47. The Acorns were now 19 – 0.
In their final regular season game, Oakland City traveled to play the North Posey Vikings, the team that spoiled their last year’s sectional bid. Despite being in the lead only 12 -10 after the first quarter, the Acorns continued to spread their lead and finished 58 – 43 against the Vikings, winning their 20th game of the season and taking the P.A.C. conference title with an unbeaten 8 – 0 record. A sportswriter noted, “Larry Harris led both teams in scoring with 23 points while shooting from anywhere on the court that he could see the goal.” The sportswriter added that “Mark Duncan, displaying some fine driving ability,” finished with 14 points.
Acorn fans were ecstatic, dancing and celebrating in the stands, the dream of an undefeated season having come true and bringing with it another P.A.C. title. Pen and notebook in hand, sportswriter Don Bernhardt trekked to the Oakland City dressing room. He expected to see some rowdy horsing around but was surprised. The Acorn players looked pleased but were rather quiet. Brauser explained, “That’s the way they are. They don’t get worked up much. While this (unbeaten season) was one of our goals, it was really a sub-goal.” The main goal, advancing deep into the state tournament, would start with the sectional.
Post-season tourney predictions had already begun raining down throughout the state. Kurt Freudenthal, writing for UPI, cast his focus on the Evansville semi-state as the most likely place for a Cinderella team to emerge in the state finals. Terre Haute and Bloomington were schools that could cause an upset, but he also talked about “a pair of ‘little ones’—unbeaten Oakland City and Cloverdale.” The Clovers were “the darlings in last year’s state tourney, rolling all the way into the four-team finals before being stopped by the eventual runner up Indianapolis Tech.” Freudenthal described Oakland City as “the biggest team in southern Indiana” and “favored in the Princeton Sectional.” That sportswriter, and all others who pondered the Princeton sectional, expected Oakland City to win, “a feat,” one writer noted, “they had not been able to achieve since 1940.”
The Oakland City fans certainly wanted their team to go deep into the tournament. Their Acorns had already defeated every team that would be at Princeton, though the sectional often brought different outcomes than regular season play. As fate would have it, the Acorns drew the second favored team, Mt. Vernon, for their first game. Brauser, however, saw getting this team in the opening game as a good draw, preferring to “get started right off rather than waiting around.” Mt. Vernon’s coach, Joe “Hobby” Gibbs was not disappointed in the draw either, saying, “I think it’ll be a more interesting game this time around,” referring to the regular season game between the two, a 64 – 47 contest back in January. Coach Gibbs was not wrong.
Getting ready for the first game of the sectional, Oakland City fans were fired up about their team. Sportswriters were too. One noted that the Acorns’ starters were as tall and brawny as some college teams. They were also finally at full strength with Dayne Smith’s wrist healed and Rick Dixon ready to play after having to sit out nine games due to illness. No one knew, however, if Dixon would be anywhere near full speed. No one in the gym need remind the team how the title had been within reach but not grasped two years ago and how it was snatched away in the previous year. This team was the best Acorn squad ever, fans and reporters believed, and this was their year—they had to win.
The Acorns exploded into a 15 – 5 first quarter lead against Mt. Vernon, expanding the lead to 27 – 14 at the end of the half. At half time, in the dressing room, the Oakland players toweled off sweat and swigged down cupsful of water brought to them by the team managers. Charlie Brauser, usually an intense coach, had little to say to his charges. The Acorns were at the top of their game, playing like a well-oiled machine.
The third quarter found both teams playing equally, with Oakland City leading by 16 going into the final period. Then, suddenly, everything fell apart. Larry Harris went out on fouls and Mt. Vernon hit for “25 big points, while the Acorns, who were without their leading scorer from the 6:47 mark on, scored only 9 points.” The Smith boys eventually fouled out as well, and the Acorns somehow “blew a 16-point lead in the final four minutes.”
Like the thud of a coffin closing, Wildcat Ernie Dartt hit a 15-footer with two seconds left in the final quarter to send the game into overtime.
Acorn fans were in disbelief, many clutching their hands and looking up at the scoreboard. One factor that may have led to this unexpected turn of events was that sectional games were typically called more closely by referees, and the Acorns, always physical players, ran into foul trouble. In addition, as one sportswriter later wrote, the Mt. Vernon press had “shuttered the Acorns.” The most disturbing development now, however, was that the Acorns had to go into the extra period not only without Harris, who had already made 22 points before fouling out, but without both the Smith boys.
