Fulton High School has long been a dominant basketball power. One of their first good teams was in 1928, and by 1936, they reached the Elite 8 at the state tournament.
Around 1953, they began a run of more than 20 years of excellent teams and reached the state tournament two more times. One factor was the abundance of very tall and powerful players. Another was the community’s interest in this sport. Their families and fans seemed to generate a strong following and attitude that carried them through years of success.
No doubt that we will leave out many players and teams from the past. So, for a more extensive depiction, I refer you to two fine books of records available at the Fulton Historical Museum or from Arnie Housenga. Also, Mike Woods of the famous Woods boys is contemplating a book on the subject. He previews his views when he says, “I believe that sports is a reflection of our society and is, therefore, affected by the political, economic, and social issues that exist at the time.”
In other words, there’s much more to sports than games, stars and statistics.
Woods makes another point about one of Fulton’s modern-era founding fathers, saying, “I watched Arnie Housenga during the ‘52-’53 and ‘53-’54 seasons, and he was one of the very best. He was one of the top career scorers in Fulton’s history, at 5-feet-9-inches. He was a great shooter at a time when the ‘jump shot’ was just beginning to come into its own. And he never got his due, in my opinion.”
The homogenous community of Fulton had been founded by hard-working pioneers and later, Dutch immigrants carried on a society that was very oriented toward work and success.
Along with this, these new Americans brought a healthy stock of tall, bright and competitive people. As education and schools increasingly dominated their small community, it was only natural that their competitive spirit exhibited itself in school activities. While they were involved in all activities, it was basketball that captured their imagination and challenged them to excel in this fast-paced sport.
It was during winter’s hiatus, with many work chores on “hold,” that the leisure-time activity of playing and/or watching basketball became the source of great pleasure for the community. After World War II, people were looking for some fun to balance their hard work. A new school building and gym helped in 1950, so they no longer had to play at the Coliseum in the Fidelity Life building — which had very low ceilings.
Success came fast in the modern era as Dick DeGunther’s 1950 team defeated perennial power Sterling and, just three years later, the Steamers beat Clinton’s St. Mary’s twice in the hard-fought Illowa League — with powers Morrison, DeWitt, Lyons and Sterling Newman also fielding strong teams.
With that kind of competition to spur them on, St. Mary’s went on to win the Iowa High School state basketball championship against all comers. Several Fulton players good-naturedly chant, to this day, “We were the uncrowned champion of Iowa basketball in 1953,” to which Dick Lingle retorts, “Yeah, but we got the trophy.”
This exemplifies the cheerful and wonderful competition that our communities have known over the years.
“Diz” Larson, Sr. played on the 1936 state tournament team, which lost to Mount Pulaski but set the record of 23 wins in a row and finished tied with two other teams at 26 wins. The late Eric Ottens’ 2000 and 2001 teams also were amazing and won 26 games. He went on to stardom at Evansville.
“Diz” was well known around Fulton and was a key fan over the years. His son Gary “Diz” Larson played with Tilly Baldwin, Jerry Woods and Duder Housenga; and two years later, the super-sectional championship team had the tallest player, 6-foot-9-inch Larry Prins, and Roger Dennes, Arky Wiebenga, Vernon Smith and Mike Woods too. They lost to Rock Falls… who went on to finish second in the state.
From 1959 to ‘61 with Denny Woods at guard, Fulton went 41-12 and Larry made four brothers playing continuously between 1954 and 1963. This mirrors the McAndrews, Lingles and Hydes for St. Mary’s.
There were so many great players that we will surely miss a few. In 2000, Larry Ottens was a fine post man, who scored 494 points in his second varsity season, and Jim Conners was a fine ball handler in 1957. Ottens and Gregg Hoogheem (1966) hold the single-game record of 46 points.
The 1972-73 team went to state also and had Steve Workman, Jim Kinney (a terrific golfer as well), Dale Klooster, Terry Burden, Cal Swanson, and “Jumping” Johnny Eissens. They lost to Kaneland.
Rick Lanning came earlier (1963-67) and set the career scoring record, but many players challenged the records in rebounds and scoring. Mike Miller of the 1973 team was a stalwart, and his dad, Chuck, was a fine all-around athlete. Rick Norman was another top “big man” for the Steamers and is the current coach.
Over the years, Fulton has been blessed with terrific coaches.
The best percentage, .711, was held by W.F. Massey (1928-1938) — the father of Clinton High School coach Mark Massey; the legendary Chuck DeWild (1948-58), who once regaled six boys on a ride back from the state tournament about his World War II prisoner-of-war experiences, also coached.
He said he came out weighing about 100 pounds and told them, “Finding a mouse was like getting a T-bone.” He died at age 88 on March 29, 2011, after coaching Rockford College for many years. (He nearly got fired in a 3-2 vote in the early 1950s for poor showings); and Stan Borgman, who arrived compliments of friend/coach/ and fellow Pella native Darel “Gabby” Mensch, to win more games than anyone in his 20-year stint (394-204 record).
Fulton High School has played against about 120 teams, between 1928 and today. They won over 20 games 27 times and lost between one and seven games in those years…on average by four points. They have had a losing record to only Rock Falls, Dixon and Clinton High School, but they won some big games against everybody — and who can forget the famous tie game at Washington Junior High School in Clinton?
There is no doubt that Fulton High School basketball is one of the most noteworthy of high school teams in Midwest sports history.
Gary Herrity is the historical columnist for the Clinton Herald. His column appears on Fridays in the Herald.
Sources: Clinton Herald archives, Arnie Housenga, Mike Woods, Jerry Woods, Dick Lingle, and a host of fans and players; Bev Hoese, Barb Mask and coach Stan Borgman.