Sixty Years after the Dream
By Ray Compton
Magic had not quite yet arrived in the rest of Indiana when it came to high school basketball folklore.
It was only March 1953.
Fascinating and history-grabbing chapters were waiting to be scripted for the state’s storied basketball annals in 1953. The Milan Miracle and Bobby Plump were in the on-deck circle, waiting for 1954. And the Indianapolis Crispus Attucks, Ray Crowe and Oscar Robertson were still two years away from winning their historical climb up the trophy stand. So, it would be easy to overlook the 1953 state tournament, which eventually would be won by South Bend Central, a now defunct school.
Unless you lived in Zionsville in 1953. And, unless, you were a witness to the rousing tournament run by the local high school, known as Zionsville Union in those days.
Certainly, winning sectional and regional titles to secure Sweet 16 berths may have become habit forming in some Hoosier communities. For instance, Lafayette Jeff has won 38 regional titles in the 103-year history of the state tournament. Marion and Muncie Central sit at 37 and 34 Sweet 16 showings, while Kokomo, Anderson and Logansport have notched 34, 30 and 27 regional championships.
And what about Zionsville?
The Eagles have been sitting at one for 61 years. Repeat one. Repeat 61 years. Thus, it is little wonder that the 1953 state tournament still holds wonderful memories and moments for those who carved their name into the history books at Zionsville High School.
A Quiet Time in America
As guard Jack Hendryx remembered, the decade of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency “was a peaceful time.”
Especially in 1953. World War II was in the rearview mirror and the Korean War was winding down. Social conflict was still down the road. America was exploding in more docile frontiers in 1953. James Salk provided the world a vaccination for polio, Corvettes were coming off the assembly line for the first time and Americans watched in record numbers when Lucy gave “birth” to Desi Arnaz Jr. on “I Love Lucy.” More than 71 percent of the country’s television sets tuned in that night.
And other sports and entertainment stories were still to come in 1953. An 18-year-old named Elvis auditioned twice at Sun Records; a team called from Bloomington won the NCAA basketball title; and Bill Vukovich nabbed the Indianapolis 500 pole with a speed of 132 miles per hour.
Meanwhile, teenagers in Zionsville may have been attracted to denim jeans that were available for $1.19.
A Place Called Zionsville
If America was going through a peaceful journey in 1953, then so too was Zionsville, a farming community north of Indianapolis. The 1950 census listed 1,565 residents. Meanwhile, only 31 students comprised the senior class at the tiny high school. According to the 2010 census, Zionsville hosted 14,160 citizens, and the high school on Mulberry Street enrolled almost 2,000 students this year.
“Zionsville was just a small town back then,” remembered Sam Fix, a student at the high school in 1953. “My, gosh, all we had then was downtown. There was not much north of 334 or west of Sixth. There were no housing additions.”
And there were few problems in Zionsville. It was Mayberry before Andy Griffith and Barney Fife turned a fictional North Carolina community into a television show in the 1960s.
“You could leave your keys in the car because you knew no one would steal it,” said Frank Huff, a starting forward on the 1953 team, who fondly remembers when his mother would send him to the grocery store to pick up something needed for dinner and how he could “charge” it to the family account. “If there was crime in Zionsville, you didn’t know about it. It was a fun, fun place to be.”
Socially, teenagers went to the Custard Garden on First Street. Or like their parents and other adults they would flock to the high school gymnasium. Basketball was a top priority on everyone’s calendar.
“The whole town went to the basketball games,” Fix noted.
The Cracker Box
Of course, there were other reasons for the love affair with high school basketball games in 1953. There was no football team at the high school. Boys played basketball or baseball.
There was plenty of room for a baseball field in the fields surrounding Zionsville. But the size of the gymnasium was a different matter. The fathers of the school scraped together enough money to build a “gymnasium” in 1925. There was only one major problem. The floor was too short. Thus, there were two half-courts marked (one for each end) and the end lines were pinched by concrete walls. With a little help, 500 fans could be squeezed in and some were virtually sitting on the court.
“It was a cracker box,” said Fix.
“It was tight,” said Jim Barrick, a freshman on the 1953 team. “I was working my butt off in practice one day and dove for a loose ball. I hit the wall pretty hard.”
Eventually, Zionsville built a new home — Varsity Gymnasium (5,000 seats) with a regulation court — in 1956. But for 1953, there was the Cracker Box and perhaps a small home court advantage for the Eagles.
“Even the lighting was different,” said Huff. “It had to be a tough place for the visitors.”
Zionsville was bracing for a strong run by the Eagles in 1953. There were seven seniors on the roster of 10. Most grew up within two blocks of each other.
“I think I went to school with most of them for all 12 years — elementary and secondary,” noted Huff. “We all knew each other and we were great friends. We played baseball together and then we played basketball together.”
And they looked out for each other off the court too. Starting forward Ken Atkinson once set up reserve guard Meredith Abbitt with a blind date. Abbitt, a 5-foot-5-inch reserve, is still married to his date, Louise, and still lives in Zionsville.
“We were blessed because there were no jealousies on the team” Hendryx said. “We all got along and we all respected each.”
And that respect for the team spilled over into the community.
“There was just a great affinity for our [senior] class,” said Hendryx, who now resides in Florida. “I think all of us could have run for mayor and won. Many of us went to college and we competed for our grades. No one was embarrassed to have their name in the newspaper for being on the honor roll.”
But perhaps the most shining star of the class of 1953 was the man in the center, Allen Wharry. Today, Zionsville has five players 6-foot-4 or taller, including 7-foot junior Derrik Smits. Wharry, at 6-4, was the only Eagle over 6-2 in 1953.
“Big Al was a hulk of a guy,” remembered longtime friend Mike Maguire, “and he was a great man. I can’t think of anybody who didn’t like him.”
