Friday, July 31, 2009

We called him Coach

We're loyal to you Whitehall High
We're Orange and Black Whitehall High
We'll back you to stand as the best in the land
For you know we will say 'You-Rah-White-hall'

So carry that ball Whitehall High
We're cheering you on Whitehall High
Our team is the famed protector
On boys for we expect a
Victory from you Whitehall High

Shortly after that fight song was sung in a packed gym -- home or away -- Whitehall High School's 1967-68 basketball squad would take the court and quickly build a lead it would never relinquish. This was because Ken Stellpflug had the best little team in the land: The mighty Norsemen were unbeaten entering the postseason and ranked No. 1 among Wisconsin's small schools.

Nobody could stay on the court with this talented group, which had mowed down its overmatched Dairyland Conference opponents and had one very reachable goal in its sights: the state tournament in Madison.

The center was a 6-foot-8 carrot-topped sophomore named Ralph Rasmuson, who would be the only one to play major college ball. The forwards were clearly Divison I material: Keith Johnson and Jack Hoyer were smooth ball-handlers with deft shooting touches. Senior Eliot "Bass'' Solsrud was a great defender and rebounder, and could bring the house down with his patented two-hand set shot from the corner of the gym. Senior guards Mike Teigen and Bob Dean were Mutt and Jeff in the backcourt, Teigen a pesky jitterbug defender and assist man; Dean a cool shooter unafraid to take any shot from the key.

Those five seniors and the big redheaded sophomore did the lion's share of damage through the regular season, but Stellpflug also had a dependable bench and he substituted freely as games got out of hand. Even I would get in late for some mop-up work.

Nobody wanted to play the Norsemen. Nobody, it turned out, except the Durand Panthers, a pretty good team from the Middle Border Conference. The scrappy Panthers, playing in their home gym, pulled off an amazing upset that Saturday night in March, overcoming a 10-point deficit with two minutes to play. Whitehall thought it had the game-winner when Rasmuson scored in the lane just ahead of the buzzer, but he was called for charging and the basket was disallowed.

Stellpflug would take heat the rest of his career for the blown lead. The officials would always be blamed for several "home cooking'' calls that helped Durand during its frantic winning rally. And some people in Whitehall would never get over the devastating loss. To this day, you can walk into a bar there and find a former player or fan who wants to talk about that team, that season, that game -- and that unfulfilled dream. That's the way it is in a small town.

But you won't find Ken Stellpflug. He died overnight at age 74 of pancreatic cancer, without ever winning his elusive state title. He did take a team to Madison in 1986, but it lost in the championship game after another lead vanished in the final minutes. I sat at courtside that afternoon, and it was deja vu all over again.

I had been away for too many years when I ran into Coach at Beef & Dairy Days, Whitehall's late summer celebration. I was in the beer tent with a friend, who spotted Stellpflug and called him over. "You remember this guy, don't you Ken?'' my friend asked.

Stellpflug looked at me hard but came up blank. (In his defense, I did not -- nor do I -- resemble my high school self in any way.) "I'm sorry if I should know you,'' Stellpflug said, apologizing.

"That's OK, Coach,'' I replied. "You never knew me when I played for you, either.''

It might have been the best line ever uttered by one of Ken Stellpflug's reserves. But I'm sorry today that I said it. I'm sorry about a lot of things when it comes to Coach. Mostly I'm sorry that he's gone, that I never took the time to thank him, and that he never won a state championship. For himself, because he surely deserved one, and for the Orange and Black faithful of old Whitehall High, who are still waiting.


  1. Well done. A fitting eulogy to a super coach and a nice recap of those special times at WHS. I didn't realize he took "heat" for the year that didn't happen. Too bad. I was a junior at WHS that year and because I didn't play basketball, coach didn't know me. His circle of acquaintances, his friendliness was reserved for those who did.
    I send the family my condolences for your loss and the community for a one-time great coach.

  2. Thank you for this eulogy. This is a great story that I will charish forever. Ken will be missed by all as a father and a coach.
    Thank You,
    Kim (Stellpflug) Pechuman