It’s a moment etched forever in their minds, ready to be recalled at any time.
Fifty years have passed since the Collinsville Kahoks won their last state basketball championship with a 55-52 victory over Quincy at Assembly Hall in Champaign.
But the players on the 1965 team, who were honored Saturday night at Fletcher Gym, clearly remember when they were the teen-aged toasts of the town.
“It seems like it was yesterday, but we know it wasn’t,” said Steve Gauen, the point guard on the team that finished 30-2 under coach Vergil Fletcher. “The bottom line is it’s great to be recognized after 50 years. We appreciate it.”
Gauen along with teammates Dennis Pace, Jack Darlington, Don Birger, Bruce Evans and Larry Shasteen participated in the 15-minute ceremony that was held before the Kahoks lost to Quincy 39-34 in a nonconference game.
One of Fletcher’s sons, Marc, was on hand, as were assistant coach Frank Pitol’s children: Stan, Scott and Susan. Fletcher and Pitol died in 2009.
After the game, first-year Quincy coach Andy Douglas, grasping the symbolism of the event enjoyed by fans of both schools, joked: “Where’s our trophy?”
But it was the Kahoks who earned the heavy hardware, a point good-naturedly made by Gauen after he credited the Blue Devils for fighting like champions.
Even the Quincy fans chuckled.
Heaven on the hardwood
By now, everyone knows about the knack Fletcher had for putting together winning basketball teams. His innovative ball press flummoxed opponents, who knew there was nowhere to hide from the Kahoks’ traps and long arms.
But it wasn’t just the defense. Behind All-State center Pace, forward Birger and guards Darlington, Gauen and Harry Parker, Collinsville also had plenty of offensive firepower.
Including the Kahoks’ super-sectional victory over Lawrenceville, the 6-foot-3 Pace racked up 112 points in four tournament games.
“I went on a roll starting in the super-sectional where the hoop seemed like the size of a washtub,” said Pace, who had 41 points against Lawrenceville, 27 against Lockport in the quarterfinals, 29 against Chicago Marshall in the semifinals and 15 against Quincy. “Everything I did was right. I can’t explain why, but everything just seemed to fall in place.”
Pace said Fletcher’s system created opportunities for his game to shine.
“I was very fortunate,” said Pace, who lives in Naples, Fla. “Steve Gauen led the world in scoring as a junior-high player. He averaged 20-some points a game. He got to high school and Vergil said he had to give me the ball. It worked real well for me.
“That was just the way Vergil played. We were a post-oriented team, and I was fortunate enough to be a (center). I wasn’t the biggest post man around, but I had the ability to jump and I was quick. I took advantage of some of the bigger guys that way. ... But I didn’t care if I had two points as long as we won the ballgame.”
Gauen, who lives in Austin, Texas, said intangible qualities were a huge advantage for the Kahoks.
“I think, one, we were very focused,” Gauen said. “Two, we played together. Because we didn’t grow up having a ‘star’ player, we learned to play together. So that senior year, as things happened, it all came together. That was the key component. Everybody knew their role, everybody knew their place.
“While we did not have other skill sets (like) height and speed, we made up for it with tenacity and turnovers. We would average 20 points a game on turnovers. That (ball press) made the difference when we played the taller teams.”
Darlington, who lives in Glen Carbon, remembered 1964-65 as “a rebuilding year.”
“That’s what is was supposed to be. It’s just amazing that things happened that way,” said Darlington, who, like his teammates, had been bitterly disappointed in 1964 when the Kahoks were stunned 55-50 by the Centralia Orphans in the Salem Super-Sectional and finished 28-1.
“Denny and I probably worked harder the year before than we did (in 1965) because we had no expectations,” Darlington said. “Then as we went farther along, it started building up to that crescendo.
“The main thing to take away from that for all the new kids that are playing today is, when you talk about a team effort, that’s what it is. You pass the ball and get it to the open man. That’s how you take care of business.”
Beating the Blue Devils
Quincy, coached by the colorful Sherrill Hanks, wasn’t a huge team, although center John Buch was 6-8 and stood 5 inches taller than any Collinsville player.
The “Cinderella Blue Devils,” as they were known throughout Illinois, featured the scoring exploits of 5-7 guard Gary Thompson.
Collinsville, which had defeated the Blue Devils 64-63 less than a month earlier, began to pull away from Quincy in the second quarter, but couldn’t shake the Blue Devils and led just 41-34 after three.
The Blue Devils trailed 54-48 with 30 seconds to play, but inched within 54-52 before a free throw by Pace with two seconds left clinched the title.
Birger said the Kahoks already were confident, but sensed an uptick in that department after the convincing super-sectional win over Lawrenceville.
“Denny was just unconscious,” said Birger, who lives in Edwardsville. “It was such a high because everything we did was clicking. The passing, the defense. It was a high, and I don’t remember that about any other game.”
Pace said without Fletcher’s tough practices and strict discipline, the Kahoks never could have survived playing the semifinals and championship game in a three-hour span.
“The (semifinal) game was over around 3:30 or 4,” Pace said. “We started the next game at 6:30. We had 2 1/2 hours. We showered, changed clothes, ate, came back, got our clothes on and went back out and played again. There are very few teams that could have played two games in one day and pressed the whole game like we did.
“I can remember the fatigue and cramps after that last game were excruciating. But the thrill of victory was there to make it feel a whole lot better.”
More than a coach
Fletcher was 747-170 in 32 seasons at Collinsville. His 792 wins at Collinsville, Pana and Mount Pulaski rank fourth all-time in Illinois, and his victory total at Collinsville also is fourth-most among coaches at one school.
Darlington said Fletcher had the Kahoks prepared for every possible situation that could arise during a game.
“(Gauen) and I were talking the other night about how some of the coaches these days are jumping up and down on the sidelines and trying to tell people what to do,” Darlington said. “It’s too late by then. Vergil had us knowing what we had to do before the game started. If you didn’t get it by then, I don’t think you were going to get it. He had us ready to play.”
Birger said Fletcher “loved us all.”
“He worked us, and I think that’s why we were successful,” Birger said. “He worked us hard. He kept us in shape, and the full-court press is what won our games for us. A lot of teams had great shooters, but they weren’t used to that full-court press every play of the game.”
Pace echoed Darlington and Birger.
“(Fletcher) made you focus so strong on what was going to happen that night, and he made you play so hard,” Pace said. “The way he used to always say it was, ‘Focus and play as hard as you can, as if it’s your last ballgame. Some day, it will be.’ So you did that every night. Put it out there on the floor every night and do the best you can, and good things can happen.”
Other members of the team who dressed for the state tournament were Dennis Arnold, Keith Zeisel, Mike Vincent and Mike Belobraydic. Shasteen and Ron Burton were on the team in the regular season, but did not dress for state.
Parker, who was a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets and Cleveland Indians, died in 2012. Vincent and Belobraydic also are deceased.