The pressure on the five Acorns taking the floor was enormous. Throughout the season, the team relied on their starting five, rarely looking more than one place down on the bench. Now, Mark Duncan and Steve Nelson; sophomore Rick Dixon, who had missed the last half of the season due to mono; and two subs who had not gotten much game time, Del Goerlitz and Ed Whitaker, had to somehow work a miracle. Worried Oakland City fans feared that Mt. Vernon’s newly effective press would confuse the Acorns in the overtime, as it did in the fourth quarter. Every mind was thinking the same thing—how could Oakland City win without their big three? Unbeknownst to the fans, they were about to be swept off their feet.
The overtime seemed to move in seconds rather than minutes. Rick Dixon was like a house on fire, seemingly everywhere. He hit a beautiful 18-foot jump shot, putting the Acorns up by two. Mt. Vernon came down the floor behind by a basket. They missed the shot. Duncan got the rebound and passed to Dixon, who dribbled down the floor and was quickly fouled. Dixon, cool and calm, hit both free throws, to give Oakland City the 59 – 55 win. A gleeful Oakland City fan was heard after the game saying that maybe all the players should have had mono.
Relief was the primary presence in the Acorn dressing room, Coach Brauser telling his players that teams rarely have two bad games in the sectional, and they had gotten the jitters of the first game out of the way.
The semi-final round of the sectional, played Saturday morning, brought Oakland City into a contest with North Posey in the first game. The Ft. Branch Twigs would take on the Owensville Kickapoos in the second game. The Acorns had beaten North Posey 58 – 43 in their regular season closer, but Coach Brauser warned his players to not take the game lightly. The Acorns had a 26 – 19 lead at the half time and led by a mere four points, 36 – 32, going into the final period. Then, the Acorns then took command, outscoring the Vikings 21 – 11 for their 22nd win. In the second semi-final game, Owensville led by one point at the end of the first period, but the Twigs were ahead by one going into half time. The Twigs extended their lead and beat the Kickapoos 73 – 69.
The final game of the 1967 Princeton sectional would pit Oakland City against the Ft. Branch Twigs, a team the Acorns had beaten earlier in the season, but only by four points. Oakland City started out strong, only to fall behind by the end the first quarter with the Twigs in the lead at 15 – 12. The Acorns charged back to end the first half in the lead at 33 – 26, and Acorn fans were able to breathe a little easier. In the second half, however, the Acorns grappled with holding the lead. The Twigs kept chipping away, the Fort Branch crowd going wild when the score was locked at 59 – 59 at the end of regulation play. Only a few minutes passed before the horn sounded again, calling the two teams to take position for the overtime. The two cheerleading squads, with already hoarse voices, channeled the crowd’s angst into battle cries.
The first two and a half minutes of overtime seemed to drag on like a dull plow in a muddy field, the score staying tied. Finally, the Acorns’ Steve Nelson connected, making a field goal from the corner, and lifting fans’ hearts, but then Oakland City missed two precious free throw opportunities. Harris was the next to score, but the Twigs’ Kinney tipped in a rebound, narrowing the score to 62 – 61. Oakland City fans held their breath as Nelson and then Harris connected on two free throws each to bring the lead to five. Nelson wasn’t through with his heroics. He was again fouled and made both free throws, putting him up to six points just in the overtime. Ft. Branch’s Luttrell almost closed the gap, making a field goal from the corner and another tip-in on a rebound; however, between those two plays, Rick Dixon made one of two free throw attempts. The Acorns beat the Twigs’ press in the next seconds and held the ball under their own basket, setting up Dayne Smith for a corner jumper that didn’t go in, but ending the overtime with a nail-biting 67 – 65 win.
Team and fans poured onto the floor in jubilation, many jumping up and down and hugging each other. The Acorns had won their first sectional in 27 years, as well as their 23rd game in a row and now would move on to the Evansville Regional. Oakland City fans, some with tears in their eyes, wildly mobbed their undefeated sectional winners who were covered with sweat and glory. The crowd continued to watch and applaud as the players, managers, cheerleaders, and coaches took turns climbing a ladder to cut down the nets. Oakland City fans did not want the celebration to end.
