“A Heart-Beat Away”: Larry Bird and the St. Ferdinand/Springs Valley 1964 Huntingburg Sectional Final Game

As I continue to work on a book about Larry Bird’s high school basketball senior year, I keep running across interesting stories that touch upon the web of events that impacted Larry’s high school basketball career; events that had they turned out differently, would have likely changed Bird’s basketball destiny. This is one of those stories.

St. Ferdinand High School supporters at the 1964 Huntingburg sectional. Indiana sectional tournament time always brought out the emotion of fans!

The beginning of the 1964 Huntingburg sectional tournament in late February witnessed two teams going in different directions. The St. Ferdinand Crusaders, coached by Jim Wahl, were 18-2 in regular season play, on a fourteen game win streak, and picked to win the tournament. They were also highly motivated. The relatively new school, created in 1951, had yet to win a sectional.

A photo of St. Ferdinand’s first high school basketball team. A late starter in the world of Indiana high school basketball, the Crusaders would quickly evolve into having solid teams.

In the world of Indiana high school basketball, in that golden age before a class system or a three point line, the winning of a sectional tournament brought a team permanent recognition, an enshrinement that took the form of a huge team photo hanging forever on a wall just inside the school gymnasium’s main entrance. Those faces would never grow old, challenging each new team to strive for excellence. 

St. Ferdinand head coach Jim Wahl, with his assistant, Bob Maxey.

While St. Ferdinand came into sectional play with a great record, Springs Valley High School, under second year Coach Jim Jones, came into the tourney with just six wins, one of their losses being to the slick St. Ferdinand crew. The Blackhawks, a consolidation of French Lick and West Baden back in 1958, had gone all the way to the state finals the year of their creation and while under the direction of Coach Rex Wells. The coach that followed Wells, Gene Flowers, broke even in his two years of coaching, but that was not enough for spoiled Valley fans.

The 1958 Springs Valley team that went to the state finals, a squad by which all future Blackhawk teams and coaches would be judged.

The next coach, Jim Jones, was destined to be selected for the Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame, and would be most noted for his emphasis on teaching strong fundamental basketball skills, requiring his players to constantly practice on shooting free throws and work on grinding fundamentals. But his first few years of coaching at Springs Valley were precarious, to say the least.

A young Jim Jones.

In his first season as head coach at Springs Valley, 1962-1963, the Blackhawks won only five regular season games. Jones salvaged the season, however, and his job, by going to the sectional finals and losing by one point to an Ireland team that would go on to semi-state play.

Coach Jim Jones’ squad almost won the Huntingburg sectional in 1963, but ran into Ireland’s Dave Small.

The next year Jones’ team was only one game ahead of the year before, a humble 6-14 record. Toward the end of that tough season, the so-called local drug store coaches really came out of the woodwork after Springs Valley’s loss to a Shawswick team that had never defeated Valley. After the win, the Shawswick fans “responded to the victory as if it were a sectional championship win,” running out on the floor and carrying the winning coach off the floor on their shoulders. Some Valley fans that night thought their team did not seem ready to play, but Coach Jones put on his best face in Springs Valley Herald newspaper interview the next day, noting, “Every team has one night during the season that nothing goes right and everything is off and Friday night was it.”

At this point, Coach Jones believed that only a deep run into the state tournament, an unlikely scenario, would save his job. On the other hand, the Blackhawk team had eight players—Charles Harris, Warren Owens, Logan Ballard, Jeff Reynolds, C. B. Charnes, Dick Royer, Keith Worthinger, and Ronnie Collins—who continued to listen to their coach and who worked extra hard on learning to play good defense, to take good shots, and to not throw the ball away. The team won their last two regular season games, indicating to Jones that they were really starting to jell.  

The Springs Valley Blackhawks, just before the start of the 1964 Huntingburg sectional.

As noted, mid-way through the 1963-1964 season, the St. Ferdinand Crusaders decked the Blackhawks, winning by three points in a nip and tuck battle. The five starters for the Crusaders had played together the year before and by the 1964 half of the season were operating like a well-oiled machine. Lee Joe Werne was their outstanding shooter, but any of the other starting players— Jim Werne, Bill Hagedorn, Dennis Oeding or tall, broad-shouldered Fred Drach —could score. Jim Werne had iced the regular season game against Valley by making six straight free-throws in the closing seconds of the game. Other Crusades players were Kenny Tretter, Tom Ruhe, Dick Mohr, Bernie Schaeffer, and David Schum.

