Washburn honors Ichabod championship team

corey garriott

Twenty years later and still a toast of the town, the Washburn Ichabod NAIA championship team of 1987 returned home to the scene of the crime to be honored again.

In between the men’s and women’s games Saturday at Lee Arena, the ’87 championship team took to the court amid hearing its team accomplishments announced and a standing ovation from those in attendance. One by one, players and staff members were recognized and posed for a photo-op.

Doug Hutchinson, assistant coach on the ’87 championship team, put the ceremony together.

“Everyone was excited to get back on campus and see the changes,” said Hutchinson. “It’s fun, we appreciate what Washburn does for us.”

One of those players excited to be back was Calvin Sprew.

“It’s an honor in itself to just have been on that team,” said Sprew, former starting forward. “We were honored once when we were inducted into the Hall of Fame as a team, and 20 years later, it’s just hard to put into words.”

Bob Chipman, current Ichabod head men’s basketball coach, was in his eighth season at the helm when the team went the distance.

“I think the guys really deserved it,” said Chipman. “I think it’s a team that comes around maybe once or twice in a lifetime. It’s just such a special group; local guys, guys from around the country. We had all the ingredients, the guard play, the big guys inside, the depth and more importantly, the workers.”

Chipman said the season had a story-book ending with a 22-game win streak capped by the 79-77 championship win televised on ESPN over a West Virginia State team everyone thought was unbeatable.

However, at the beginning of that season, he wasn’t sure what to expect from the team.

“The first day we do all these drills and I walked off the floor after the first practice and I told my assistant that we’d never win a game,” said Chipman. “They weren’t unbelievable at drills.”

What the team lacked when running drills they more than made up for in work ethic.

“I don’t think a group has ever worked any harder,” said Chipman. “I used to have to take them off the floor almost because they would just get after it. The best thing was the leadership from a number of people. Knowing that every practice they had to get better and get something done. They would almost run the practices.”

The team used its work ethic to develop an unselfish and fluid brand of offense backed with a stingy defense, Chipman said. And in doing so, the Ichabods finished the season with a record of 35-4. Its 22-game win streak march through the championship game had humble beginnings stemming from a double-overtime loss at Nebraska-Kearney, 93-85.

“I had everybody in my room that night and I said we are not losing again,” said Chipman. “And then we won the next night in a miracle overtime win at Hays – Hays was our nemesis – and we didn’t lose again.”

The NAIA championship tournament took place at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. Chipman said he remembers how excited Topeka was with five or 6,000 people driving to Kemper Arena for the tournament each day. But even with the crowd support, it was a brutal tournament, to say the least.

“What made it tough was 32 teams, one site, five nights in a row,” said Chipman. “You had better be ready. You’re earning it. I don’t think we’ll ever see a tournament like it again.”

And earn it they did with the season-culminating 79-77 win. ESPN’s Dick Vitale had the call for the network, adding to the mystique. Tom Meier, former starting forward, was selected to the all-tournament first team and was also named tournament MVP. Bobby Sumler, former starting guard, received the Hustle award and was selected for the all-tournament second team.

“You just had a feeling they were going to win it,” said Chipman of his feelings entering the tournament. “It was the most incredible feeling ever. They wouldn’t get sidetracked.”

Adding to the fairy tale were the relationships on the team as well. Meier and Rob Reilly, former starting guard, were teammates from a local high school team, Hayden.

“Those kids had incredible high school careers. They ended their high school career on a victory in a state championship,” said Chipman. “Then they came here for four years and ended their college careers on a win also in a national championship.”

Hayden had an intense rivalry with Atchison, from which twin brothers, Keith and Kevin Downing, guards, played for. Both brothers went on to play for the Ichabods and were on the championship team with Meier and Reilly. Before that, however, they played each other for the 4A state championship with Meier and Reilly getting the best of the brothers from Atchison.

“I used to guard Keith and Kevin,” said Reilly. “It wasn’t a love relationship. We did a lot of talking and a lot of fouling as I tried to guard them. Four years later we were on the same team and friends and on the floor together.”

Reilly said everyone was friends on the team and respected one another enough to get on someone if they needed a kick in the butt to get going.

“I feel very fortunate to have played with a bunch of guys like that and to have gone to a school such as Washburn,” said Reilly.

Twenty years later, in his 28th season as head coach, Chipman can look back on that season with a smile.

“It gave me a lot of confidence,” said Chipman. “We could win the big one and it took our program to another level.”