A Hoosier story in our own backyard

South Kitsap High School’s win over unbeaten (and now defunct) Lincoln of Seattle in the finals of the 1950 Class A state basketball championship was then — and is today — one of the biggest upsets in state basketball history.

The win occurred four years before Milan — the small school from rural

Indiana upon which the 1986 movie Hoosiers was based — beat big-city Muncie Central for the 1954 Indiana state basketball title.

SK’s win over Lincoln was arguably an even bigger upset than Milan’s because of SK’s record going into the four-day tournament.

SK had lost eight games in a relatively weak Olympic League prior to the state tournament, but still managed to finish second in the league to Class B Port Townsend.

SK survived three loser-out games in the West Central District tournament to take the third and final state berth.

At 12-8, the Wolves entered the tournament with the worst record and had to open against Mount Vernon, the No. 1 seed from the Northwest District and a favorite to win the title. The Wolves raised some eyebrows after winning rather comfortably 54-42 to advance to the quarterfinals.

SK continued to surprise people in its quarterfinal game against Hoquiam, where the Wolves overcame a 10-point deficit to win.

“Surprising SK became the first semi-finalist in the state high school basketball tournament, when the boys from Port Orchard put on a stirring second-half rally to defeat Hoquiam, 51-38,” the Seattle Times was quoted as saying.

By now excitement, bordering on bedlam, was building all over working-class Port Orchard and Kitsap County.

Even sophisticated Seattle was taking note. Could unheralded, unseeded South Kitsap really win? Very few thought so. It wasn’t unheard of though.

In 1936, a small Class B school with only 38 boys — Valley of Menlo, located south of Raymond in southwest Washington — won a state title before schools were divided into A and B categories. Menlo went on to beat three schools that are 4A schools today: Lewis and Clark, Walla Walla, and Everett, and 3A school Hoquiam.

Since then, no underdog as big as South Kitsap had gotten this far.

Two semifinal games were played before the largest crowd (12,500 people) ever to watch a basketball game at the University of Washington’s Hec Edmundson Pavilion. South Kitsap played Clarkston, itself a cinderella team, which had beaten another tournament favorite, Walla Walla, in the first round.

The second game featured a powerful Lincoln team against Aberdeen and its star Tony Vastelica, who had set a state-tournament, single-game scoring record of 34 points the previous day.

All eyes on Friday night were on the Lincoln-Aberdeen matchup. Scant attention was paid to the first game.

“Interest tonight centers in the meeting of Lincoln and Aberdeen. These are the two strongest teams in the tournament, and unfortunately the draw placed them in the same bracket,” wrote Eugene Russell, sports editor at the Seattle Times.

SK and Clarkston battled all night, never separated by more than six points.

SK led 13-12 at the end of the first quarter, and 21-19 at the half.

Tied 31-31 with nine seconds to play, SK’s Arno Stautz stepped up to the free-throw line and sank the game-winning free throw to send the Wolves to the championship game against Lincoln.

Did the Wolves really think they could win?

You bet they did.

Warren Van Zee, SK’s invaluable sixth man, summed up the team’s feeling as they got ready for the biggest game in school history:

“We believe we have a better outfit than Lincoln,” Van Zee said.

At tipoff time Saturday, Bay Street in Port Orchard was very, very quiet. The entire town was in Seattle.

The Wolves got an early lead, which they held until early in the fourth quarter, when Lincoln scored six straight points to go ahead 28-26.

The two teams began trading baskets, and regulation time ended in a 35-35 deadlock.

Lincoln scored first in overtime and led 37-36, but junior Buck Gehring answered back with a short jumper off a rebound to give SK a 38-37 lead.

Lincoln never scored again and the the Wolves shocked the state with a 40-37 victory in the state championship game.

A celebration ensues

The ferry ride back to Bremerton (there was no Narrows Bridge at the time) was unbelievable. Never before — and not since — has a single event caused such a celebration in Port Orchard.

