The Run to Glory for Crawfordsville High


The 1958 Crawfordsville Athenians

The year was 1958. To paraphrase Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the season of Light, it was the spring of Hope." Hoosier basketball was beginning its run for the championship of the state, played every March and divided over four weeks into sectionals, regionals, semi-states, and the final. There was no class division. Everyone competed in one class, which gave the smaller schools a chance to play David against Goliath. Indiana was the hotbed of James Naismith's storied game, for Hoosiers played basketball better than anyone else in the country. Its high schools exemplified everything that was resplendent about the sport.

"The possibilities of basketball as seen here," Naismith wrote after a 1925 visit to the Indiana State Finals, "were a revelation to me. Basketball may have been invented in Massachusetts, but it was made for Indiana." [1]

Ticket stub from 1958 State Finals

"March madness" had its beginning in the 1950s in Indiana. We lived for basketball, we died for basketball, we prayed at church for our team, we planned our lives around our high school's encounters with our opponents. Nothing could deter us from an upcoming clash with Lebanon, or Greencastle, or Lafayette. Chamber of Commerce gatherings, critical business confabs, important political races – all took second seat to Friday night's upcoming basketball game with a crosstown rival (or a down-the-road rival in rural areas).

Basketball to a Hoosier was ecstasy, on a level with a race to the wire at Churchill Downs, or that first rush when falling in love, or giving birth to a baby. Basketball games were not ordinary experiences to merely be chronicled in scrapbooks; they were critical stages in one's life, profound encounters that could not be missed or one's life was meaningless. Basketball was majestic. Hoosiers took it very seriously. And nothing was more important for a high school than to win its Sectional tournament, which would launch it into the magical run to win the State Championship at Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to cap off the season just played.

To be alive in the 1950s in Indiana was something that cannot be understood by the millennials today. The culture has changed so drastically. There was a beguiling innocence about life in Indiana in the 1950s, especially if one lived in a smaller town like Crawfordsville, which was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting with its tree-lined streets, its unhurried pace of living, its blend of southern graciousness and midwest Americanism. As youth growing up, we lived lives of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, fishing on Sugar Creek a tributary to the Wabash River. We learned to shoot pool at places like the Bank Cigar Store. We picked up the skills of poker by sneaking in to observe the patrons in its back room card game. We grew to adulthood with all the escapades that novels like Peyton Place made famous. We learned to drink beer and make out in the back seats of our jalopies at the Ben Hur-Drive In Theater. Gas was 25 cents a gallon. Milk was delivered to our front door in glass bottles by the friendly milkman. Our teachers taught American values and patriotism to us in "civics class." We readied ourselves with great expectations to go out into the world from this blissful burg of Americana.

The Exhilarating Madness

But amidst our lives of Rockwellian serenity there was juxtaposed the "exhilarating madness" of basketball. It gave our lives a dimension that no other game or endeavor could match. The members of a high school basketball team were the school's gods. They fought in battle every week in sporting cathedrals with hysterical fans sitting right up to the rafters. If these gods were good enough, they made it into the state basketball championship tournament by winning their Sectional division, which was the goal of every high school that dotted the fertile plains of Hoosierland and every boy that ever shot hoops against a local barn (of which there were tens of thousands in Indiana). Winning one's Sectional was what the game in Indiana was all about. This put one's school into a fabled run for glory that came to them if they were able to make it to Indianapolis and the IHSAA State Basketball Championships – the final four – in late March.

Making it to Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis then was the ultimate. Seeing that there were some 700 teams that suited up for the Sectional playoffs around the state every year, this gave the final four teams a place of tremendous stature. And for the two teams that would meet in the final championship game, it meant their lives would become legend. It was something that the players would revel in for the rest of their days, just as we fans who supported their run would bask in the remembrance for the rest of ours.

Crawfordsville had a population of only 12,000, and Crawfordsville High had approximately 450 students. This was not large like the giants in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and South Bend (with enrollments of 2,000 and up). Thus most years any dream of making it to the finals at Butler Fieldhouse was just that, a dream.  But hope springs eternal in humans and is certainly one of the mainstays of youth. So we entered the Montgomery County Sectional tournament in 1958 with high hopes. Fifty-eight years have passed, but I still remember the gushing optimism that swirled over us as we prepared for those sectionals and the possibility to get to Butler Fieldhouse for the finals later in March. After all tiny Milan had done it in 1954, so why not Crawfordsville? We could play the role of David against the Goliaths as well as Bobby Plump and his team had done.

