It used to be their playground

It used to be their playground by David Lias What began as a Wakonda High School student's shop project developed into an evening of special recognition Dec. 21.

Shortly before the tip-off of the first home game of the Wakonda Warriors' basketball team, the squad's members took time to honor athletes from the school's past who serve as pioneers of modern prep athletics in the region.

Two of the five surviving members of the 1931-32 squad, Leroy "Sonny" Clare and Francis Peckham, were presented plaques before Friday's game.

Merle Dwyer, Wayne Collins and Clayton Olson were unable to make it to Friday's presentation in the "new" gym at Wakonda High School.

Students and school officials recently decided the athletes' accomplishments deserved recognition. They learned what playing basketball 70 years ago was all about after Kayla Nielsen, a junior at Wakonda High, began working on a project to produce a computer-generated simulation of the old Wakonda gymnasium before it was remodeled in 1942.

Nielsen began the project under the suggestion of her teacher, Ray Krause.

After Nielsen's project was completed, the school decided to honor a basketball team that played in the old gym.

The 1931-32 team, with its 28-3 season record, became the favored choice.

People could walk down a corridor from the new gym to the old gym, which sits in the center of the Wakonda school.

Several items from the past were on display, including the picture of Wakonda High's class of 1932, and the computer image developed by Nielsen with the help of classmate Sarah Kizer, who gathered background information about the team's season from old issues of the Wakonda Monitor.

Nielsen obtained some blueprints of the athletic facility, but the information was incomplete. So she turned to the people who, as teenagers, viewed the old Wakonda gym as their playground. Included in their group of athletes from the past are Jim Donahue, Ron Babb, Warren Kuhler and Don Huth.

Despite the passage of seven decades, the older athletes' memories of the structure are still vivid.

Nielsen's computer image shows how the gym originally was surrounded on three sides by large windows � no doubt to let in as much natural light as possible.

The structure's interior also featured a balcony area above the permanent bleacher seating at courtside and at the ends of the gym.

That allowed extra bleachers to be set in place for those times when Wakonda faced its biggest rivals.

Incredibly, as Clare recalled, there were times when 1,100 people crowded into the small gymnasium to watch the Warriors play.

Back then, there was only a one-class system. That helped fuel a heated rivalry between Wakonda and Yankton.

Clare, who turned 88 last June, was the leading scorer of the 1931-32 season with 277 points. While he was being honored in front of Warrior fans Friday night, students made sure everyone knew that Clare's sharp memory was of great assistance to them.

Peckham was the second leader scorer on the 1931-32 squad, and captain of the team. Wakonda students learned from their research that when he was in high school, he was either busy on the basketball floor working on his game, or "playing trumpet back and forth across town with his band director."

With their 42-4 record, the 1931-32 team was Tri-Valley Conference and district champions.

In a season that included over 30 games, the Wakonda team played schools as small as Meckling, and as large as Yankton.

Even in efforts that ended in victory, the team usually only scored in the range of 25 to 35 points. There was good reason for that.

Times have changed, and so has the sport of basketball.

"The way the game is played today compared to when we played � there's no comparison," Clare said.

The pace of the game was considerably slower, because after a basket was scored, the two teams had to go to center court for a jump ball.

"Teams could stall, too," Clare said. "They didn't need to bring the ball over the center line after a certain amount of time; they could just hang back at the end of the court if they wanted."

The old gymnasium, which seems small in comparison to today's athletic facilities, was held in high esteem seven decades ago.

"This one and the one in Centerville and the old town hall at Volin were the only good -sized gyms in the area," Clare said.

Clare kept a written record of the team's accomplishments, but didn't have to refer to it as he talked about the season's high points.

Wakonda faced Yankton twice in a period of two days. The Warriors were victorious Dec. 21, defeating Yankton 15-13.

Wakonda's fierce rival, however, was the victor on Dec. 23 with a 19-17 score.

The 1931-32 Warriors earlier had whomped Vermillion 22-6 on Dec. 15.

On Jan. 5, the Warriors were ready to seek revenge as they faced Yankton for a third time. "We won 20-19," Clare said. I remember we were pretty proud because Yankton had beaten us earlier."

People throughout the country listened to the play-by-play of that game.

"We were on WNAX," Clare said. "Chan Gurney announced that game."

In the championship of the Tri-Valley Tournament in Wakonda Feb. 6, the Warriors had their hands full, but managed to pull away with a 24-18 win.

The team became district champs by defeating Meckling 20-13 in the old National Guard armory in Vermillion.

It fell short of its goal of playing in the state tournament, however. Washington High claimed the regional championship in early March. Mitchell won the state championship.

South Dakota was in the throes of the Great Depression that season. Clare and his teammates offered citizens of the region a way to briefly escape the problems of the economy by enjoying some highly spirited athletic competition.

"The admission for adults was 25 cents," he said. "It was 15 cents for high schoolers, and 10 cents for kids in grade school."

Season tickets costs $1.50 for adults and 75 cents for students.

Today, Wakonda faces difficulties of a different sort, with a probable public vote in the future to decide whether to dissolve the school district and join with Vermillion.

For a couple hours Friday night, however, that issue could be pushed aside. When Clare heard cheers echoing in the corridor, signaling that play of the varsity match against Dell Rapid St. Mary's had begun, he and his wife graciously ended their conversation.

The Warriors were on the court. He couldn't stay away.

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