Prairie Tracks Article                    


Besides the weather, conversations in the local cafes and coffee shops during the South Dakota winters focus mainly on high school basketball.   Over the past 60 years the teams have changed; the rules have changed; and schools and even some of the area towns have disappeared; but the loyalty, spirit and good hearted competition lives on. 

Who can remember the ancient but deadly two-handed set shot, the under-hand free throws, the days of four fouls, and a jump ball from the spot of the tied-ball?  Those were the days when every town, no matter how big it was, had a high school and a home town basketball team.  Those mostly farm raised athletes were satisfied to travel by whatever means possible, play in make shift gymnasiums, and practice whenever and wherever there was a basket, a ball, and a bit of light.  After the farm chores were done, playing a pick-up game of basketball or “horse” on a cold winter night under the yard light or in the loft of the barn wearing hooded parkas and chore gloves was normal.  It was amazing the talented and gifted athletes that came away from these lowly beginnings.

Who can remember those great teams of yesteryear lost to consolidation, open-enrollment, school athletic co-ops, or because those beloved school districts just plain evaporated?  There still has to be some leftover smells of popcorn and the echo of cheers and basketballs bouncing from the days when the Yale Trojans played the Cavour Cougars in the town hall over the Yale grocery store.  Can you hear the cheerleaders chanting “Chica-laka, Chica-laka, Chow, Chow, Chow…Booma-laka, Booma-laka, Bow Wow Wow…” when the Bonilla Eagles came to town to play the Virgil Pirates?  There probably are still visions of some nervous coaches pacing the sidelines at practice because the next big game was hosting the Forestburg Bucchaneers led by the great LaMoin Torkelson!

Most of the gyms in these area towns had a lot to be desired.  They ranged from the almost square gym at Virgil to the basement gyms at Gann Valley, Bonilla, and Wessington Springs.  For many years the Yale team played in an auditorium located on the second floor of the main street grocery store.  The ceiling of the facility was only 2 inches over the top of the square, wooden backboards.  Visiting teams had to quickly flatten the arch of their shots in order to hit the bucket.  Furnaces, stage steps, heating vents and other obstructions were normal hazards on these early courts.  DeSmet built a new gym in the late 40’s, but did not get the floor finished in time for basketball season.  That entire winter the Bulldogs practiced and played their games on a dirt floor.  It is interesting to note that the next year DeSmet then had one of the first hardwood basketball courts. 

The most exciting moment for these pioneer athletes was the day in the early 50’s when their team could travel to Huron and play those Beadle County Conference tournaments in the brand new and awesome Huron Arena.  This 5000 seat arena was, and still is, one of the greatest basketball venues in the upper Midwest.  You can only imagine the excitement of the wide-eyed Hitchcock Blue Jays as they took the floor of the arena to play off a tournament game against the Wessington Warriors.

Those were the days when most of the coaches came home fresh from WWII or the Korean War with little or no basketball experience of their own.   A lot of these men got just enough college education through the GI Bill to teach in the high schools and later found out they were coaching basketball.  What a great time that was when basketball was king.  During those long winter months the game had little or no competition from other sports or activities.  Towns and schools celebrated and anguished according to the local team’s successes and failures.  Every team had its star player and the hope to beat a bitter rival or for a better year next year was the glue that held a community together.

Thanks to Leland Kleinsasser, a former Yale Trojan, Tabor College (Hillsboro, Ks) Blue Jay and coach of the 1960’s James Valley Vikings.  And thanks to Del Gross, former Bancroft Eagle and Assistant Coach with Arlington High School when in 1968 the Cardinals defeated Parker and won the SD State “B”.  These two area basketball enthusiasts provided some great input into the details of this article.  The author is therefore not entirely responsible for the facts, but it is hoped that this essay will spark some great memories and conversations at tomorrow’s coffee in the local cafes.