There were other achievements. Larry Harris, who had scored 28 points in the final sectional game, broke the all-time Oakland City sectional scoring record, formerly held by Acorn Don Falls. Harris was also named All-Sectional Team center, with Dayne Smith coming in as a forward and Rick Smith as guard. The Evansville Sunday Courier and Press had earlier named its All-Southern Indiana Basketball Team, with Larry Harris headlining the small school members. In feting Harris, the paper touted his 21 point per game average and his ability to “do-it-all” on both offense and defense. Rick Smith had made the All-Southern Indiana second team and Dayne Smith the third. To top it all off, Charlie Brauser was named as Coach of the Year for the All-Southern Indiana team.
Another challenge awaited. Oakland City had not played at the regional level in almost three decades. Prior to the sectional, Evansville sportswriter Larry Stephenson, who had correctly picked over 80 percent of the Evansville high school basketball games the past season, chose “unbeaten Oakland City as the next Indiana state champion.” He had also picked North as the school to win the Evansville sectional, and indeed, they had. Now the Oakland City Acorns would meet the highly rated North Huskies in the first game of the Evansville Regional.
The undefeated Acorns had put their small town on the map. UPI sportswriter Kurt Freudenthal, continuing his look at Indiana tournament play after the sectionals, began his next article by featuring the Oakland City Acorns. “An unbeaten regular season. A small-town school. And one of the 64 sectional winners. That spells Oakland City, the leading ‘people’s choice’ going into Saturday’s Indiana high school basketball tourney regionals.” The “People’s Choice” recognition was pure Hoosier, a cheer, a boost for the underdog, especially a small-town team.
Reporters swamped Coach Brauser. When asked about going up against powerhouse Evansville North, the squad who had held, throughout the season, statewide rankings from the 4th to the 10th spots, Brauser said, “We feel North is favored, but we’re not going down there intending to lose.” With the Acorns now the only undefeated team left in the state and the regular season over, Coach Brauser grinned at sportswriter Don Bernhardt when he told him, “Now the pressure’s off.” The coach explained, “We felt we had to win the Princeton sectional. It was a hex-type thing, where even the people up here told us we’d never win another one.” Brauser added, “Besides, we were the favorites and expected to win. Now we can’t be the favorite against North. So we’ll come in there relaxed.”
In truth, despite coming in with 23 wins and as an underdog against North, the Oakland City club still had plenty to be nervous about. They had played none of the big Evansville teams in the regular season, which had been the primary competition for the Huskies. In addition, the regional would take place at Roberts Stadium, a huge venue with an entirely different feel than what the Acorns were used to. First was its capacity: for basketball games the stadium could hold 11,600 shouting fans. Next was the layout. The basketball floor was a step up from the bottom of the arena, and the seating was set much farther back than the Acorns were accustomed to, making the fans more remote to the players and the cheerleaders. The goals had a longer than usual extension out to the floor, taking some getting used to as well. For the North Huskies, however, Roberts Stadium was almost a home court, used for some regular season games as well as all Evansville tourneys, including the sectional. The Huskies were in their own backyard, while the Acorns felt a million miles from their ancient but familiar Oakland City College gym.
In terms of the two teams, there were several points of comparison. Brauser noted to sportswriter Bernhardt, “Both of us have three boys who do most of the scoring. In rebounding we both have two who handle most of the rebounding like their Ford and Hildebrandt. And then we both have the big strong boy in the pivot (Oakland City’s Harris and North’s Ford). They probably have an edge in speed with Holland out front. He gets going quicker with the ball than anyone we have.”
Larry Harris drew great accolades from Bernhardt, but he also went on to describe Dayne Smith’s shooting proficiency and Rick Smith’s quarterbacking of the quintet, as well as Mark Duncan’s capabilities on both offense and defense, and Steve Nelson’s defensive prowess. Nelson usually drew the other teams’ toughest players. In addition, Bernhardt pointed out the contributions of the subs, especially Rick Dixon—who had tallied up 95 points in the season, despite missing nine games with mononucleosis.
The Acorns had one practice to try to learn the particular quirks of Roberts Stadium’s basketball floor, to get used to making layups where the goals extended out for what seemed like miles, and to get a sense of the sheer size. The morning of the first regional game found Oakland City fans filing into Roberts Stadium, taking time to look around and take in what one fan called “the colossal size of the place.”
