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Season of champions

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Bethel College’s 1955-56 basketball team was first to win KCAC title

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- They had a brand-new coach. They were a bunch of "height-challenged" mostly Mennonite boys from rural Kansas schools. They of all people didn’t expect great things from the 1955-56 season. Nevertheless, that group of Graymaroons (now called the Threshers) became the first Bethel College team in any sport to win a Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) championship. They won three pre-season tournaments, finished with a 22-4 record including a 19-game winning streak, outscored their opponents 1,899 to 1,663 and earned 8th place in National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) rankings for points (61.87) allowed per game.

The 1955-56 team will be honored on its 50th anniversary at halftime of the Thresher men’s February 11 game against Southwestern College, which begins at 7 p.m. in Thresher Gym.

Inman native and starting center Arley Loeffler (Bethel 1957), now of Coarsegold, Calif., says, "The outstanding thing I remember is that we were a real team in every sense of the word. There was no ‘hot-shot’ or egoist among us. While we didn’t all pal around together off the court, on the court we functioned almost as one organism."

Starting guard Harlan "Cot" Graber agrees. "I don’t recall having the expectation of a conference championship or anything like a 19-game winning streak," he says. "It seemed that we simply kept winning and someone would always step up with the extra effort when we needed it."

In one tournament game, for example, Loeffler remembers that Paul Harms’ jump shot "wasn’t falling, so he made 17 free throws out of 17 attempts. He was the game high scorer, for either side, and he pulled us through to a win."

Harms (Bethel 1956), who grew up in rural Harvey County near Whitewater and is retired in North Newton after teaching at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., for 28 years, remembers the game this way: "I played center after the other centers had foul or physical problems. Arley may have had his shoulder pop out."

"I do believe that we enjoyed playing with one another and respected one another," Graber says. "The balanced scoring indicated a team effort as opposed to individual ambitions." Born and raised in Kingman, Graber (Bethel 1957) taught for 38 years at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, before retiring to Cedar Rapids.

"We all carried about the same points-per-game scoring average, meaning none of our opponents could focus on one or two guys," Loeffler notes. The scoring statistics for 1955-56 showed the season high scorer (Larry Dick) with a 14-points-per-game average, the sixth highest scorer (Larry Penner) with a 10-points-per-game average, and the other five falling somewhere between.

Harms, who started at forward, called the 1955-56 group "a very unselfish team," and noted that it was also "very deep--we had good reserves." In fact, the starting five plus substitutes Larry Gilchrist, Larry Penner and Dwayne Reusser got about equal playing time, Loeffler recalls.

"I don’t think anyone expected us to be as successful as we were," Loeffler adds. "None of us, I’m sure, expected to win a championship of any kind at the beginning of the season but things just rolled along and we kept winning.

"What was so neat for me is that we had played together so long that you could almost read each other’s thoughts. I knew virtually every moment of each game where my teammates would be on the court and I knew what they would do under most moment-to-moment circumstances. That is a rare thing. We knew each other very well as teammates and we trusted one another to do our jobs."

Basketball coach George Buhr had graduated from Bethel in 1950 and came back to the college in 1955 after five years teaching and coaching in the Lehigh School District. Buhr died in July 2005, but after the 1955-56 team was inducted into the Bethel College Athletic Hall of Fame in October 2002, he recalled that being offered the job of Bethel basketball coach was "the opportunity of a lifetime."

He also noted that not all of Bethel’s athletic boosters met his appointment with enthusiasm. Some of that stress must have shown, because Loeffler recalls that "one of the endearing things George did before every game was to pass out Lifesaver® mints, I suspect more to settle his own tummy than to settle ours. It was a ritual known to all.

"George wasn’t the greatest ‘game-time coach’ in the world because he was, I think, more nervous than any of the players," Loeffler continues. "But he didn’t need to be. His preparation was plenty good to carry us through. With that group of guys, he could have prepared us a little bit and then simply rolled to ball onto the court and said, ‘Go get ’em, guys.’"

Starting forward Larry Dick (Bethel 1957), who was raised in rural Harvey County near Buhler and now lives in Hutchinson, came to the Graymaroons in 1955 as a transfer from Hutchinson Community College (then called "Juco," for Junior College). "I remember at the beginning of the basketball season Coach Buhr telling us our goal should be to win the conference that year," he says. "Since this was my first year at Bethel, I thought maybe this was tradition. Little did I know what was going to happen."

Gerald "Jerry" Eck (Bethel 1956), a Moundridge native now living in Salina, where he had a long career with the Salina School District, started at guard. "Playing at Baker University in Baldwin City one night, none of us could put the ball through the hoop very well--except Jerry," Loeffler remembers. "Jerry took the game on his shoulders, scored 30 points and we won."

Stan Eitzen (Bethel 1956), a graduate of Pretty Prairie High School although he grew up in California, was on the varsity reserve in 1955-56. Both he and Graber note, as did Buhr at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, that studies were as important to this team’s members as basketball, with three of them eventually earning doctoral degrees.

Eleven of the 12 got their bachelor’s degrees and eight earned master’s degrees (Eitzen, Graber and Harms went on for Ph.D.’s). The majority taught at the elementary, middle school, high school or college level (Eitzen spent most of his career at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and reserve player Eldon Becker at Dodge City Community College). And among the 12, six of them--Becker, Eck, Eitzen, William "Larry" Gilchrist, a Walton native now living in Hays, Harms and Dwayne Reusser, originally from Mulvane and now living in rural Hillsboro--coached everything from cross-country to eight-man football. Harms, in fact--while teaching math at Bethel College from 1961-67--was assistant coach under Buhr four years and head basketball coach for two.

When Buhr spoke at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he also noted that three of the team’s members had received "state or national recognition for their work or service"--Loeffler as a mental health consultant for the state of California, Eitzen as a Sports Ethics Fellow selected by the Institute for International Sport (1966) and former president of the North American Society for Sociology of Sports, and Becker as an inductee into the Kansas State High School Activities Association Hall of Fame (2000). "The 1955-56 KCAC championship basketball team was a combination of student-athletes that came together at the right time," he said.

Larry Penner of Newton, varsity reserve player and Hillsboro High School graduate, was one of the team’s tallest players at 6’3". He remembers in his freshman season (1954-55) stopping at a motel restaurant on the west side of Emporia and seeing the motel lobby "loaded with pictures of Kansas high school and college championship teams"--but there was no picture from Bethel College. "Little did we know," Penner says, "that by the end of the next school year, our basketball team would have its place on the wall of this popular eating place for Kansas athletic teams."

Then he learned that head basketball coach Gib Galle would not be returning to Bethel for the 1955-56 season and the new coach was coming from Lehigh. Penner says, "I knew nothing about Lehigh’s basketball program, other than it was in the smallest basketball class in the state."

"What a group we were," Penner recalls. "Ten of us were from within 50 miles of Bethel. Everyone stood between 5’10" and 6’3" in height. They didn’t need a ‘no-dunk rule’ for us, as we had no one who could stuff it. We were just a bunch of guys, all with average to above average basketball skills, who had it all come together for one season."

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