These St. Ferdinand Crusaders were 18-2 going into sectional play and were picked to win the Huntingburg sectional.

As the 1964 sectional tourney approached, fans in the small town of Ferdinand were about to explode with excitement, understanding their team was one of those small town basketball squads that seemed to come along once in a generation, a team that might be able to go deep into the state basketball tournament.

St. Ferdinand’s Fred Drach played some of the best games of his career in the 1964 sectional.

One factor that was beyond the control of coaches when sectional tournament time came around involved the bracket setup of sectional games. In mid-February of 1964, six teams received a bye in the Huntingburg sectional—Ferdinand would match up against big school powerhouse Jasper in the second round of play, while Dubois faced Ireland and Birdseye would go up against Winslow on the second night as well. Teams without a bye included Spring Valley, who played Otwell in the tournament’s very first game. The winner would go on to play one of two other non-bye teams, Holland or Huntingburg, in the second round. This meant Valley would have to win four tough games to win the championship.  

A fun rendition of the 1964 sectional draw in the Jasper Herald.

Slowly, through sectional week, playing out the brackets, Springs Valley and Ferdinand battled their way toward each other.

In their opening game, Spring Valley was nervous. They allowed a much less talented Otwell squad to keep a substantial lead in the contest until the game’s final stages, the Millers, according to the Jasper Herald, throwing “a giant-scare into the favored Blackhawks for three quarters.”  But Jones’ prior intense training of his Blackhawks charges in regular season practices had equipped the Valley team not to panic. They just kept pecking away, playing their game and winning the contest. Ferdinand, meanwhile, suited up the next evening against basketball tradition-rich Jasper in the Crusaders’ first contest. The Crusaders won easily, Ferdinand’s very first ever victory against big school Jasper.

Ferdinand and Jasper slug it out.

Ferdinand fans were ecstatic. The Crusaders then beat Dubois in a much tougher game to advance to the sectional finals. The Crusaders basketball team now stood at 20-2.

Small school Ferdinand was the darling of regional sports reporters, as this Evansville newspaper headline demonstrated.

After beating Otwell, Springs Valley had to overcome Huntingburg and then the Winslow Eskimos to get to the final game. Beating Huntingburg was a walk, but Winslow, like Otwell, hung tough through much of the game. A Jasper sports reporter asserted Valley “was not nearly as polished’ as the Winslow five and that the Eskimos’ Jim Marshall simply “dazzled” the fans. Dazzling or not, the well-coached Blackhawks managed to get a solid lead in the fourth quarter and then slowed the ball down, forcing Winslow to foul and winning the contest by ten points on free throws.

The stage was now set for what would be termed by the Ferdinand News “the most exciting final game in Huntingburg sectional history.” Ferdinand High School fans could all but taste a sectional championship, and the St. Ferdinand high school teachers got little done during sectional week, allowing the students to prepare for a huge pep rally the day before the final game with Springs Valley.

Ferdinand beats Jasper!

A giant banner hanging on an end wall of the St. Ferdinand gymnasium summed up the attitude of the school and community, their hope for a first sectional championship: THIS IS OUR YEAR. But the Springs Valley team and community had its own urgent motive for winning the sectional tourney, and had an honest banner been hung in the Valley gym, it might have said SAVE OUR COACH.

The next day the Evansville Courier would call the St. Ferdinand/Springs Valley double overtime game “heart-stopping.”  For one team, it was heart-breaking.

The Ferdinand News reported the contest in great detail, an almost complete play-by-play narrative, beginning with how “a capacity crowd of 6,246 screamed and cheered for their favorite team as the lead changed hands 22 times and the score stood even 15 times.” A Jasper sportswriter was more picturesque about the amazing closeness of the contest, asserting, “The championship game was as close as pages in a book.”

Excluding Valley fans, most of the attendees likely rooted for small school Ferdinand.

One sports writer would call the St. Ferdinand/Springs Valley game “the most exciting final game in Huntingburg sectional history.”

