Hidden Stories From A Championship Team

One hundred twenty-five years ago, my great grandfather was one of the men that helped found the town of Clatonia.  It was supposed to be a bigger town.  The founders envisioned Clatonia to be the county seat of Clay County.  However, Lancaster County to the north and Gage County to the south claimed what was to be Clay County.  Clatonia was to remain just a small blimp on the map for all-time.

That small blimp was my hometown.  My brother and I still own the small farm where my great grandfather built the dugout that would first house his family.  He bought lumber from Nebraska City and built a home.  The house that stands on the family farm is over 100 years old and was built by my grandfather.

All this has nothing to do with sports.  There was one other anniversary this year.  It marks the 60th anniversary of the Clatonia Cardinals Class D state championship.  Clatonia was only 65 years old when a special group of high school boys stormed through the season 27 – 0.

The Clatonia School and now the Wilber-Clatonia consolidation has experienced only 3 other state championships in any sport.  Three were in basketball and the 2016 Wilber-Clatonia football team.  All were great accomplishment, but I doubt if any had as many side stories as the 1958, 27 – 0  Clatonia basketball team.

The population sign outside Clatonia read only 220 residents in 1958.  It was different back then, though.  Most of the players on that team came from small farms located in the school district.  Small farms are now a thing of the past.  What happened in 1958 couldn’t repeat itself today.

Suiting up for the state tournament in 1958 were 10 seniors.  All were very good athletes, and most could have started for any team they faced.  What most people don’t realize is there were at least three freshmen on the team that year that surely would have started for any Class D team.

Terry Koch, Larry Vonderfecht and Paul Heller were more talented than some of those 10 seniors.  No one made a stink about it.  No parents complained and the players themselves never caused any dissention on the team.  Could that possibly happen today?

This blog would be much too long to talk about what happened in 1958.  The end of the story occurred when the Cardinal team defeated Red Willow, a town near McCook, Nebraska 63 – 47.  Red Willow would win the state championship in 1959.  Their coach, Don McKillup, would publicly state that his state championship team was not his best team.  That distinction went to the team that had been demolished by Clatonia in 1958.

I want to tell two stories.  I hope the people involved aren’t offended as I tell these stories from that championship season.  One of the reserves on the team was senior Bill Schernikau.  It wasn’t a season of joy for Bill.  His mother was sick with leukemia.  I was lucky to interview Bill for a book I wrote about the team.

Bill’s father was a farmer.  His mother was much younger than his father, but theirs was a true love story.  When Bill’s mother got sick, she taught Bill things that most farm boys didn’t know.  He learned how to cook, do the laundry and other things that his father never knew how to do.  Bill’s mother knew something that Bill had no clue; she didn’t have long to live.

Before Christmas in 1957, Bill’s mother went into the hospital for a blood transfusion.  That’s what she told Bill anyway.  She promised to be home by Christmas but was too sick.  Bill’s mother died in January.  The day of her funeral, a photographer visited Clatonia Schools to take pictures.  Bill isn’t on the basketball team picture in the 1958 school annual.  He was attending his mother’s funeral.

Bill continued to play after his mother’s death, but never with the joy the other player’s felt.  He felt responsible for helping raise his younger sister.  He felt the responsibility of taking care of his father.

On her death bed, Bill’s mother had her husband promise to make it possible for the children of the family to be able to attend college.  He kept that promise by selling the farm to pay for the college expenses.  Bill wanted to become an educator.  His mentor was my aunt, Virginia Else, an English teacher.

Bill became a very successful teacher and administrator.  He left Clatonia and never looked back.  He has never returned to a team reunion.  The pains of the 1958 season are still very raw 60 years later.

My uncle, Gene Else had coached the team from the late 1940’s.  In 1957, it appeared Clatonia was headed to the state tournament.  They only had  one loss and had avenged that loss.  Hickman, a huge underdog, used a last second rebound off a missed free throw and put back to defeat Clatonia and sent them home heartbroken.

Even though he was my uncle, I never found out what really happened.   He suddenly resigned from Clatonia and left before the school year ended.  He left a team that lost only one senior and would be favored to win all their games in 1958.

The Clatonia school board hired a very successful coach from the little town of Otoe.  His name was Bob Ihrig.  He has a story that I never knew until I did my research for the book.

Bob loved sports but couldn’t play in high school.  He had a bad heart and almost died at one point.  Bob was a very unusual man.  Despite having limited physical activity in high school, Bob lied about his health and entered the military before he graduated from high school.  He made it through basic training.  Then Bob was shipped to Japan.  On the way over, his weakened heart almost killed him again.  He was discharged from the military.  He earned his GED and entered Kearney State College to get a degree in education.

Clatonia was Bob’s third coaching stop.  He was the polar opposite of the former coach, Gene Else.  Bob was like a drill sergeant.  He forced his players to do drills that they had never seen.  Somehow it all worked.  One player told me that Gene Else gave them the fundamentals to become good and Bob Ihrig gave them the toughness and conditioning to get to the next level.

Bob was put in charge of starting a football program his first year.  During practices, he would scrimmage with his players, not using any pads.  Tom Heller, one of the 10 seniors on the basketball team, told me they all hated to tackle Coach Ihrig.  With his knees pumping high, it made him very tough to bring down.

During the basketball season, Bob would scrimmage with the team.  He was just as tough on the court as on the football field.  Once, he hit reserve post player, Bob Gerdes.  Bob was furious and was going to quit.  One of his teammates talked him out of it and his dad told him to go to the coach and apologize for his part in the fight.  That cleared the air and gave Gerdes a new-found respect from his coach.

The thing was, no one except for one family knew about Bob Ihrig’s bad heart.  The team’s leading scorer was Rodney Sagehorn.  The Ihrig family was close to the Sagehorn family.  The Sagehorn’s never told anyone about Bob’s bad heart.

The man who couldn’t play high school sports and was driven from the military due to poor health must have been living a dream.  He had a great team and his health allowed him to do the things he could never do in his high school.

Bob Ihrig’s coaching career ended after that one year at Clatonia.  He visited a doctor shortly after the season.  The doctor told him the stress of coaching would kill him.  His daughter, Pam, told me for the book it was the only time she saw his father cry.

The family packed up and left Clatonia.  There were rumors of why Coach Ihrig suddenly moved out of town.  Was it debts or gambling?  Only the Sagehorn family knew the whole story.  Only the Sagehorn’s stayed close as the Ihrig family moved to Minnesota.

Bob Ihrig’s heart did not hold up.  He was actually declared dead while coaching a prison baseball team in Minnesota.  Experimental open-heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic gave Bob a few more years.   Only five years after beating up the Clatonia football team without pads and running up and down the court with his basketball team, his heart gave out.  Bob died in 1963.  Now the people of Clatonia knew the truth.

There are always a lot of feel-good stories about championship teams. The 1958 Clatonia basketball team has many of those.  One of my favorite is the 1958 team leader, Oren Miller had a daughter, Angie, that led a Wilber-Clatonia team to a 27 – 0 state championship exactly 25 years later.  The 1958 team shared those feel-good stories this past weekend at the school reunion.  I hope the struggles of Bill Schernikau and Bob Ihrig will be remembered, too.