We had five boys who were marked for destiny in 1958 even if they weren't quite aware of it when the sectionals began. Mike Walker, Joe Krutzsch, Bryson Wilkinson, Dick Haslam, and Bill Burget were right out of a movie script. Walker was the lean, red-haired top rebounder at Forward. Brash Joe Krutzsch, the other Forward, led the team in scoring with 18 points per game. Bryson Wilkinson at Guard was as relaxed a human as God ever created; his nickname was "Sleep" because he ambled so affably and humorously through life with nary a worry. Dick Haslam at Guard was the spark plug floor-general. And Bill Burget was the work-horse Center, highly underrated, but very appreciated by his teammates. Our coach was a recent graduate from Indiana University, 25-year old Dick Baumgartner, who was about to cement his reputation as a genius.

The Famous Run

These five Indiana schoolboys were about to embark on a journey that very few in this world are blessed to take part in. But first they had to win their Sectional tournament to qualify. In most minds, this was not really going to be a problem. Baumgartner had taught them the game the way it was supposed to be played. And the team had forged in response a 15-5 record during the 1957-58 regular season.

This did not exactly send reporters scurrying to sing their praises; it was only a modestly accomplished record. But something was taking place as the season wore on that could not be seen on the surface and certainly did not show up in the reporting of the scribes. It was taking place in the minds of each of the players. These five boys had jelled into a highly disciplined TEAM. They played a clinging defense that harried their opponents and forced repeated errors, while taking high percentage shots and capitalizing on their natural quickness, all of which ground out solid victories and showed promise perhaps for something special to come. Baumgartner made them play as a hard-nosed unit, not as selfish individuals, and these five young men responded with a swelling self-assurance. It foretold, to those who were observant, that something big was brewing.

To win our Sectional tournament, we began by dispatching lowly New Market with ease in the first game 57-46, but then got the scare of our lives as tiny Alamo took us into overtime. How could this be happening, we lamented? Alamo was dinky and had no great standouts. But they did have one thing; they had heart, and they were opportunistic. They capitalized on several mistakes of ours to tie us at the end of regulation time, and to stay tied to us with three seconds left in overtime. But Joe Krutzsch sank a clutch jump shot from the top of the key as the buzzer sounded to pull off a dramatic win, 64-62. A giant sigh of relief swept over all of us in the stands. The next two teams, Linden and Waveland, fell easily, 78-49 and 59-43. We were now Sectional champions, which put us into the run for glory that March brings to Indiana every spring.

We now had to win our Regional tournament, which would qualify us for the Semi-State tournament, and if we won that, then we would be in the Final Four at Butler Fieldhouse. No easy feat for sure. But we were Hoosiers, and we were young. Optimism in March comes naturally to such a breed.

The Regionals at Greencastle proved to be no problem whatsoever. We rolled over Rockville 70-48 in the afternoon game, and then did likewise to Attica in the final during the evening, 85-41. These were not big towns, and certainly not big schools. They played spunky basketball, but were no match for Big Red, Mighty Joe, the Floor General, Sleep, and the Workhorse. That "esprit de corps" that wins all wars and is hammered into all fighting men in their boot camps had now taken over the Crawfordsville Five. A quietly profound confidence saturated their personas and their play. They had jelled. They were ready to shake up the world of Indiana basketball, and they sensed it.

The Real Test – the Semi-State

But now the small towns were done with. The coming weekend at Purdue Fieldhouse was the Semi-State tournament, and we had to play our first big city teams – Lafayette Jefferson, and then probably East Chicago Washington if we made it past Lafayette in the afternoon. Lafayette Jeff had beaten us 60-48 during the regular season. They had won more Semi-State Championships than any other team in Indiana. They were tough and polished. They were used to the big games. They were intimidating. In the minds of every reporter covering the tournament that year, they were the overwhelming favorites to beat us. No one gave Crawfordsville a chance against mighty Lafayette Jefferson that blustery spring week-end in March of 1958. They were pros; we were farm boys. They would roll over us like Rommel's tanks in the deserts of Egypt, said the "experts."

It appeared bleak for Baumgartner's boys. But one thing was overlooked by the commentators. Crawfordsville had jelled, coming  together late in the season in what all coaches look for in their teams, that inimitable cohesiveness that carries individuals far beyond what they are capable of doing singularly. Consequently Crawfordsville's Five had acquired an implacable self-assurance in their Sectional and Regional triumphs that didn't show on the radar screens of the media. But it was there in the minds of the team. They were ready to make history.

