Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, playing small school Loogootee was a measuring stick for other teams in the region to test how good they were. Beating the Loogootee Lions was truly a rare event for most schools.
There was one consistency in these Loogootee wins–Coach Jack Butcher. In the 1983-1984 season, Coach Butcher won his 500th game. He had previously coached two Loogootee teams to the state finals, one year as runners-up, and had coached the Lions to twelve sectional championships. These feats were accomplished in a single class system. Before his retirement, Butcher would achieve the goal of having the most basketball wins among all Indiana high school coaches in the state.
In the regular 1983-1984 season, Loogootee racked up a solid 15-5 record, losing mostly to a few big schools such as Bloomington North by only four points, and to Evansville Central and Vincennes, both by a single basket. Other losses were to Washington Catholic and Heritage Hills. The Lions knocked off its share of big schools that season, however, including Bedford North Lawrence and Evansville Mater Dei. By the time sectional play rolled around, Loogootee looked like it had a good chance of getting to the semi-state level of play.
Another small-town team in the area, Northeast Dubois, also looked forward to a promising year at the beginning of the 83-84 season. The Dubois County team had never had the constant types of winning seasons as their conference foe Loogootee, having won but a single sectional and regional championship. But they always played hard-nose basketball and were loved by their fans.
Northeast Dubois High School had experienced many years of frustration when playing Loogootee. Their last success had been way back in 1967 when Dubois knocked the powerful Lions out of their fourteen game win streak and state ranking in an overtime game “that stunned the basketball world,” as one sports writer noted.
But if the Northeast Dubois team lacked in seasonal successes, they still possessed one the coolest mascot/nicknames in the state, that of the Jeeps.
The name pertained not to the WWII vehicle, but to the fictional animal, Eugene Jeep, a mythical creature that appeared in the 1930s Popeye cartoons, a creature possessing amazing powers. Apparently, the idea was that the Jeep would use its magic to bring luck to the Dubois team, a playful and fun thought. The Louisville Courier Journal even paid homage to the team’s “most unique mascot, “a fictional animal possessing supernatural powers, the only one like it in the state.”
Jeep or no Jeep, the beginning of the 1983-1984 season did not necessarily carry the promise the Northeast Dubois team could take down the Lions. However, Coach John Church knew he had an aggressive group of five starters who played well together. The starting five consisted of Mike Steffe, Bruce Terwiske, Daron Cave, John Schott, and Kenny Egler. Coach Church believed his team was good enough to get to the regional level of state tournament play if they played well together.
Church’s confidence seemed to be justified. At the beginning of the season, the Jeeps came flying out of the gate, winning their first five contests, including a victory in their fifth game against a tall Evansville Memorial squad. The next night after the Memorial victory, the Jeeps traveled to Loogootee, knowing they would find out how tough they really were.
Perhaps the magical Jeep would wave his magic wand or whatever he did to bring off a victory against Loogootee.
As it turned out, Loogootee had the magic. The Lions’ Kelly Hunt, a junior, waved his own magic wind, pouring in 24 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Loogootee “outplayed previously unbeaten Dubois in virtually every phase of the game. For a surprisingly easy 66-47 triumph,” noted one sports reporter. The Jeeps shot horribly, hitting only 27 percent of their attempts. Interestingly, after the game, Coach Church used the idea of magic to explain to a sports reporter what happened. “They just tore us apart. Loogootee has a certain mystique over us that we just can’t seem to beat them.”
Worse still, the Loogootee loss threw the Jeeps into a downspin. They lost their next game to Orleans and their next two out of three clashes before finally jelling as they had at the beginning of the season. The Northeast Dubois squad ended the regular season 13-7.
John Church saw several good things with his team as they headed into Huntingburg sectional play. The Jeeps had played with plenty of hustle and intensity during the regular season, aspects Bedford North Lawrence’s coach would later marvel about after the Jeeps knocked them out of the regional in the first game. “They were certainly an aggressive group. They got every loose ball.” Just before the sectional, Church told a reporter, “We’re not very big and we have average quickness. Togetherness is probably the biggest thing we have going for us. We are a very close knit group. We play as a team.”
Teamwork was at the heart of the team. “At one time or another, in one way or another” a Jasper sports reported asserted, “everyone has contributed to a victory.” All five starters that season would be the leading or second leading scorers in at least one game.
There was, however, the ever so slight higher level of play of some of the team members. One reporter noted, for example, the almost psychic interaction of the two guards, Bruce Terwiske and John Schott, who seemed to be reading each other’s minds as they played together so smoothly. But if there was a go to guy for the Jeeps, it was probably 6-3 center Mike Steffe.
The Bedford Times-Mail pointed out that Steffe led the Jeeps “in nearly every category,” and the Louisville Courier-Journal noted that while the Jeeps were an especially well-balanced squad, Mike Steffe was “the team’s leader.”
