With the recent deaths of Jim Tenny and Mirl Gratton (obituaries in last week’s Times), the starting five of the 1954 State ‘B’ Championship Basketball Team have all died. Except for two or three remaining team members still living, all other members of the basketball team have died, too.
In 1954 I was thirteen years old living on the same farm where I live now and a big eighth grader at Greenfield School. We spent most of our days going to school, doing chores on the farm and, of course, attending church on Sundays. There was little time for much recreation. If you were young and with no driver’s license, you couldn’t casually hop in the car and go to a movie or a basketball game. You were pretty much dependent on the whims of your parents if an idea for ‘fun’ came along. For fun, my dad usually chose a hunting or fishing trip. Going to a basketball game was not high on the list. My cousin, Dale Beck and I are the same age. Dale lived closer to town and had two older siblings in high school. He said that his mom and dad enjoyed going to the games so he did get to attend high school games more often.
In 1954, as the time for tournaments neared, Fairfield was not considered a contender for making it to State. When they did, Nick Konen, a senior at the time and classmate of some of the ball players, said that they were the “Cinderella” team. There wasn’t much hope for them to go very far. However, Nick said that coach Tom Selstad had prepared his boys well. He “ran” them a lot in practice and they were in really good shape. Given the chance, they could run some of the other teams ragged. He especially remembers that if the other team missed a basket, Mirl was there ready to swipe the ball out of the air and run down the floor and make a layup before the other team knew what happened.
There weren’t District tournaments in 1954. You played at the Divisional tournament and the winners went to State. Fairfield played Shelby in the final game at Divisionals and lost 51-42. Even though they came in second, Fairfield was on to State in Great Falls. Fairfield and Shelby never met at State and Shelby lost out. Fairfield played St. Ignatius in the first game and won by one point 61-60. In the second game we met Roundup and won 68-60. That put us into Saturday night’s championship game against Nashua. Fairfield had a chance to win at State. Unbelievable!! Even more unbelievable was that my dad and Uncle Melvin said they would take Dale, my brother, Lee, and me to the game. Did we wanna go? You bet!
I was so excited to be going. I was a little kid at Greenfield when Mirl was an eighth grader. I had always idolized him and now I was getting a chance to watch him in the title game! When we got to the gym, there was the biggest line I had ever seen waiting to get into the game. Fairfield had certainly caught tournament fever. My dad had polio so he and Uncle Melvin got to go to the front of the line and on into the gym. Uncle Melvin pushed my dad in his wheelchair. When we boys finally got in, we saw our dad and Uncle Melvin. They had found spaces to watch from the sidelines.
They told us boys to do our best to find seats and we would meet up after the game. Of course, there were no seats to be found. We went to the second level and sat down in front of the walkway area and hung our legs over the edge. We were just tall enough to see through the bars and were right behind the Fairfield Bench.
We could see the whole game perfectly and I figured we had the best seats in the house! It was a great game—Fairfield beat Nashua 56-52 and the Eagles were the State ‘B’ Champions! I remember after the game all the players were throwing confetti on each other and having a great time. They were very excited and won a well-deserved victory.
The next time Fairfield Eagles would be State Basketball Champions would be in 1959 when I was a Senior. I was at that game, too, and, in fact, I have attended every championship game Fairfield Eagles have won since except for one girls’ game in Billings. There was a blizzard and I stayed home to watch it on T.V. But I don’t know if any compared to the thrill of a young boy watching that FIRST.
From the Fairfield Times, Thursday, March 18, 1954:
EAGLES WIN STATE TITLE
The Fairfield Eagles came home last Sunday afternoon with the school’s first state basketball crown.
They accomplished this by gaining three victories over the best Class B teams in Montana. It was a rugged uphill fight all the way, as they fought from behind to come out on top. Unseeded, and given virtually no change to win, the Eagles astounded the entire sate by upsetting St. Ignatius, Roundup, and finally the powerful Nashua Porcupines, to win the coveted title.