First task was to defeat Lafayette Jefferson. The tension hung thick in the air as the two teams warmed up that Saturday afternoon of March 15, 1958 in the Purdue Fieldhouse. Crawfordsville took a 13-4 lead in the first quarter, serving notice that they were a team to be reckoned with. Lafayette fans were dumbfounded. Crawfordsville then extended the lead to 37-14 at halftime with a 24 point second quarter blitz to blow Jefferson not just off the court, but out of the Purdue Fieldhouse and into the cornfields surrounding Lafayette. We have all heard the phrase, "hitting nothing but the net." That is what our boys did with the basketball that second quarter. They scored from the perimeter, from the key, on the fast break, and underneath. They squashed the Broncos like an anvil coming down on bamboo stickmen. The scoring for the game was: Krutzsch (16 pts), Burget (15 pts), Walker (12 pts), Wilkinson (8 pts), and Haslam (8 pts). Their defense held mighty Jefferson to a pitiful .197 scoring percentage. The final score was 61-41.

Bedlam reigned in the Athenian sector of the stands. We loyal fans felt we had just witnessed a game for the ages. The poise and dominance that the Crawfordsville Five showed as they took over every aspect of the game was something to behold. The farm boys had routed the pros, overpowering one of the toughest, most competitive teams in IHSAA history.

In this writer's opinion, it was one of the great games of Hoosier basketball lore because Crawfordsville was such an underdog in all the experts' minds. No one gave us a duck's chance in a pool of alligators. But the Crawfordsville Five didn't give a damn about "experts," nor the reputation of mighty Lafayette Jefferson. They were a team of destiny, and they knew it.  

In the Semi-State final that night, we continued to play tough and disciplined basketball, and rolled over East Chicago Washington, 70-59. East Chicago was another big city team comprised of tall, rangy players who could shoot and crash the boards. They had put together a sterling 22-3 season record, they had a legendary coach, John Baratto, and came into the game that night as the definite favorite. But Crawfordsville was not to be denied. They had taken on the role of "giant killers," and East Chicago Washington was just another giant to be slain. Baumgartner's Boys clearly had Butler Fieldhouse and a trip to the State Finals in their gun sights. Suffocating defense and superior scoring (.421 to .378) clinched the Semi-State crown for Walker, Krutzsch and their comrades. It was off to Indianapolis and a spot in history for the Athenians.

The State Finals

The Indiana State Finals at Butler Fieldhouse on March 22, 1958 pitted four teams against each other. In the opener, Fort Wayne South would play the Springs Valley Blackhawks from French Lick, while Crawfordsville would play the frequent finalist and powerhouse, Muncie Central Bearcats, in the second game. The winners would meet that evening for the coveted Indiana Basketball State Championship.

Butler Fieldhouse

Once again our boys were rated underdogs to Muncie Central. Their record of four previous state championships was their calling card. They had a great basketball tradition, and they showed it in the confidence they exuded. Unfortunately for them, tradition and past championships weren't good enough. They ran up against the Crawfordsville Five who were impervious to reputations and "expert opinion." At the end of the first quarter, Crawfordsville had smothered the Bearcats with their defense and led 13-4. By halftime, the lead was 27-20. C'ville was playing its usual hard-nosed strategy with balanced scoring among the five starters. But Muncie had not won four previous state championships because they wore pretty uniforms. They were a powerful and resourceful team. They rallied to a 37-32 lead at the end of the third quarter.

Was this the end of our magical run, we thought? Would Muncie Central prove that big city teams prevailed when it came to getting into the final championship game? We were visibly alarmed in the stands. But Crawfordsville dramatically surged ahead, outscoring the Bearcats 21-8 in the last period to win a thrilling come-from-behind victory, 53-45. To show the superb balance of the team, Krutzsch scored 11 points, Walker 8 points, Burget 9, Wilkinson 9, and Haslam 12. Baumgartner had taught them well.

We Athenians in the stands thundered our approval with stomping enthusiasm and waves of unbridled joy. This was basketball nirvana. We were in the final game for the Indiana State Championship. Yes, we would have to go up against the imposing Fort Wayne South Archers who had bested upstart Springs Valley earlier that day, but we were "giant killers." We looked forward to the final encounter of our Cinderella run.

"Giant killers" is, indeed, what we would have to be in that final game because Fort Wayne had Mike McCoy at 7'0" playing Center and Tom Bolyard at 6'7" playing Forward. Our tallest player was Bill Burget at 6'3". Still we were optimistic. We had sailed through three "big city" teams in a row, and we intended to do the same against Fort Wayne.