As the loud, boisterous caravan of cars, the team bus, and many rooter buses arrived in town, pandemonium reigned. A free meal was provided for the team at Myhre’s Cafe, and the party on Bay Street was just getting started.

I was nine years old at the time, and remember going to bed just as the sun was coming up. It was the only time my Dad — Maynard Lundberg, the school district’s athletic director — let me stay up all night as a kid.

I knew then just how special this night was.

The Bremerton Sun reporter Malcom MacNey wrote the next day, “All of the Kitsap Peninsula is a-dither today over SK’s basketball champions. Any place the citizens gather — from the rain-soaked farms lands of Burley, to the fishing haunts of Hansville — from the shops of the naval shipyard to the timbered slopes of Belfair — folks are delightedly buzzing about the Port Orchard Wolves triumph.”

The players

The five starters on the state champion team were: Stautz, an all-state guard; second team all-state forward Harold Dodeward; 16-year old guard

Ken Killam, the team captain; forward Ray Wagner; and center Buck Gehring.

Stautz, Dodeward, and Killam were seniors, Wagner and Gehring were juniors.

Warren Van Zee was the first off the bench, and was followed by senior Loren Saxby, junior Jim Van Zee, and sophomores Arol Masters and Kenny Lund.

Three of the five starters — Gehring, Dodeward, and Wagner — were also

outstanding football players, and some of SK’s early season losses came as these three were getting into “basketball shape.”

The coach was Ty Stephens, who was in his first year as head coach. He had served for several years as an assistant under Stener Kvinsland before he resigned at the end of the 1949 season.

Most of the players on the team had moved to Port Orchard from other parts of America with their families in the early 1940s as part of the buildup at the Bremerton Shipyard for World War II.

The players came from families of modest means. Many lived in the housing projects built in East Port Orchard and Orchard Heights during the war.

Many fans of the Wolves still have difficulty describing feelings they felt

that night. The evening was almost something you had to experience to

understand. In fact, coaches and players themselves had problems putting their feelings into words after the game.

“We’ve got a lot to feel pretty good about it,” coach Stephens said.

“I don’t know how we did it — but we did,” Killam said.

“It was really nice the way the townspeople were behind us, and the dinner after the game was swell. But I was too excited to eat,” Stautz said.

Masters and Lund spun a positive out of their lack of playing time.

“We didn’t play much,” Masters said. “We’re only sophomores. But we must have brought the boys a little luck.”

Gehring said he was pleased to make the announcer “eat the words that the the Lincoln-Aberdeen game was the real championship game of

the tournament.”

And Buck did. His best game of the year was the one he played against Lincoln.

A memory as fresh as yesterday

Fifty-three years have not dimmed the memory of the members of SK’s only state basketball champions.

Three members of the team have died -- Jim Van Zee, Ken Killam and Buck

Gehring — along with Coach Ty Stephens.

But the others, now approaching 70, all live in the Puget Sound region or in Yakima. They all still follow the Wolves.

Like old soldiers remembering “shared experiences” on long-forgotten

battlefields they periodically get together at class reunions, or talk

on the phone, and sometimes they reminisce about the night they won it

all “when the boys from tiny Podunk beat the city slickers from Seattle.”

And it still brings a sparkle to their eye.

Warren Van Zee was one of three former players that met this year’s state-bound Wolves team at Buck’s A&W Monday night.

Van Zee said the game may have changed, but mental toughness never changes.

“We went to state never thinking we were going to lose,” Van Zee said. “We had no fear.”

Lund said it’s still hard to describe the emotion he felt when he first walked into Hec Edmundson Pavilion.

“We were from a school of just 500 kids,” Lund said. “I can’t describe the feeling walking in there. It felt like the floor was so small because there were so many people.”

Van Zee said he has simple advice for this year’s squad.

“Relax and get a lot of sleep,” he said. “But I know that’s hard to do.”

John Lundberg, a 1958 SK graduate who now lives in Tacoma, was a 9-year-old at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle the night SK won the state Class A basketball championship. He can be reached via e-mail

Josh Morton contributed to this article.

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