Boys Basketball

Thirty years later, Okawville hasn’t forgotten the Rockets’ last trip to state

The Okawville Rockets were the 1987 state runners-up.
The Okawville Rockets were the 1987 state runners-up.

Thirty years later, nothing has changed.

The Venice Red Devils are still the 1987 Illinois Class A state basketball champions, and the second-place trophy still resides with the Okawville Rockets.

Okawville is headed back to the state tournament for the first time since that memorable March three decades ago. Many Rockets fans are still asking the same question: Was it really a foul on Okawville senior Doug Dingwerth with five seconds remaining in a tie game that helped decide a state championship?

“I think I’m guarding my man and the next thing I know I get called for a foul,” said Dingwerth, now a 47-year-old oral and maxillofacial surgeon who lives near Dallas. “I remember when the whistle blew, I was looking around like ‘What happened?’ I had no idea it was me.”

With Venice guards Wilfred Wigfall and Vincent Harris killing time, passing the ball back and forth in the front court while waiting for a final shot, Dingwerth was guarding Red Devils all-stater and future Michigan State player Jesse Hall just to the left side of the free-throw line.

Replays of the play do not show much contact, but the call was made. Hall stepped to the line and hit two foul shots that gave Venice a 56-54 victory at the University of Illinois’ Assembly Hall.

A 22-footer at the buzzer by Okawville’s Jeff Luechtefeld from the left wing came up short and the Red Devils began celebrating their second state title. One of the announcers on the Illinois High School Association television broadcast described the foul call saying, “Maybe only one person in the gym saw it.”

I remember when the whistle blew, I was looking around like ‘What happened?’ I had no idea it was me.

Doug Dingwerth, Okawville Rockets

Dingwerth played college basketball at Washington University in St. Louis, then attended medical school and dental school before eventually settling in Texas with his wife, former Okawville cheerleader Karla Wulf.

Dingwerth will be following Okawville’s state semifinal game Friday from Texas on Twitter and through live streaming on the Internet.

“They’ve got a talented bunch, and I really hope they can bring one home,” he said.

Turning back time

He has long since moved on from that controversial call, but Dingwerth is reminded of it practically every time he returns home to Okawville for visits with family and friends.

Okawville is a basketball town and that one moment in time has taken on a life of its own.

Was it a foul? Why was a call made in such a huge situation away from the ball? What would have happened if the game reached overtime?

“I try to move on from that kind of stuff, but you always think about it,” Dingwerth said. “I definitely think I didn’t foul him, but then again, the ref was right there and saw it differently. It was a great game, and when I watch it, I see other things we did wrong and could have done better at various points in the game.

“We get together every year around Thanksgiving time. It always comes up in conversation, and there’s a lot of joking and prodding about it.”

Dingwerth and Luechtefeld each had great state tournaments, with Luechtefeld scoring 25 points in the state title game on 13-for-20 shooting and 24 in the quarterfinal win over Watseka. Dingwerth had 16 points in the title game and 18 in the quarterfinals and super-sectional.

At that time, three wins were needed to win state and each player was instrumental in Okawville’s run to the title game, including Darren Stine, Kevin Renengarbe, Keith Riechmann and others.

“We had played together since grade school,” Luechtefeld said. “Everybody knew they were going to play; that’s what you did in Okawville. The two choices in sports were basketball and baseball. Everybody really understood the role that they played, and they did it well.”

Dingwerth’s 14-foot jumper with 2:08 remaining gave Okawville its last lead in the state title game. A free throw by Stine with 1:40 remaining tied it at 54-54, setting the stage for the wild finish.

Maybe it was the lucky blue sweater being worn by Venice coach Clinton Harris, Jr., who stood roughly 6-foot-9 and towered over everyone. Maybe it was Hall’s 19 points and nine rebounds, and the Red Devils’ rebounding advantage the day.

It should never have been decided like that ... I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me since then and said they’ve never seen anything like it to determine the state championship.

Dave Luechtefeld, former Okawville coach

“Even though we were very disappointed at the time, when you look back on it you’re proud of it, and it’s something you still talk about,” Dingwerth said. “Whether you like it or not, you’re part of that unfortunate scenario that happened.”

Venice, which finished 29-3, had two future Division I players. Hall played at Michigan State and later Division II (now Division I) SIU Edwardsville, and Dale Turner played at Northern Iowa while Wigfall played at Division II Missouri-St. Louis.

For Okawville (29-7), Luechtefeld played at Saint Louis University, Dingwerth at Washington University and Stine in junior college.

Bittersweet memories

Okawville coach Dave Luechtefeld showed restraint in his post-game remarks to the media. Now a retired state senator, the former Okawville High and SLU basketball and baseball standout still chooses his words carefully.

“It should never have been decided like that,” he said of the late call away from the ball. “The two kids were more or less just leaning on each other. We’ve got the video. There’s nothing you can do about it.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me since then and said they’ve never seen anything like it to determine the state championship.”

Dave Luechtefeld praised Venice for winning state that day even though he felt the call was wrong.

Ranting and raving would not have helped a bit. It would not have made a difference in the outcome of the game.

Dave Luechtefeld, former Okawville coach

“I’ve always tried to be under control, and it was something I couldn’t do anything about anyway,” he said. “Ranting and raving would not have helped a bit. It would not have made a difference in the outcome of the game.

“We had a great season. Everybody at the ballgame knew that we were just as good a team as the team that beat us.”

When Jeff Luechtefeld was playing for SLU, the Billikens faced Hall and Michigan State in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals. That time, Okawville “won” as Jeff Luechtefeld and the Billikens knocked off Hall and the Spartans.

But it didn’t change the outcome of one whistle blown in Champaign on a March evening 30 years ago.

“A lot of people still talk about it because of the situation at the end of the ballgame,” Dave Luechtefeld said. “Maybe we wouldn’t have won anyway. It would have been a tough game even if they don’t make the call.

“You don’t know how it would have turned out, but I’ve always felt really good about the season because we accomplished a lot.”

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders