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'Hoosiers' squad first team in Wall of Fame

A TEAM TO REMEMBER Recently, the 1958-59 Williams Bay boys basketball squad became the first team inducted into the Williams Bay Wall of Fame. The team, which drew from only 81 students, made it to the final 32 teams in the state playoffs despite playing much larger schools. In the sectionals, the Bulldogs faced teams from Waukesha and Whitefish, both with more than 1,000 students. In school history, the team advanced the farthest in the state playoffs. Here are the players from that magical team: Players — Craig Orum; Dick Iverson; Dan Billing; Gene Ingersoll; Bill Grimes; Greg Moore; Marty Tonge; Jimmy Moeller; Bud Wilson; Gordon Ammon. Coaches — Dick Scherff; George Gray.
November 23, 2010 | 08:18 AM
Williams Bay — In high school basketball today, a small school like Williams Bay plays similar-sized competition like Faith Christian or Burlington Catholic Central.

Would you really expect the Bulldogs to take on Milwaukee-area schools, many of which have more than 1,000 students? That just wouldn't seem fair, would it?

Well, back in the 1950s, that was the case. There was only one division in the state playoffs. The Bay plays in Division 4 nowadays, and a school from Milwaukee or Waukesha is most likely in Division 1 or 2. But the Williams Bay boys basketball squad of 1958-59 had to play schools of all sizes, and time and time again, they defied the odds.

With a high school student body of 81, the Bulldogs more than held their own, advancing to the final 32 teams in state. To this day, it is the farthest a Bay boys basketball team has advanced in the state playoffs. Back in October, the squad was honored as the first team on the Williams Bay Wall of Fame. Former players came back to the high school for the first time in years, and even former cheerleaders attended.

Gordon Ammon, 67, a forward from the team, said it was special to return to the Bay where it all started.

"Growing up, you take it for granted," he said after the induction ceremony Oct. 8. "You think you're going to see your classmates and buddies forever. But the shadows get longer as you get older. We were such a small school and had so many relationships among family lines. I am just so happy to spend time with these guys after all these years."

Back then, the Bulldogs attended the current Williams Bay Elementary School, which was a K-12 with around 200 total students. The guys didn't even have a regulation gym. It was slightly smaller than the average court at a bigger school. And before 1952, the court was so small the two free-throw circles intersected each other. And the free-throw line was actually the 10-second line, which signified half court.

It was the definition of a "cracker box" gym. Much like the movie "Hoosiers," where a tiny Indiana high school team won the state championship against much larger schools, the Bulldogs beat plenty of bigger schools.

Gene Ingersoll, 69, said it was a special atmosphere at the small school.

"You know absolutely everybody in school," he said. "We even knew most of the grade-school kids. When I was a senior, I had a brother in first grade at the school."

During the 1958-59 season, the Bulldogs tied for the conference championship with an 8-2 record. Then they began slaying giants in the playoffs, including bigger schools Clinton, Wilmot, Juneau and East Troy. They became districts champs and boasted a 16-2 overall mark heading into the sectionals at Waukesha. Dan Billing, 69, a starting guard, remembers the size of Waukesha's field house.

"It was overwhelming," he said. "All we had at our gym was a stage on one end and small bleachers at the other. Waukesha had a track and a swimming pool, and it was huge."

Ammon acknowledged it was like nothing he had ever seen.

"It was university-level," he said. "It was a real introduction to the big time. It made an impression, but our coach Dick Scherff said it was all well and good to have a big gym, but you can only put five people on the court at a time."

The Bulldogs ended up losing to Whitefish Bay (1,500 students) and Waukesha South (1,700). The Bay was much smaller and couldn't keep up with the bigger and stronger schools. But Ammon noted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel questioned why the Bay was even playing and suggested they were too small and had no chance.

But it's the small school size the guys really appreciated.

"Delavan-Darien and other schools wanted us to consolidate even back in those days," Ingersoll said. "But we fought to stay on our own. We held some of the highest grades in the state. And that meant an awful lot. The school is still highly ranked academically, and I still feel that means a lot."

Ammon enjoyed the small class sizes, too.

"In one of my first job interviews to be a teacher, the school bragged they had a 12-1 ratio of students to teachers," he said. "We had 8-1 in a lot of classes. In 1957-58, there was a big exodus of students. We lost 18 to other schools. They missed out. We've had students from the Bay graduate from Harvard and become physicians, chemists and engineers."

Ammon said two good players, Gordy Roth and Bill Amundson chose other schools before getting a chance to play on the championship team. Ammon joked that Bill's sister was still a Bay cheerleader, so when the Bay played against Bill, the Amundsons had a hard time deciding who to cheer for.

Playing with only 10 guys, the Bulldogs didn't rely much on their depth. Ammon said the starting five played most of the game, and bigger schools would often have plenty of quality depth to full-court press and try to wear the Bay down. Ingersoll said the team's chemistry was impeccable and led to success.

"There is no 'I' in team," Ingersoll said. "The five guys that we had on the floor sought the open man and took advantage of it. We worked well together and knew each other's strengths."

Billing gave credit to Scherff.

"Coaching had a lot to do with it," Billing said. "He got us pumped up. It was funny because he was so nervous, he tied his shoe every two minutes."

Ammon added the starting five had to play smart.

"What was unique was we didn't have the large pool of people to draw from," he said. "If Gene, Bill Grimes or Marty Tonge got in foul trouble, we were in trouble. Our tallest guy was 6-foot-2. That was tall back then. We had our five guys and that was it."

Nowadays, Ingersoll and Billing still have ties to the Bay. Ingersoll is semi-retired, works in retirement planning and lives in Elkhorn. He has grandchildren who attend Faith Christian. Billing lives a half mile outside the Bay in Delavan Township and has been in business for 47 years cutting trees.

Ammon is retired from teaching and sales and marketing and now lives in Kenosha. He lived in Philadelphia for several years and retired in 2005. While he has no ties to the Bay anymore, he said his biggest hobby now is playing golf.

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