Basketball still holds the main topic of conversation around Fairfield these days with everyone reliving and replaying the sensational victory of the Fairfield Eagles over another class B team of the state in last week’s tournament.
One hundred and twenty car loads of fans met the ball club on their return from Great Falls and ushered them back horns wide open about 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.
The caravan circled through main street and then on to the high school where the team and their coach were congratulated and a rousing welcome extended to them. Flash bulbs were popping all over the place with fans trying to get pictures of the state title holders.
Coach Selstad in a short talk, thanked the fans for their wonderful and loyal support and stated that never was there a finer bunch of boys to work with than the present team. He stated that good sportsmanship, good manners and excellent spirit as well as the ability to follow instruction and cooperate with each other was evident in the outcome of the games.
The team, that went to the tournament as the underdog, fought with everything in them to bring home this honor to the school and their coach. The entire community turned out to follow the boys through the tournament. Their support and their faith in the team and the coach were will repaid.
On Monday spirits had not yet begun to cool down and the high school students held a snake dance through down town Fairfield in the afternoon and then in the evening a big dance was held in the gym honoring the team and their coach. Music was donated by the Rhythm Benders. Basketball fans from Simms, Dutton, Power, Choteau and other localities attended the evening celebration, as well as those from Fairfield.
Things are beginning to get back to normal now and preparations are being made for a trophy case large enough to held the “Pride of Fairfield” the Championship Class B Trophy. Fans are now beginning to get back to their normal voices and hearts are beginning to beat regular again.
To Coach Selstad and the Eagles the community says, “we are proud of every one of you” Mr. Selstad did a splendid job with the boys this season and “out generaled” the competition in the clutches… the boys proved that good leadership can make champions.
Don’t be surprised if in ten years from now you hear the “old timers” refer back to the year that Fairfield won the State Class B Championship.
In the opening game against speedy St. Ignatius the Bulldogs scored five more field goals than the Eagles, but supierior free throw shooting gave Fairfield 21 points to make the difference. Schilling was high with 23 points, Schenk collected 12, Mirl Gratton put in a basketball with 13 seconds on the clock to send Fairfield in front.
The semi-final game with the huge Roundup team , the Eagles unleashed a furious fast break attack that had the Panthers off balance all evening. The Panthers were unable to cope with the full floor pressing tactics used by the Fairfield quintet.
Defensive play of the Eagles was best of the tournament as they converted intercepted passes into baskets at regular intervals. With 5 minutes to go an holding a two-point lead, the local quintet went into a ball control type game with forced Roundup to bring their defense out. Schilling, Schenk and Tenney drove in nicely to increase the lead as the game ended 68-60. In the championship game with Nashua, the Eagles fell behind as big Jim Hill poured in 14 points in the first quarter to put Nashua in front 18-11. The Porcupines extended their lead to 12 points in the second quarter. The Eagles changed defenses and managed to hold them to a 33-23 halftime advantage.
In the third quarter, the Eagles took the initiative and riddled the basket for 22 points while holding the Porcupines to 10. The Eagles extended the lead to five points in the fourth then stayed off a terrific rally by Nashua to win 56-53.
Says Coach Selstad of the tournament, “everyone played their best of the season. The team reached its peak in every department, but vital differences were in the superb physical condition of the Eagles as they literally ran their opponents into the ground. Another vital difference was the strength of our reserves. LaValley, Radcliffe, Perry and Leach all came through in championship form.
“The greatest single factor in our winning however, was the team members complete and unquestioning confidence in themselves and in me. My confidence in their ability has always been without question.
Doug Armstrong did a terrific job in the championship game as he rebounded and checked better than at any time of the year. Gene Schilling and George Schenk, extremely cool and steady, rebounded will and hit the hoop in regular fashion. Schilling for 58 points and Schenk for 42.
“The defensive work of Mirl Gratton was the best I saw in the tournament. Jim Tenney was very effective on defense and offense as he hit four timely baskets. The teamwork and unity was tops, and it is very difficult to single anybody out, because they all did their utmost and each played his part well. It was a team effort all the way.”