Sixty years ago, South Dakota held its final Catholic high school basketball tourney

Apr. 20—MITCHELL — On Tuesday, March 3, 1964, students at Notre Dame High School in Mitchell joined together for a pep rally, urging the school's basketball team on to success at the annual South Dakota Catholic high school basketball tournament.

Class by class, Comet students took turns performing skits themed around the most popular band of the time, The Beatles. One particularly memorable performance came from basketball student manager Rich Verschoor, who dressed up like Ringo Starr and put on a thrilling solo.

"Rich played the role to the hilt, even to the extent of beating out a good rhythm on the drums," former Daily Republic sports editor Jim Wilson wrote in the paper that day.

From epic drumming performances, to packed crowds at the Sioux Falls Arena, the 1964 State Catholic basketball tournament, was, like the Beatles, all the rage in South Dakota for the first week in March 60 years ago.

It would also be the final tournament of its kind.

The previous longstanding rule by the South Dakota High School Activities Association, which had barred Catholic high schools and other private high school institutions from participating in their sanctioned events — and which had led the Catholic schools to create their own tournament — was eradicated.

And while the change brought forth equality and greater competition across South Dakota's high school sports landscape, it also made the once epic Catholic tournament a moment of the past.

The South Dakota Catholic high school basketball tournament began in 1937, when the Rev. Bernard Weber of Salem St. Mary's invited eight teams to participate in a championship in Salem.

Already a part of a state where high school basketball was king, these football-less parochial schools quickly grasped onto the event, and it created a busy basketball calendar in March, with the Class A, Class B, and the parochial league tournaments all receiving heavy media coverage and strong fan attendance.

"We didn't think much of it at the time, except we were pretty pleased to be there," former Sioux Falls O'Gorman player Steve Jansa said. "To us, it was the state tournament."

According to the South Dakota High School Basketball Hall of Fame, one of the programs, St. Francis, entered the tournament in 1937 as a well-established winner. The Catholic school located on the Rosebud Indian Reservation participated in the 32-team national high school basketball tournament for Catholic schools 13 times between 1924 and 1941, making the semifinals five times and placing second once.

The national competitiveness translated into statewide dominance, as St. Francis won each of the first four Catholic league championships. By 1940, the tournament at last saw some parity when Holy Rosary, now the Red Cloud Indian School, won the title.

Many other schools went on to win championships as well.

O'Gorman's predecessor, Sioux Falls Cathedral, won the tournament 12 times. St. Francis had five championships, Holy Rosary won four times, Mitchell Notre Dame and Marty Mission each won twice, and Howard St. Agatha, Stephen Mission, Rapid City Cathedral and O'Gorman all claimed one championship.

Just an 18-year-old basketball player in 1964, Jansa doesn't recall the intricacies of the SDHSAA's policy that omitted Catholic schools.

"It had to be some kind of terrible silliness. I just don't know the reason behind it," he said.

What Jansa does recall is that a lawyer and lobbyist from Sioux Falls named Jeremiah Murphy was instrumental in fostering the change.

It was Murphy who traveled to Pierre and convinced the state lawmakers of the discriminatory nature of the existing rule. According to The Daily Republic, the state legislature "scolded" the SDHSAA in 1963 for not admitting private high schools into its organization, but permitted the organization to take an in-house vote to change the amendment.

The representatives of the public schools voted 128-104 in favor of keeping the rule, then voted on it again before the 1964 legislative session, and again struck down the new amendment, this time in a 133-102 decision. So the state legislature took the matter into its own hands.

A 1964 bipartisan measure sponsored by House Majority Leader Carl Burgess of Rapid City, and House Minority Leader Elvern Varilek of Geddes, was put forth, forcing private schools to be allowed entry into the SDHSAA.

"It's a sad state of affairs when we have to legislate equality in our state, particularly when it applies to the young people of South Dakota," Mitchell representative F. Wayne Unzicker said at the time.

The measure saw strong pushback from the SDHSAA and its supporters, who argued the state government didn't have the right to determine who the organization chose to govern.

Canton superintendent C. E. White argued to the senate, "We're not saying that all private and parochial schools are bad, but we should have the right to determine who belongs to the organization."

The prevailing sentiment from those in favor of the measure was that SDHSAA members feared admitting the private schools would disrupt their competitive success in the league.

Representative Ed Herbst of Mount Vernon said the public schools, "must be afraid to give the private and parochial schools an equal opportunity."

The measure was quickly passed in the House, and, after days of conversing, passed the Senate, also, and was made into law.

However, the SDHSAA pushed back, pleading its case to the state Supreme Court that the new law should be deemed unconstitutional. After a multi-year legal battle, Murphy, backed by his father John S. Murphy and Aberdeen's Joe Barnett, successfully defended the law before the South Dakota Supreme Court, and the Catholic schools were integrated athletically with the state for the 1966-67 season.

In his 2011 obituary, fostering the change was described as Murphy's "proudest accomplishment."

Jansa grew up in a modest Catholic family of eight kids on the north end of Sioux Falls, with a father who worked to make ends meet as a used car salesman. To pay his tuition at the new O'Gorman High School, which opened in 1961, Jansa spent every weekend cleaning the school's toilets.

But the future Creighton Blue Jay and South Dakota Sports Hall of Famer was worth far more than just a janitor for the Knights. The 6-foot-4 star averaged 25 points per game for O'Gorman basketball team in 1964, and alongside teammates Ron Olson and Bob Early, entered the state tournament as one of the favorites.

"We had some outstanding players in the 1963-64 season," former O'Gorman coach Mel Klein recalled.

Against a 10-team field that also included Stephen Mission, Rapid City Cathedral, Dell Rapids St. Mary's, Mitchell Notre Dame, Marty Mission, Holy Rosary, St. Francis, Salem St. Mary's and Howard St. Agatha, O'Gorman ripped its way to the final, with decisive wins over Stephen Mission and St. Agatha.

Meeting the Knights in the final was a plucky team from Mitchell. The Notre Dame side relied on four juniors, Ed Breck, Larry Schmida, Jerry Collins and Larry Zimmerman, and entered the tournament with a 16-4 record.

In the quarterfinals, Notre Dame beat Rapid City Cathedral, then found itself on the cusp of elimination in the semifinals. Trailing Marty 48-47 with one second remaining, Collins went to the free throw line for two shots for the Comets. He sank them both, sending his team to the final.

"I was thankful for all the masses I've attended lately," Collins told The Daily Republic afterwards. "And I'm certain they're the reason we won tonight instead of losing."

In the championship game, Notre Dame put up a strong fight, holding Jansa to just 13 points, and forcing him to foul out. But aided by Early's 10 points and Olson's 12 points, the Knights prevailed in a 54-50 win.

Even in the moment, many understood this would be the final Catholic basketball tournament championship. Recognizing the game's significance, Wilson eloquently wrote in the March 6 edition of The Daily Republic:

"When the ghosts of past South Dakota Catholic High School tournaments whisper silently through the night in future years it seems almost certain that chains should be rattled for the 27th and final championship game played at the Arena Thursday night.

"Almost everyone knows by now that Sioux Falls O'Gorman Knights were on top at the final curtain call of the past annual classic as the result of a 54-50 conquest of Mitchell Notre Dame, but time will certainly erase — to all but a few — the glitter of certain occurrences in the 1964 classic.

"As Catholic tournament ghosts creep among the now new, but certainly later, decaying, walls of O'Gorman High School, soft tones of "How did they win it without Jansa's 25 points?", and "Could it have gone either way?" The answers to both questions "With great depth and an outstanding defense"; and to the second: "Yes.""