Thursday, April 30, 2015

Six Years of Sutton High Athletic Excellence

The Streak

Twenty-one banners decorate the Sutton High gym recognizing superior team performances. Eleven of these banners were earned in the short span from 1986 through 1991. Four of the banners are on the opposite wall. 8
How well have you examined those twenty-one banners hanging in the high school gym? Those are markers of teams and individuals who excelled against the best competition Nebraska had to offer. But did you notice that those banners are not well-distributed across the history of Sutton High. There is a cluster when more than half of those banners were earned in just six school years, 1986 to 1991.


It’s not great news to say that high school athletics is the center of attention in Small Town America. And Sutton conforms. Just try to schedule a meeting in town on a fall Friday night, or in February, about any time.

It should come as no surprise. Among the 1,500 census-counted Suttonites, a big percentage has family, relatives or neighbor or friends’ kids involved in some school athletic program. Pretty typical in our area; maybe it’s universal, or not.

It surprises people when I mention that we have grandkids in a high school with no athletic programs, by choice. Their urban district has several schools that are typical, but there is one school with a full-bore academic focus. And the kids chose it.

On the other extreme, the intensity of attention paid to high school athletics in Nebraska just doesn't match some other places, think Texas. Or one of the competing schools of our daughters’ high school, the one with a section of their website for following alums in the NFL.

So Sutton High certainly doesn't strive for those extremes, often middling is good.

Our local high school began in the 1880’s before organized athletics played a role in education. The first two Sutton championship banners did happen early, in 1919 with the Class B state basketball championship and in 1922 when the Sutton five won the Class A or All-Class state championship and continued on to face the Dakota champs in Yankton and have a win and a loss in a 32-team national tournament in Chicago. We chronicled that story in this publication two years ago in the February, 2013 issue.

We offered the 1922 basketball team as Sutton’s All-Time Top Sports Story and challenged anyone to refute that claim. No one did. We’re going to offer this challenge to that title.

A measure of pride in our local sports history is that set of twenty-one banners hanging on the walls of the gym at the high school. Those are reminders of teams and individuals who did well against state-wide competition.

There is a gap between those first two banners and the third Sutton tribute to athletic success, a real gap, a gap of 64 years, my friends. That’s quite a dry spell.

We can be sure that during those six-plus decades that there were some fine teams, superb athletes, good coaches, maybe great coaches but never did things come together to qualify for a banner on the wall.

Then the girls’ basketball team made to the finals in the State Class C-1 Championship in 1986. They did not win that championship but earned a “Runner-Up” prize for the third banner of all time at Sutton High. Not a championship, but a deal, just the same.

That ’86 girls’ team must have been an inspiring crew as the very next year the boys’ basketball team matched them with the 1987 Class C-1 Runner-up prize.

Sutton's 1988 Nebraska Class C-1 State Championship team was the school's first state championship since the 1922 basketball team. That's 66 years. It would not take another 66 years for the next one.

So in more than a century of Sutton High, exactly one half of the team athletic performances warranting honor status was done in back to back seasons by kids who knew each other, were friends and shared the experience. And the fun was just starting.

In the fall of 1988 Sutton’s football program was just three years removed from a 0-9 season. Coach Rob Hanger took over that program and posted a 27-7 record over his first three years. The ’88 team showed promise and they delivered.

In nine regular season games, the Mustangs had two 12 point wins, the opener against Stromsburg 12-0 and 22-10 over Geneva in their penultimate game. Everything else was wins by wider margins. Sutton was second ranked in in Class C-1 going into their final game against Clay Center, an undefeated team top-ranked in Class C-2: 35-6.

Ravenna fell in the opening round of the playoffs 41-0 and the competition stiffened. The close game of the season came in the quarterfinals against North Platte St. Pats. Both teams scored two TDs in the 2nd quarter and one each in the third and fourth but two missed PATs by St. Pats and one two-pointer by Sutton made the difference 29-26. John Spearman scored three TDs, one on a punt return for most of Sutton’s scoring success.

The semi was a win over Tri-County 15-8 with an 87-yard interception return by Doug George, otherwise, defense.

The fifth banner in the Sutton gym is for the school’s State Champion Football team coming with a 20-13 win over Battle Creek but in a game dominated by the opponent. First downs? 17-5, Battle Creek. Offensive plays? 68-39, BC. Total yards? 280-164, same story, etc. etc. But a muffed punt and a fumble was enough to claim that football championship for the Mustangs.

Tough act to follow, don’tja think?

Not so much. Sutton boys followed up their state championship football season by matching that performance in basketball. Throughout their season they had one game with fewer than 62 points (a 47-29 win over Geneva early – definitely an outlier) and they gave up more than 65 points only six times in 26 games – four of those were losses, twice to Sandy Creek. That record foretells achieving even the highest goals. And they did.
The Sutton athletes of the '88-'89 school year followed up their fall state football championship with a spring state basketball championship. 
The 1988-1989 Sutton basketball team breezed through their district tournaments beating Harvard, Doniphan and Centennial and headed to the state tournament and an appointment with Palmyra with a 20-2 record.