The Jeeps had split in the regular season with Forest Park, their first opponent at the Huntingburg sectional. The contest would have seven ties and nine lead changes, Forest Park having the upper hand for the first three quarters, leading by three at the beginning of the final period. During the last few minutes of the third quarter, the Jeep’s Kenny Egler kept his team in the game by hitting four shots in a row from way out to bring his team within striking distance. The Jeeps finally won in overtime, with Egler scoring 15 points, Steffe 14, Cave 12, and Schott 11.
The final championship game between host Southridge and Northeast Dubois was anticlimactic, with the Jeeps wining 49-36. Coach Church’s crew would now move on the Washington regional and a possible rematch with Loogootee.
The Washington regional would feature the favored Loogootee Lions. Big school Bedford North Lawrence was the second pick to win according to the experts. Crawford County, a team the Jeeps had defeated in the regular season, would be in the mix as well as Northeast Dubois. The Jeeps would go against Bedford in the first game.
A day before the regional play began, Loogootee’s Coach Butcher told a Bedford sports reporter that Bedford would likely beat the Jeeps, having played “a tougher schedule.” Then, in a prophetic moment, Jack reasoned that when “fairly evenly matched” a team that wins a game against another in the regular season often loses to the same team in the tournament game. Jack was was not thinking about Dubois when he voiced this opinion but rather Bedford, a team Loogootee had beaten in the regular season.
In his interview with the same reporter, Coach Church also said something prophetic. Talking about scoring, rebounding, assists and so forth, Church noted that Mike Steffe “leads the Jeeps in everything.”
Bedford, for all its tough schedule and tournament time play, ran into a determined Dubois squad. The game turned in the Jeeps’ favor when Mike Steffe scored three straight field goals and two free throws as the Jeeps ran off 10 consecutive points to take a commanding lead into the final eight minutes. Bedford Coach Dan Bush lamented to a reporter after the game, “We tried fronting Steffe, but we didn’t get any weak-side help.” Steffe lead his team with 19 points, shooting at a hot 62% clip from the field.
In the second game, Loogootee barely got by Crawford County in a nail-biting game, one finally settled when Loogootee’s Wayne Ritchey hit two last second foul shots for a 43-41 victory. Loogootee’s Mr. Everything, Kelly Hunt, a left-hander with a nice jump shot, led the Lions with seventeen points.
Loogootee must have thought it was double good luck, gaining the squeaker over Crawford County and then getting to play for the regional championship against Northeast Dubois, a squad they had clobbered before.
This time, however, the magical Jeep would be in the gym.
Mighty Loogootee had Kelly Hunt, Brian Rhoads, Rob Blackwell, Charlie Blackwell, and Wayne Ritchey on the floor as the game started. Loogootee fans rocked the gym with cheers. These Lion players possessed the confidence that a long, on-going tradition creates. Many teams had been spooked by that tradition, as perhaps the Jeeps had been when Loogootee trounced them early that season.
But the Jeeps wanted a chance to prove themselves. Coach Church told his players before the game, “Even with our wins, there’s one team that doesn’t respect us—that’s Loogootee.” Words, however, meant little if not backed up by action. If Northeast Dubois was going to beat Loogootee, they would have to play a near perfect game, and maybe even have a little help from the Jeep.
In many ways, it was a strange contest, as if the magical mascot for Dubois, the Jeep, was up to its old tricks. Loogootee outscored Northeast Dubois 26-4 from the field the second half while the Jeeps hung in the game on free throws, hitting twenty-two of twenty-six for the entire game. Few, if any games ever saw this kind of dynamic. Daron Cave hit eight straight free throws at one point and Steffe made six straight in the last quarter.
The final few seconds were pure Hoosier hysteria. Kelly Hunt came down the floor and hit a long left handed bomb to tie the score at 40-40 with twenty seconds left, and Loogootee fans rose to their feet as if one.
But Terwiske took the inbound pass and dribbled the length of the court, driving the final nail in the Loogootee coffin when he drove down to score from close range. It was now 42-40, Jeeps and there were nine seconds left.
When Steffe was fouled on another inbound play, the Lions received a technical for trying to call a time out when they had all been used. Mike made both technical shots and the other two foul shots. What would have been a dramatic very last-second shot, but received not a single cheer, was a long heave by the Lion’s Wayne Ritchey, hero of the Crawford County game. That shot left the score 46-42 Jeeps. Mike Steffe led the Jeeps in scoring with sixteen points.
The Jeep had come through. “We redeemed ourselves,” Coach Church happily told a reporter as players and fans celebrated. Meanwhile, Loogootee players and coaches, heads bowed, walked downcast to their dressing room. Lion fans were silent, in shock.
But the Jeep was not done. One more magical moment was in store. As the Northeast Dubois players celebrated wildly in their dressing room, the Loogootee team suddenly came slowly into the room, some still wiping tears from their eyes. Everyone grew silent. Then The Lion players began shaking each Jeep player’s hand, wishing them luck at the semi-state. One Dubois player, Bruce Terwiske, told a reporter, “That’s hard to do after losing. We have a lot of respect for them.”
It is this kind of magic that makes Indiana high school basketball so special.