Sometimes it’s difficult to grasp the enormity of the moment when you’re in the middle of it.
For the boys basketball team at Franklin, the 1997 IHSAA state tournament was one of those times.
“It didn’t hit me until you went to semistate and realized half our town’s here,” recalled Jake Sappenfield, then a junior guard for the Grizzly Cubs.
Franklin won its first six postseason games that year before bowing out to Delta in the semistate championship game at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse — and while it was certainly memorable at the time, it meant even more after the fact.
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That was, as it turned out, the last time Indiana held a single-class boys basketball tournament.
“It was kind of up for a vote around that time, and I don’t think any of us thought that they would ever turn to class basketball,” said Joe Hougland, a senior center on that 1997 squad. “It’s years down the road when you realize how special it was.”
The Grizzly Cubs’ wild ride was no fluke — the team had won sectional championships in each of head coach Dave Clark’s first two seasons, and though it was never ranked in the state polls, Franklin did finish the regular season with an 18-2 record.
One of those two losses had come at Greenwood, a defeat that Franklin had an opportunity to avenge when it coasted past Roncalli and into the sectional semifinal.
“They beat us in the regular season, so I think that kind of motivated us,” said Travis Jones, a senior who was the most valuable player of the Greenwood Sectional.
The rematch came down to the final seconds, with Franklin junior Michael Whitted disrupting a drive by the Woodmen at one end and Hougland making a foul shot at the other to give the Grizzly Cubs a narrow 65-64 win.
Franklin topped Whiteland the following night, 74-65, to win its third straight sectional title.
“They didn’t want to be the first group that lost in the sectional,” Clark said.
The next leg of the journey proved equally dramatic. During the week of practice leading in, Sappenfield broke his nose and senior point guard Mark Pitcher injured his ankle — but they rose to the occasion during the Columbus North Regional on March 8.
Senior reserve Aaron Parkhurst played a big role in a 68-65 semifinal victory over Triton Central, a game that saw the Grizzly Cubs overcome some foul trouble, and Pitcher’s foul-line jumper with a little more than a second remaining lifted Franklin past the host Bull Dogs, 53-51, in the final.
“The crowd ran on the floor and all that,” Clark recalled, “but they had to get them back because there was still a little time on the clock.”
Most expected Franklin’s run to end in its semistate opener against No. 1-ranked New Castle, but the Grizzly Cubs relished the underdog role — and with the game being played at Hinkle, they even tried to channel some of that “Hoosiers” energy.
Gene White, the center on the 1954 Milan state championship team that inspired the movie, was a math teacher at Franklin in 1997, and when the Grizzly Cubs practiced at Hinkle Fieldhouse, they also got a visit from Bobby Plump, who hit the winning shot in 1954.
The team also went through the routine made famous by the Hickory Huskers, Milan’s cinematic alter ego, in “Hoosiers.”
“I put one of the small guards on my shoulders and measured the rim just like they did in the movie,” the 6-foot-8 Hougland said.
“I’m sure that’s not the only time that’s been done,” Clark added, “but we played that up.”
Against New Castle, the Grizzly Cubs switched from a man-to-man defense into a 1-3-1 halfcourt trap. That defense, combined with the afternoon sun coming through the windows at Hinkle, seemed to frazzle the favored Trojans, who made just 4 of 25 3-point attempts.
Franklin jumped out to an early double-digit lead and stayed on top throughout, holding off a late New Castle charge for a 71-65 triumph.
The run came to an end later that evening against Delta, who charged back from a big early deficit to end the Grizzly Cubs’ ride with a 61-54 win.
“They got hot at the right time, just like we did,” Clark said of Delta, “and that’s really what the state tournament is about — getting hot at the right time.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Franklin’s 24-3 season is the fact that the team didn’t have any superstars. A number of the players on that 1996-97 squad went on to play college ball at such places as Franklin College, but there were no Division I recruits.
What the Grizzly Cubs did have was chemistry and an almost impossible balance. All five starters finished the year averaging at least 11.1 points, but Jones’ 12.6 points per game led the team.
“It made it easier,” Hougland said. “If one guy had an off night, somebody else was always picking up the slack. For us, it was kind of the epitome of basketball. It took us a collective unit to be successful.
“We never got caught up in the stats. We never cared about who had a good night, as long as we won.”
The players all got along on and off the floor, and several of them remain close to this day. Those bonds, they say, helped fuel their success.
“We were all friends, and I think that showed up a lot on the court,” Sappenfield said. “We weren’t the most talented people individually, but together it just clicked that year.”
Head coach: Dave Clark
Franklin’s path through the state boys basketball tournament in 1997, the final year of single-class basketball in Indiana:
Sectional (at Greenwood)
Regional (at Columbus North)
Triton Central;W, 68-65
Columbus North;W, 53-51
Semistate (at Hinkle Fieldhouse)
New Castle;W, 71-65
Each of the five starters on the 1996-97 Franklin boys team carried a proportional share of the workload, as evidenced by their statistics that season:
Player;Points per game
Whitted and Hougland led the team in rebounding with 10.4 and 7.2, respectively, per game. Four of the five starters averaged more than three assists per game, led by Pitcher at 4.1.