On the first night of spring in 1964, the Dodgeville Dodgers won the Wisconsin High School Boys’ Basketball Tournament in Madison.
When all the hugging, back-slapping and picture-taking was done, the team and their coaches piled into two vans for the hour-long drive back to Dodgeville along the winding, two-lane Highway 18. As they made their way through Verona, the first of several small towns along their route, folks had begun congregating on the sidewalks, eager to greet the champs as they went by.
By the time they hit downtown Mt. Horeb, home of one of their traditional rivals, Main Street was packed. The crowd, waving and cheering, pounded on the two vans as they passed. Drivers laid on their horns. Sirens blared.
At Ridgeway, the sheriff had put down road flares, cars parked haphazardly alongside the highway. And as they crested the big hill on the outskirts of Dodgeville, one of the players in the first van told his teammates to look behind them. The headlights from hundreds of cars and trucks twinkled back, the caravan now 7 or 8 miles long. Up front, lights flashing, the police proudly escorted them into town.
Over 3,000 people lined the streets of Dodgeville, population 2,911. The two vans slowly made their way down the main drag to unrelenting cheers and applause. Kids trotted alongside the motorcade, eager to get a glimpse of their heroes. It was almost 11:30 that night when the team finally made its way into the packed gymnasium of the high school for a hastily assembled celebration. The crowd went nuts.
It was a very big deal.
At the time, there were no divisions or class groupings in Wisconsin high-school sports. For a team of young men from a small-town school of about 400 students, even getting into the tournament was a major achievement. Winning it all meant competing on an even playing field open to 400-plus Wisconsin high schools and then playing through a bracket of opponents from schools with as many as 1800 kids.
Oh sure, it had been done before. Just ten years earlier, in 1954, Milan High School won the Indiana state basketball tournament. Their story ended up being the basis for the 1986 film Hoosiers.
The 1963-64 Dodgers probably won’t be remembered on the big screen. They are, however, the subject of a new book, “Dodgeville: Capturing Hearts,” by author Rick Birk.
They were also honored on Saturday, January 11th at Dodgeville High School to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their magical season. Health concerns, distance and an ill-timed ice storm conspired to keep some of them away. But eight players, four cheerleaders and representatives of two now-departed players were on hand for the reunion.
Birk, a Wisconsin native who was 11 at the time, was so captivated by the Dodgers exploits that nearly 50 years after the fact, he was compelled to write a book about it.
Ultimately, Birk’s story – the Dodgers’ story – is about simple, old-fashioned values. Hard work. Dedication. Commitment. Resilience. Grit. It’s about character. And characters.
The Dodgers’ coach was John “Weenie” Wilson. Coach Wilson was evidently a demanding taskmaster. Probably not the kind of guy teen boys naturally gravitated to. But his players responded to him. He knew how to get kids to push themselves and work together. So much so that he’s the only person ever inducted into all three Wisconsin high school sports halls of fame as a football, baseball and basketball coach.
His basketball team that season was a perfect 25-0. On March 21, 1964, they put it all on the line at the University of Wisconsin Field House in Madison for the final game against Milwaukee North – the biggest and most athletic team they’d ever seen.
During their pre-game warm-up routine, North players dunked the ball with ease. The crowd ooh-ed and aah-ed, and counted every slam out loud. Weenie told his boys not to look.
The rest is modern lore, the details of which have been told and retold for two generations in these parts.
These five sons of Dodgeville — Pat Flynn, Bruce Harrison, Rick Brown, Bob Rock and Corky Evans — started and played the entire game.
Battling nerves – and a Goliath from the big city – the Dodgers kept it close in the first half, pulled away in the second and went on to win, 59-45.
Fifty years later, it’s still a big deal.
Read Where Are They Now?
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