Wharry, who briefly attended Wabash but later pursued a legal and judicial career at Indiana University, is the third-leading scorer in Zionsville history. The gentle giant averaged 26 points in the two regional triumphs.
“He was a scoring machine and he was a giant in those days,” remembered Hendryx.
The Man Behind the Curtain
The name of Rosenstihl echoes loudly in Boone County. It was Alford (Al) Rosenstihl who coached the Sweet 16 team and it was his nephew, Jim, who starred at Zionsville in 1944 and who later became a Hall of Fame coach at Lebanon.
Both uncle and nephew learned basketball under Tony Hinkle at Butler.
“Al used the Hinkle System,” said Fix. “There was constant movement, players setting picks and rolling to the basket.”
The style of play worked in 1953. Despite lacking size, the Eagles frequently scored more than 60 points and once poured in 83 against Whitestown. The result was a 15-5 regular season record.
Rosenstihl’s coaching style could be simple. As a baseball coach, he just waved his arms when he wanted a player to steal a base.
“He was a strict guy, but he was as fair as fair can be,” said Huff. “He taught all of us good lessons.”
The March Run
By March of 1953, the citizens of Zionsville were anxiously awaiting the state tournament and its potential rewards.
“Those guys were our heroes,” Fix said. “There weren’t games on television and on Friday and Saturday we were all there at the games. We looked up to those guys. We still do.”
And if someone wanted to break in to a home in Zionsville during sectional week at Lebanon, they probably would not have encountered any defense.
“Zionsville just closed up,” Huff said. “People painted the front of their stores. If you got a ticket, you went to the game.”
That fixation grew with each tournament win. Dover and Thornton (which had defeated the Eagles in the county tournament in January) went down in the first two sectional games. Awaiting in the ring was the host, Tigers, the traditional Boone County threat.
“Lebanon was the big boss in Boone County,” noted Abbitt.
The Zionsville-Lebanon pairing also presented some internal conflicts for both schools. Several Zionsville players were dating girls from Lebanon, including Huff, whose girlfriend, Jane, was a Tiger cheerleader.
“She told me that if we won that I could not come to her house for a few days,” remembered Huff. Well, Zionsville did win (67-53) and Frank and Jane have been married for 57 years.
The victories over Thorntown and Lebanon shook Zionsville. “Thorntown beat us in the county tournament and Lebanon was probably better than us,” said Abbitt. “But we were only down by five with six minutes to go. Then when we got within three, I thought we had a chance.”
A week later, the march to the Sweet 16 continued. The Eagles spanked Fowler (74-42) and upended favorite Frankfort (61-56). Frankfort had knocked out Lafayette Jeff in the afternoon game.
“Al was a great tournament coach,” assessed Maguire. “He always had his teams ready.”
Now, it was time for the semi-state at Purdue.
The Clock Strikes Midnight
Perhaps time has chipped away at memories. Or maybe no one really wants to remember too much about the day the dream died. But on Saturday, March 14, the ride to glory and history stopped when the kids from the farms (Zionsville) battled the children from the shadows of the steel mills (Gary Wallace).
Final score: Gary Wallace 65, Zionsville 56.
“I know I didn’t play very well,” confessed Huff. “Maybe I was scared because we were playing such a big school.”
Not only was Wallace big in enrollment numbers, but they had a size advantage on the floor too.
“They were just bigger and taller,” Hendryx remembered.
So, there would be no Elite Eight or Final Four in 1953 in Zionsville. No state championship game. No state title. But there are cherished memories. Moments that will never be misplaced or forgotten.
“We all felt very lucky to be part of it,” said Barrick from his home in Georgia. “I know it was the biggest thrill of my life.”
Ten more things you should know about the 1953 Zionsville Sweet 16 team:
• The full roster of the Eagles included Allen Wharry, Ken Atkinson, Frank Huff, Frank Nusbaum, Bob Carter, Don West, Jim West, Jack Hendryx, Jim Barrick, Gene Marsh, Monty Morrissey and Meredith Abbitt.
• Don West was only a sophomore on the 1953 team. Two years later as a senior, he set a school record by making all 14 of his free throws in one game.
• One familiar face still at the Zionsville schools is Meredith Abbitt, who still drives a bus for the district. After Zionsville won the sectional in 1995, Abbitt was asked by the team to help cut down the nets.
• A key player for the Eagles and Zionsville community was the dynamic Bob Carter. He was an all-around star on both fronts and was a key person in the development in Zionsville. Carter, 77, died in 2011.
• The legend of Allen Wharry continues in Boone County, even after his death in 1995. The Wharry family annually awards scholarships to students in Boone County.
• Jim Barrick transferred his baseball and basketball talents to Butler after his four-year run at Zionsville. He later was a pilot for 33 years for United Airlines and served as a Marine pilot in Vietnam in 1964.
• A total of 755 schools competed in the 1953 state tournament. There will be 403 teams in this year’s tournament.
• Sam Fix has been a noteworthy fixture in Zionsville. He taught for 30 years in the school system and served as the athletic director at the middle school.
• Though the season was highlighted with games against familiar names such as Westfield, Carmel, Noblesville, Pike and Avon, the 1953 Eagles also played against nearby foes Jackson Central (Hamilton County), New Market (Montgomery County) and Pinnell (Boone County).
• Zionsville went on to win sectional titles in four of the next years, starting in 1955. They never made it out of the regional in those seasons.
• Zionsville has not won a sectional since 1995. The Eagles are locked into the 4A North Central Sectional that includes Carmel, North Central, Fishers, Hamilton Southeastern, Noblesville, Westfield and Zionsville. Three of the last four 4A champions have come from the North Central Sectional.