Big Fred Drach, standing 6-6, got the opening tip for Ferdinand, but Valley got the ball back and scored the first basket of the game on a Jeff Reynolds field goal. Then Jim Werne and Tom Ruhe scored for the Crusaders, bringing every Ferdinand fan to their feet in one breathtaking motion, rising and letting out gym-shaking cheers. But Springs Valley quickly responded, taking a small lead, giving the Valley fans a reason to go wild. After a quick Ferdinand time out, the Crusaders surged back into the lead.

Fred Drach’s basket ended the first quarter, his field goal pushing the Crusaders ahead 20-17.

The lead changed hands eight times and the score was tied five times in the second period, leaving the score knotted at halftime 34-34. Ferdinand scored first in the third quarter and never trailed in the period. At one time the Ferdinand squad took the longest lead of the game, 47-40. Fred Drach, playing his best game as a Crusader, including making ten out of eleven foul shots, did much of the damage.

At the end of the third round, Ferdinand hung on to a slim 56-52 lead.

Muscular Lee Joe Werne was a scoring machine for the St. Ferdinand Crusaders. He led all scorers in the final game of the 1964 Huntingburg sectional.

The final quarter of regulation play was a carbon copy of the other three quarters, the lead going back and forth so quickly, it strained one’s neck watching the scoreboard. Then, with just over three minutes left in the game and Valley leading by a single point, ace Ferdinand player Bill Hagedorn fouled out. The Ferdinand News reporter called Hagedorn’s loss, “a stinging blow.” Drach came back, however, with two free throws and a goal for Ferdinand, and just like that, the Crusaders had a lead. Valley regained a one point edge until Crusader Dennis Oeding hit a free throw to tie the game 70-70 in the last seconds of regulation play.

Valley got the ball as the first overtime began and ran a delay game. Ferdinand got back the ball but was unable to score, and Warren Owens put the Blackhawks ahead with two free throws with sixteen seconds left. The Ferdinand News reported, “Seven seconds later Fred Drach saved the game for Ferdinand with two free throws” ending the first overtime with the teams tied 72-72.

Springs Valley’s cool, steady play, their lack of mistakes, all forged in Coach Jones’ tough practices, finally prevailed. Throughout the game, the Blackhawks shot well from the field and super well from the free throw line, hitting twenty free shots in a row in the second half. The boys from the valley led the entire second overtime period, winning 77-74.

A happy Jim Jones, on his way to a great high school coaching career thanks to his team’s narrow victory. He would later become a father figure to a young Larry Bird who called him the coach who taught him the basic fundamentals of basketball.

The day after the loss, the Ferdinand News lamented how close the Crusaders had come to winning the sectional, a win “just a heart-beat away.” But the article also reported the team’s amazing accomplishments—a first-time conference championship, a holiday tournament championship, twenty-two wins against three losses, a team season scoring record, and a new individual scoring record gained by Lee Joe Werne. The piece ended by noting the how the Crusader squad was escorted home by “Town Police, State Police, and the Ferdinand Fire Department” and that “Strangers in Ferdinand would have thought the Crusaders had captured the sectional crown when the team and their coaches returned home Saturday night and were greeted by the entire community of basketball fans who showed their pride in their Crusaders and coaches for a tremendous effort which ended just a heart-beat away from victory.”  

As it turned out, St. Ferdinand basketball had reach its zenith. Although they would have many solid teams in the future, the Crusaders were destined never to capture a sectional championship during their seventeen years of existence, although they lost another thrilling sectional final game to an undefeated and Don Buse-led Holland team in 1968.    

Meanwhile, as Jim Jones had hoped, the 1964 Springs Valley Blackhawk team went on to go deep in state tournament play, winning the regional tournament and advancing to the sweet sixteen semi-state level of tournament action.

For Jones, it would also be the beginning of an amazing run of sectional championships at Huntingburg, and, of course, his eventual becoming an early father figure to Larry Bird who credited Jones with giving him his basic foundation in basketball fundamentals. This later occurrence leads one to ask the question: what would have happened to Bird’s amazing basketball trajectory if Coach Jones had not won the 1964 Huntingburg sectional?

Larry Bird in his sophomore year, standing behind his legendary coach, Jim Jones.