February 20, 2004, Peoria Journal Star
Reproduced with permission from the Journal Star
Kirk Wessler, Columnist
First time my dad saw the movie "Hoosiers," one scene got him so excited he couldn't wait to tell me about it.
He loved the caravan of cars at dusk, snaking across snowy cornfields as the citizens of tiny Hickory followed their high school basketball team to its next game.
"That's the way it was," Dad marveled. "That was Arenzville.
"There really is no other way to say this. Arenzville was Dad's life. Still is, for that matter, even though he left there in 1948 to attend Bradley University and never moved back.
Same goes for most of the kids with whom he grew up. Arenzville is who they are. Close. Friendly. Loyal. Proud.
Nestled in a valley on the southern border of Cass County, Arenzville (population about 450) is at the center of a square, cornered by Beardstown and Virginia to the north and Jacksonville and the intersection of state routes 100 and 104 to the south.
It's not a place you're likely to stop for a stretch break. It's not even a destination, unless it's September and you're headed to the annual Burgoo, a two-day village birthday party that serves a fine stew with friends and fun.
But Arenzville was, and still is, a nice place to call home. You can stroll from one end of town to the other in a few minutes and not get tired. Pretty much every face you see is a familiar one and comes equipped with a smile. If the face is strange, the last name usually isn't.
"Oh," I often heard when visiting as a child, "you're Harold and Wanda's grandson.
"That's the way it is. You might not know Arenzville, but Arenzville knows you.
In the winter of 1947-48, though, Arenzville became more than a somewhere-out-there dot on the map.
From an enrollment of 93 students, only 33 of them boys, Arenzville High put together a basketball team that rolled to 29 consecutive victories without a defeat and grabbed attention all the way to Chicago.
Led by a young, beloved disciplinarian of a coach named Jack Escorcia, the Raiders had finished 32-2 the previous season, bowing out in the regional final. Despite only two regulars as tall as 6 feet, Arenzville was renowned for being able to play fast or slow, whatever the situation demanded, and still win decisively. The average score of a Raiders game in '47-48 was 62-34.
But they played beneath the radar until early February, when the villagers loaded up two buses and an untold number of cars to drive two-lane roads for 250 miles through the snow to Aurora. There, in a benefit game for the March of Dimes, Arenzville knocked off a big and strong team from the Chicago suburb of Batavia.
Suddenly, the "little Davids" were big news. The Chicago Daily News published a team picture of the Raiders with a feature on their exploits.
"The greatest single thing that ever happened to Arenzville," the Beardstown newspaper gushed when the Raiders rose to 18th in The Associated Press state poll, which was topped by Pekin.
Prep basketball experts around the state started to consider Arenzville a contender to make the Sweet 16 in Champaign. That didn't shock the boys on the team; they had figured themselves capable of such feats all along. Indeed, this had been their goal since making the grade school state tournament four years prior.
They rolled through the Chapin District tourney, then stomped Jacksonville ISD in the first round of the Virginia Regional to set up a semifinal against Waverly, a team they twice had beaten - by 8 and 15 points - during the regular season.
The surviving Raiders players know what happened next, but they're still at a loss to explain why.
Ahead by eight points with five minutes to play, Arenzville missed its last 16 shots and lost by one point. To quote one of Coach Escorcia's favorite sayings: The Raiders "couldn't hit a bull in the (expletive) with a handful of rice."
"We couldn't even make layups," senior star Stan Lovekamp recalled the other day.
We were dining at a restaurant in Jacksonville, where former Arenzville teammates and cheerleaders from that season, and their spouses, met for their regular pilgrimmage.
There was Lovekamp, who went on to play at Western Illinois and who can still shoot it. A couple of years ago, he made 21 of 25 free throws to win a contest over in Macomb.
And there was Sonny Beets, whose real name is Paul but who everyone in Arenzville still calls Sonny. And my godfather, Don Wessler, my dad's cousin, who later played for a Culver-Stockton college team that defeated Florida State.
And my dad, "Little Maxie." What can I say about him, except he brought me up right, which meant teaching me about life and sports.
They talked about their glory days, yes. They joked and laughed, too, and recollected the dates they shared, the crazy things they did in the little town they still call home, regardless of where they live.
The stories were fun, but this gathering was so much more. In their faces and voices, I saw and heard a special kinship, a love, a bond they still share and will take to eternity.
After dinner, we drove over to Concord, to watch the basketball team from Triopia High, the consolidation Arenzville joined in the late 1950s.
Coached by former Bradley baseball player Brian Dour, Triopia recently had knocked off state-ranked Brown County. The bleachers were packed. Excitement is high.
Class A boys regionals start Monday, and throughout the state in towns like Arenzville, lifetime memories and friendships are still being made.
1946-47 Arenzville High School basketball team -- Back row, from left to right: Coach Jack Escorcia, Harlan Roegge, Wib Lippert, Leroy Lovekamp, John Lovekamp, Don Dober, Gordon Lippert, Max Wessler. Front row: Don Wessler, Marvin Schnake, Jim Jones, Stan Lovekamp, Paul Beets, Ken Roegge. With thanks to Willie Peck for providing a copy of the photo.
- Kirk Wessler is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. Write him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3216, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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