|1937 Melrose Shamrocks: The Championship Season|
“We knew going to the State Tournament was
the big thing,
The three teams that stood between Melrose and the finals of
the 1937 boys’ basketball state championship never saw their defeat
coming. Geneseo Township,
Newton, and Rolfe all had two things in common – they were supposed to
beat Melrose and they lost.
The boys from Melrose had accomplished a major goal in
reaching the tournament, and knew this was their big chance. They knew they had a good ball
club that could score points.
As Walt O’Connor said recently, “We knew going to the State
Tournament was the big thing, and we thought this is our year, if we’re
going to do it, this is it.”
They almost blew their chance.
Melrose almost let the opening game of the tournament against Geneseo Township slip through its hands. Wanting to impress the big city crowd, several of the Melrose players greased up their hair for the game, only to have difficulty catching the ball. A rinsing off at halftime would prove to be crucial to victory in this nip-and-tuck game. The record crowds attending the opening round games included most of the town of Melrose, as well as fans from Albia and the rest of Monroe County, who were interested in seeing not only Melrose, but also the opening round game for Centerville. The fans found more to cheer for from Melrose, however, with Centerville losing in the opening round.
When the Melrose game began, Geneseo jumped out to a 4 - 0 lead. However, Melrose then went on a 16-point scoring rampage, leading 9 - 4 at the end of the first quarter, and 16 - 4 well into the second quarter. Before Melrose knew what was happening, Howard Irvine of Geneseo had run wild, scoring 11 points in a row and pulling Geneseo within one point at halftime, trailing 16 - 15.
Geneseo ultimately would score more points against Melrose than any other team in the tournament, perhaps because Melrose played less zone and more man-to-man defense in their opening round game. While the first half was a game of scoring runs by each team, the second half provided a more even pace. Geneseo went out to a 25 - 20 lead in the third quarter, and led 27 - 23 at the quarter’s end. Melrose would have to battle back in the crucial fourth quarter to prevent Geneseo from slipping away. However, Melrose was confident. As Walt O’Connor noted recently, “When you’re down, you always think you’re going to come back.”
“The ding-dong finale was a nerve-destroyer from start to finish.”
As one newspaper account put it, “the ding-dong finale was a nerve-destroyer from start to finish.” Both teams battled to start the fourth quarter, and scored six points each, with Geneseo maintaining its lead at 33 - 29, with 3:30 remaining in the game. Jim Thynne and Ed Callahan both poured in a bucket to bring Melrose to a tie at 33 points apiece. With 1:30 remaining, Ray Parks fouled Hook of Geneseo, who made his free throw to put Geneseo back in the lead, 34 - 33. With just 45 seconds remaining and Melrose Captain Walt O’Connor out of the game, having fouled out, Geneseo tried to stall for the victory, but Melrose stole the ball. A precision pass to Ray Parks, who redeemed himself for fouling Hook by putting the ball in the hoop, gave Melrose the lead for the first time since early in the second half, at 35 - 34. Geneseo still had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Irvine missed his foul shot in the closing seconds, and Melrose had its first State Tournament win . . . by one point.
..beat Newton, they would get an extra $100 for their
expenses and could stay for the finals.
In the second round game, Melrose would take on Newton, the second largest school in the tournament with 1,426 students, more than three times larger than the entire town of Melrose, with a population of 420. The 12,500 people in the town of Newton would truly dwarf the 66 students enrolled at Melrose High, but Melrose was not intimidated. Coach Hlubek gave his team an odd incentive for the game. He noted that if they beat Newton, they would get an extra $100 for their expenses and could stay for the finals. As it turned out, they got to watch the state finals from the best view in the house. Newton, the Central Iowa Conference champions and upper bracket favorites, took on Melrose on Friday afternoon, before the State Highway Commission warned against travel that evening due to snow, a warning that reduced the crowds at the evening games.
Newton lived up to the crowd’s expectations by jumping out to a 6 - 4 lead at the end of the first quarter. However, Melrose fought back, gaining a 13 - 7 lead in the second quarter, and keeping a 13 - 9 lead at the half. The third quarter proved to be a defensive battle, with Newton held to two free throws, and Ray Parks scoring a field goal and a free throw to account for Melrose’s 16 - 11 lead at the end of the quarter.
The defensive battle continued into the fourth quarter, with nearly four scoreless minutes elapsing before Walt O’Connor sank a goal from the side, giving Melrose an 18 - 11 lead. Newton frequently picked off Melrose’s long fast break passes, forcing Melrose to slow down their attack. The Melrose slowdown led one Newton fan to exclaim, “The Class B boys slowed up their attack so much that it looked like a wriggle.”
Newton added two more field goals, and Melrose added a pair
of free throws, bringing the score to 20 - 15 with a minute
remaining. While many had
expected Newton to use its long-shot attack to draw Melrose out of its
compact zone defense, the shots just would not drop throughout the
game. In the final minute of
play, Newton put up more than half a dozen shots, but none of them
dropped. By the time
the final buzzer rang, O’Connor and Parks had accounted for 17 of
Melrose’s 20 points, while “Big” Bill Green of Newton had held Thynne to
just three free throws.
Hardenbrook of Newton had led his team with six, but it was not
enough. Melrose had gone the
whole game with just five players – O’Connor, Thynne, Ray Parks, Carr, and
Callahan, who severely sprained his ankle. The Melrose five had defeated the
heavily favored Cardinals of Newton, 20 - 15.
Melrose’s semifinal game against Rolfe matched two unbeaten teams, Melrose with 31 wins and Rolfe with 29 victories. While Rolfe was Melrose’s second Class A opponent of the tournament, it was the smallest Class A team there and had only 124 students enrolled, just 24 over the maximum Class B limit. Rolfe, led by star forward “Lanky” Al Budolfson, was favored to win. The game turned into a back-and-forth battle in the first half, with Rolfe leading at halftime, 9 - 8.
The second half, however, was a different story, with
Melrose grabbing a 17 - 9 lead at the end of the third quarter. Melrose held Rolfe scoreless for
the entire third quarter and the first two minutes of the fourth
quarter. During that fateful
third quarter, Rolfe lost its center, Keith Rickard, the backbone of its
defense and leading rebounder, who fouled out. Without Rickard, the Rolfe defense
fell apart in the fourth quarter, with Melrose scoring almost at
will. Melrose used its lead
to actually rest some of its starters, by inserting Ray Navin and Robert
Parks. Melrose had gone most
of the game with its usual starting lineup, except Mike Kasper had played
for the injured Ed Callahan.
With 12 points, Thynne almost outscored the entire Rolfe team,
while Ray Parks added eight points.
The highly touted Budolfson of Rolfe was limited to two points for
the game. (Budolfson would go
to Iowa State University and make all-conference honors two years in a
row.) Melrose was on its way
to the championship finals later that night, with a 29 - 13 victory.
Melrose had shocked the “experts” by defeating three heavily favored teams to make it to the final game against tournament favorite Marshalltown. In retrospect, Coach Hlubek stated that Newton had been their toughest opponent. “The boys felt Newton’s rugged team gave them their hardest game, with Geneseo next,” Hlubek proclaimed, when it was all over. On the other hand, Walt O’Connor noted years later that while all of the teams were tough, they only beat Geneseo by one point and Geneseo was probably their easiest opponent. Melrose didn’t have much time to celebrate the Rolfe win, however, because the “experts” were predicting the first Melrose loss of the season would finally come in just a few hours against tournament favorite Marshalltown.