The first quarter ended up 12-12. We played Paul Bunyan and his fellow giants to a draw. Things were looking good; we felt they could be beat. We slipped a little in the second quarter and went to the locker-room at halftime down 28-22, but still very much in the game. The third quarter, however, was disastrous, for the magical rally that had always been there before against Lafayette, East Chicago and Muncie did not materialize. Noticeable fatigue set in. We had played an exhausting game in the late afternoon to win over Muncie Central and our boys simply ran out of gas and up against a precision team of giants who were not going to be beat that night. They controlled the backboards gobbling up 54 rebounds to our 33. The final score was 63-34. We made a gallant run; we never gave up, pressing to the end to try and force a miracle. But it was not to be.

Fort Wayne South was the 1958 Indiana Basketball State Champion; Crawfordsville was the runner-up. Dick Haslam was awarded the Arthur L. Trester Award for Best Mental Attitude. It was well-deserved. Baumgartner's Boys could hold their heads high. They had come so far against such great odds. It was bittersweet, but they had proved they were truly a team of destiny, and champions in their own right.

CHS seniors 1958—L to R  Dick Haslam, Joe Krutzsch, Mike Walker, and Bryson Wilkinson

The Aftermath

As my friends and I drove the 50-mile journey home that night, I remember that we actually were not sad. As I think back on that trip today, a famous passage from The Reivers comes to mind, William Faulkner's marvelous tale about a young lad growing up in Mississippi, and the horse race that he ran so gallantly in on a black stallion named Lightning as he was coming of age. It is metaphor for what Mike Walker and his comrades had just experienced in that frenzied month of March in 1958:

"Carried on the back of Lightning! Racing on a jet black shape! It took me completely. Blood, skin, bones, and memory. I was no longer held fast on earth, but free, fluid, part of the air and sun. Running my first race. A man-sized race, with people, grown people, more people than I could remember at one time before watching me run. And so I had my moment of glory, that brief fleeting glory which of itself cannot last. But while it does, it's the greatest game of all." [2]

That is what I am sure Crawfordsville's five youthful heroes were feeling so poignantly. They had just ridden "on the back of Lightning," their "first man-sized race" with tens of thousands of adoring Hoosier fans watching them run for glory.

Mike and Wilk and their comrades had dreamed boldly. They had fought magnificently. Their lives were just beginning, yet already they had tasted the sweet wondrous drama of it all in a way so few will ever be able to do. They could hardly wait to see what was still to come. The year, 1958, had graced their lives and enriched all of us in Crawfordsville. We will never forget that splendid run for glory. Naismith understood it, as did Faulkner and all the scribes and athletes who still to this day suit up every March to chase the dream of winning the basketball championship of the state of Indiana.

In the words of the great Irish playwright, John Anster, "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. For boldness has genius, power and magic in it." [3]

Mike Walker, Joe Krutzsch, Bryson Wilkinson, Dick Haslam, and Bill Burget lived what Anster was saying. They launched their adult lives with daring, with brilliance, and with an indelible camaraderie of "one for all – all for one" that sustains our very civilization. They were small town boys in a big city world, but they did not shrink in face of the awesome task facing them. They seized the day like Patton and MacArthur, like DiMaggio and Dempsey and Rickenbacker, and all the heroes of America's rich history.

"But they were just playing basketball," the reader will say. Yes, but they spun the normalcy of it all into the very verve that builds skyscrapers and composes symphonies. They fearlessly ran for glory and in doing so, they inspired us all to rise to our own life's challenges with equal verve. Life is a mysterious crucible, and if we can fathom any hint of meaning from it all, it lies here in how we choose to share what we are given. The Crawfordsville Five chose wisely and lived adventurously. We are all so much richer because of it.

Notes

1. Cited by Zak Keefer, "History of Our Hysteria: How Indiana Fell In Love with Basketball," Indianapolis Star, March 14, 2014. 

2. Film version (1969) of William Faulkner's, The Reivers, New York, Random House, 1962, Burgess Meredith narration.

3. John Anster, "Prelude at the Theatre," translation of Goethe's Faust, 1835.

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Nelson Hultberg is a freelance writer in Dallas, TX and the Director of Americans for a Free Republic www.afr.org. A graduate of Beloit College in Wisconsin, he spent 20 years growing up in Crawfordsville and has been a lifelong fan of not just basketball, but of Indiana itself. His articles have appeared in such publications as The American Conservative, Insight, Liberty, The Freeman, The Dallas Morning News, and the San Antonio Express-News, as well as on numerous Internet sites. He is the author of The Golden Mean: Libertarian Politics, Conservative Values. He can be reached at: NelsHultberg@aol.com