Guest Editorial: Was the 1963 Sabetha Bluejay Basketball Team the Best in School History?

Most of us, I suppose especially athletes, harbor our would of’s, should of’s, or could of’s as well as our what if’s. The Sabetha High School basketball team from the years 1961-1962 and 1962-1963 might also be thinking “If only!” Neil DeWurf — a young Emporia State graduate — was the Bluejays head coach. He had a tight knit athletic squad that had everything a basketball team needs to go all the way to a state championship. If the team was missing anything, it might have been the emotional fire many great teams that bring home state titles seem to have.

Gary Hartter at six foot, six inches, was the team’s center. He was a pivot man with a good shot. Of course there was no three point line in the 1960s, so outside shooting wasn’t as important back in those days. Successful teams in those days scored the majority of their points from 15-17 feet or in the paint. The 1962 team started four juniors and six foot, one inch senior Bill Jones. Jones and six foot, three inches Mike Reid were the team’s forwards. Guards in the backcourt were five foot, 10 inch Arlen Kaul and six foot, one inch Jim Estle. 

The Bluejays went 19-3 that year. One of their losses was in overtime to the undefeated 26-0 Class A state champions, Leavenworth. A season ending loss to Tonganoxie in the Regional tournament didn’t stop Dodge City from inviting Sabetha to play in the Dodge City Tournament of Champions for the 1963 season. Sabetha dropped to Class B in 1963 and with four starters back, Coach De Worth had high hopes of making the state tournament.

Dan Carpenter a six foot, one inch junior replaced graduate Bill Jones at forward in 1963. Sabetha got off to a good start that year. Despite a loss to Holton in the Wildcat’s new gym to open the season, the Bluejays were able to head into the Dodge City Tournament of Champions in January with just one loss. On the opening night of the tournament, the Bluejays defeated the host school Dodge City. The next night Lawrence jumped out to a ten point lead. Sabetha was able to make a thrilling comeback victory over the Lions to earn a spot in the finals against defending champion Washburn Rural. The Junior Blues defended their title, but not without a battle with Sabetha falling by just four points to the Topeka school.

So now, we come to the “what if’s” or maybe in this case the “if onlys.” Sabetha defeated Highland by 20 points in the District Tournament. They would meet again in the Regional finals. For whatever reason, the Bluejays couldn’t come up with the emotional fire to beat Highland a second time. Just like that their bid for a state championship ended. The disappointing loss is something the coach and the players have thought about many times over the last 59 years. If Sabetha had beaten Highland a second time to advance to the state tournament, could the Bluejays have won the state title? It’s an “if only” that has haunted the players for decades.

Gary Hartter didn’t go unnoticed despite not making it to the state tournament. He would go to K-State on a basketball scholarship the next year. Jim Estle joined him on the Wildcat team as a walk-on. Coach De Werth moved on to coach at Colby high school. The 1963 Sabetha basketball team was one of the school’s best teams in Bluejay history. It’s been fifty-nine years since Hartter, Estle, Carpenter, Kaul, and Reid laced up their sneakers to take to the hardwood. Sabetha is still trying to capture that elusive first ever boys’ state basketball championship.

Coach Kimbrook Tennal



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