Sutton led by 10 after three quarters when the Palmyra team figured out the Mustang’s full court press outscoring Sutton 18-8 in the final quarter to tie the game. Sutton regained control of the game to win 81-75 in their only OT game of the season. It was a short entry in the scorebook with Jay Spearman scoring 23; John Spearman, 15; Matt Maser, 13; Clint Jones, 12; Doug George, 11 and Brent Mau, 7.

The team dispensed with Stanton 83-52 while in the opposite bracket Sandy Creek was beating Battle Creek and Scribner-Snyder to set up the third meeting between the two Clay County Class C-1 teams.

Jay Spearman hit his first seven shots and Sutton was up 39-27 at the half. Sandy Creek could only shave three points off that margin in the second half and Sutton claimed its first state basketball championship since the storied 1922 team, two-thirds of century earlier.

Jay Spearman and Brian Kissinger of Sandy Creek were named to Channel 10/11’s First Team, All-State – out of Class C-1.

Quite a record for the school. Football and basketball state champs the same year.

The girls’ basketball team was no slouch either. They came into the state tournament with a 22-1 with mostly dominating scores. They met Stanton in the opening round and lost the fourth quarter by 11 points to lose the game by 6.

The overall performance of all Sutton athletic teams earned the school the first of two consecutive Boy & Girl Class C All-Sports State Championships for 1989 and 1990.

That 1990 All-Sports banner was earned primarily by the girls’ basketball team and the boys’ track and field efforts.

Football and basketball dominated this six-year span but in 1990 the boys came
home with a state championship in track. Brothers John and Jay Spearman
figured prominently in Sutton's successes. Here John qualifies for the state
meet in the 400-meter dash and Clint Jones displays his long jump form at
the Sutton track.
The 1989-1990 girls’ basketball team piled up a string of 15 school and state records including averaging over 71 points a game. Scores were, well, lop-sided. They made it to the final game for the state championship with a 25-1 record when they beat Crofton in OT 59-57. Battle Creek edged them for that state championship 53-50.

Both track teams did very well as the girls qualified eight for the state meet but the boys took it all with their Class C State Championship.

Success certainly did not end there as the girls’ basketball team in the 1990-1991 season put a big red exclamation point on this string of sports excellence at Sutton High.

Again, log-sided scores were common – does 81-14 over Superior support that claim? And more importantly was a 48-43 win over Centennial who had gotten in the way in prior years. And consistency? District scores were 51-43, 53-42 and 55-37 over Geneva, Hebron and Tecumseh. I wonder, was that maybe even a bit boring?

More of the same in Lincoln with 61-37 over Cambridge and 59-38 against Wisner-Pilger. But then came the finals against Crofton and a tight game won by the Fillies 40-38 to finish the year 26-0, the only undefeated team in the state that year. And there was another long list of team and individual records.
Yearbooks chronicle forever (if you don't lose it) the exploits of high schoolers as viewed by the yearbook staff. Here the 1991 girls' 26-0 state championship team is remembered, almost modestly.
So there you have a brief rundown from a runner-up finish by the girls’ basketball team in 1986 to their undefeated state championship in 1991 with lots of excitement at Sutton High in between.

Then comes another gap in the dates on those banners, though nowhere near as long as that 1922-1986 gap. Both basketball teams did well in 2002 and 2003 with the boys capturing the C-2 championship in 2003.

A couple of boys’ State Golf Championships in 2010 and 2012 put banners on another wall where there is room for expansion…

This brief look at a highlight period in Sutton High’s athletic record was just that, brief. How do the players from 25 years ago remember those experiences? Are memories shared or are they personal? There are Facebook Groups which target people who shared some experience in the past, including several high school related ones. There is a “You know you’re from Sutton, NE when…” Group with more than 500 listed members. Thought I’d look for one targeting students from this period at Sutton High, didn’t see one. Just saying…

One more item. As we asked at the beginning, “How well have you examined those twenty-one banners hanging in the high school gym?” Not individually, but as a group. They are displayed in chronological order with the bottom row earlier, right? Well, almost.

Did you ever notice there is a sequence issue? It stood out as I tried to include a photo of adjacent banners for the football and basketball championships during the 1988-1989 school year. Somehow the next school year’s football banner squeezed in between them. Show of hands: how many noticed that before? Hands down. (It may be fixed before you can check it out.)

Banners are displayed in chronological order, mostly. May be picky here, but this is wrong. The 1989 football banner (fall season) is before the 1989 basketball banner, a season that was earlier in the year, winter and spring. Again, nit-picky? The arrangement foiled the plan for a picture of adjacent banners for the championships by the same kids during the school year of 1988-1989. But there it is, the next year's football banner sticking its nose in.

This article first appeared in the February, 2015 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For further information about this publication, contact Jarod Griess at 402-984-4203.

No comments: