With seconds left on the clock, Jack Jordan, a speedy little guard from ECHS, bounced the ball to Sonny Patterson, the tallest player on the team, who threw it from center court toward the hoop. Everyone was standing, watching, silently. Elmwood had been waiting more than thirty years for the chance to beat the mythical Canton Little Giants.
As early as the late 1940s, followers of Elmwood basketball realized that our grade school teams were taller, faster, and scored more points than they had in more than thirty years. The dream was that some time in the 1950s we would have at least a couple of winning seasons, perhaps beginning with 1955-56. Maybe we could even beat the Canton Little Giants for the first time. (At that time small schools in Illinois had to compete against the large ones on the way to the state title.)
As a matter of fact, Canton was concerned enough about Elmwood’s successful record in the Blackhawk Conference that a bunch of the Little Giants drove up to Elmwood and shot baskets with most of the Elmwood players in my backyard. The Trojans did win 20 games in 1955-56, but they lost the title game in two tournaments and drew Peoria Spalding (not Canton) in the Regional, losing to them 95-59. The dream had been crushed. Two of the four scoring leaders from Elmwood graduated in May 1956: George Whitney and Sam Jones.
When the 1956-57 Trojans, took to the floor a year later, the fans had little to anticipate: the team was short and green – only two experienced seniors, Gerald “Sonny” Patterson and Richard “Cracker” Coon, were over 6 feet. They had lost 8 of their last 9 games in regular play and both the Galva and Princeville tournaments. When they learned that Canton was their opponent for the first game of the Regional, there was little joy. Despite the outlook, the seats for visitors at the Alice Ingersoll Gymnasium in Canton were filled. Most of the bleachers for the home team were empty, probably because the Little Giants had a (6-18) season, but against big schools.
The referee blew the whistle to begin play. Dave Downey, the 6’5” center, easily tipped the ball from Sonny Patterson, the 6’2” Trojan center, and tapped the ball to Ethan Blackaby, the short Canton guard. Known for his speed, he took the ball quickly to the end of the floor and scored: Canton 2, Elmwood 0. Tom Jones, the blond ECHS guard, threw the ball to Sonny Patterson who was covered by Downey, a sophomore who starred a few years later for the University of Illinois. Without looking, Sonny whipped one of his quick passes to “Cracker,” the forward, who took a shot from deep in the corner. Swish: 2 to 2. Throughout the first quarter the teams traded baskets until the buzzer sounded. Canton 11, Elmwood 5.
As Dick Whitney, the Elmwood forward, was waiting for the ball to be thrown, he thought, “If we keep this up, the score will be 22 to 10 at the half, and we’ll have to score six baskets to stay close.” When the players left the court at the half time, Don Hooker, a Canton fan peered at the scoreboard: Canton 20 – Elmwood 14. “Canton is still beating them, but Elmwood is hanging on. I think Canton will begin to pull away in the third quarter and beat them by the end of the game.” Chances were that Hooker would be correct because the Little Giants boasted a 12-point 32-20 bulge at the three-quarter mark.
As the fourth quarter was about to begin, the Elmwood coach, Rolland Cady, huddled with the team: “Guys you have the opportunity to win this game and make up for a really pathetic season. I want a full-court press. We can take them.” Elmwood rallied in the fourth period and Dick Whitney’s field goal in the final 57 seconds of regulation time tied the score at 44-44, sending the contest into overtime. Ethan Blackaby hit for Canton with seven seconds left in the extra period to give the Little Giants a 52-51 lead and an apparent victory. Jack Jordan took the ball from the referee and threw it to Sonny who grabbed it at the center court, turned and threw the basketball like a baseball to the hoop.
The sports editor for the Canton Daily Times described those last seconds in this way: “Gerald Patterson, lanky Elmwood center who had missed a layup shot with one second to go in regulation time, had not given up hope. Patterson broke away for what looked like an impossible shot and the ball swished through the net for the two points which gave the Trojans a well-earned victory and left Canton followers stunned.”
A miracle had occurred in Canton on March 5, 1957.
Only five Elmwood players scored that night: Tom Jones (6), Richard “Dick” Whitney (5), Jack Jordan (15), Gerald “Sonny” Patterson (10) and Richard “Cracker” Coon (17). The other members of the team included Ronald Brooks, Edward Cosby, Douglas Coulter, Thomas Kirkpatrick, Charles Chapman and Malcolm Bollinger. The cheerleaders were Jackie Martin, Vernon Broadfield, and Mary Ruth Webster.
Karl K. Taylor, March 2017