Nothing was easy about the game. The Acorns played steady and hard, but the Huskies scooted out to a 16 – 10 first period lead and increased it by one at the end of the second quarter, 31 – 24. However, North “could never pull safely away.” Midway through the third quarter, the Acorns put on a full-court press and “stormed back to within just one point with 7:24 left in the game,” the last two points coming from foul shots from Dayne Smith. Larry Harris dogged big Bob Ford, all the way through the game, knocking him to the floor on one occasion. Then Mark Mason of the Huskies poured it on, giving North a five-point edge. The teams traded points back and forth after that, until Rick Dixon hit a jumper from the side, pulling the Acorns within two. The Huskies then changed to a slow down game. Jim Hildenbrandt hit a lay-up; Bob Ford sank two free throws, and Steve Holland also hit two from the charity stripe, making the score 64 – 56. With only 1:11 left, Larry Harris fouled out, and there was no catching up for the Acorns.
Sportswriter Tom Tuley later noted the “masterful job” Larry Harris had done of guarding the “Big Horse” and usually high-scorer, Bob Ford. Ford managed to score only 11 points in the game. In the end, however, North’s lightning fast Steve Holland made the difference for the Huskies, tallying 26 points. Mark Duncan led the Acorns with 16; Harris had 15, and Dayne Smith 11.
When the final horn sounded, the Oakland City cheerleaders and crowd let the Acorns know they were proud of them and their amazing season, and the weary team made its way to the dressing room. More honors would come later. One thing they all knew—North was a very good team. In fact, in one of the post-game articles, Charlie Brauser noted, shortly after the loss, “We just got beat by a better club.” North’s coach, Jim Rausch, indicated that they had not taken the Oakland City team lightly. “We knew a team with 23 wins without a loss had to be a pretty good club,” he said. For Brauser’s part, coming off the high of winning 23 straight games, the P.A.C. title, and the Princeton sectional, he called the Huskies “the best team we played all year.” Brauser felt that the Oakland City club was “a little tight in the early minutes of the game,” but he was very proud of his Acorns. “They gave it everything they had.”
In the second game of the regional, Boonville beat Leavenworth 58 – 39, and Saturday evening, North handily defeated the Boonville Pioneers 83 – 54. Many found the final game rather anti-climactic after the first game of the day between Oakland City and Evansville North. On the Evansville Courier’s All-Regional Team, the first team included Oakland City player Mark Duncan, who had an excellent game, leading the Acorns with 16 points and captured in a dazzling photo scoring a lay-in from seemingly three feet off the floor. The second team included Dayne Smith, Larry Harris, and Rick Smith. The Evansville Press named Larry Harris, Randy Silke, Bob Ford, Mark Duncan, and Steve Holland as their All-Regional team.
In Charlie Brauser’s scrapbook is a letter from Jim Rausch, North’s coach, dated March 5, 1967, the day after the regional. In it he sympathized with the difficulty of a “fine season” coming to an end, but also offered his congratulations to “a very fine team” and one of the “best young coaches in the area.” Although some had said that Oakland City hadn’t played the schedule of North, Rausch said that “having played all the city teams, I would say you could play with any of the local teams.”
In the week following the regional, a number of Oakland City fans, though disappointed, turned their eyes to the Evansville semi-state and threw their support behind the North Huskies, who beat New Albany in the first round 66 – 58, and then Terre Haute Garfield in the final 59 – 58. Many in the small town listened to the game on the radio and were likely amazed at what a scoring machine Bob Ford was when Larry Harris was not guarding him. Ford was the highest scorer in the state for the sweet sixteen, compiling an amazing 66-point total in the two games.
When the Evansville team drove up Hwy. 57, past Oakland City, on their way to the state finals, they were probably surprised to see many of the Acorns fans standing in clusters as they passed, holding signs and cheering them on. These same folks were glued to the television screen to watch the state finals that Saturday night. Bob Ford continued to amaze and rack up points. After defeating New Castle, in the afternoon, the Huskies beat favored Lafayette 60 – 58 in the sensational final game. The state record for number of points for the final four games of a state finalist had been 114, set by Jimmy Rayl of Kokomo in 1959. Ford beat that record by 14 points, amassing a total of 128 points in his last four games of the year.
When the North Huskies drove back to Evansville, they made a stop at Oakland City’s most popular restaurant, Johnson’s, to get a meal. Celebrated as heroes, they seemed rather surprised and willingly posed for pictures. Some might have wondered why Acorns fans were so quick to get behind the only team that beat them that year—that extraordinary undefeated season—but it was simple. In the end, the only team to beat the Oakland City Acorns in the 1966 – 67 year were the state champions, and that was not a bad end to a very special season.