Portions of this story were first published by the Ohio History Connection. Ashland Source has a shared content agreement that allows for a mutual exchange of stories among our sites.
MILLER CITY, Ohio — The 1949-1950 Miller City boys basketball team is one of Ohio’s great sports stories, and a classic memory to revisit as March Madness winds down.
First-year coach C. Norris Simpson assembled an undersized group of farm boys and led them to 29-0 mark, and a Class B state title that thrilled the tiny town in Putnam County.
“You have got to have the boys and I had the boys,” Simpson said simplistically.
It’s a coach’s cliche even today. You have to have the horses. You can’t make chicken salad from chicken manure. It’s the Jimmy’s and Joe’s, not the X’s and O’s.
The youthful Simpson, just out of Findlay College, knew it well, more than 70 years ago.
Sportswriters nicknamed his team the “Mighty Mites” and “Cinderella Kids,” among other monikers because the underdog squad regularly beat bigger foes. We’re not just talking about schools with larger enrollments, most opponents had a notable size advantage, too.
Center Ralph (Skip) Meyer was 6-foot-1, and forward Joe Lammers was 5-11. No one else was bigger than 5-8.
The Wildcats played home games in the “The Barn,” a court about two-thirds the size of most basketball courts at the time. It was heated at each end by two pot-bellied stoves (later the site of Miller City Sportsman’s Club), which got hot enough to keep everyone at bay during play.
Miller City finished the regular season at 18-0, with its two toughest wins over Ottoville and center Dick Kortokrax, who would later become Ohio’s winningest boys high school basketball coach.
“We really poured it on in the second half of a lot games,” Lammers remembered in a 2016 Lima News story by Bob Seggerson. “We were in such great shape and, because of our tough practices and farm chores, we just never got tired.”
The Wildcats topped Archbold and Ottoville to claim the district tournament, then rolled into the Toledo regional. That’s where Miller City ran headlong into its toughest test of the season, No. 1-ranked Delphos St. John’s. The Blue Jays featured 6-foot-7 center Dick Honingford, a first-team All-Ohioan averaging 23.7 points per game.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats were completely ignored on the all-state squad. Still, they were not intimidated, and hung tough in a game that had 17 lead-changes. Finally, Miller City upset Honingford and the Blue Jays 43-42 on a tip-in by Meyer in the waning seconds. That sent Simpson’s squad to the Elite Eight, and a fairly comfortable 60-46 victory over Leesville.
The stunning story captured the state’s imagination. The school with just 37 total boys donning 8-year-old uniforms was bound for Columbus.
At the Final Four, Miller City matched up with Corning in another barn, albeit a much bigger one at the Ohio State Fairgrounds Coliseum. The Wildcats needed time to adjust to the bright lights, and fell behind 16-8 after the first quarter. They still trailed 30-22 at halftime, but whatever Simpson said during intermission ignited his team. A 22-6 burst in the third period pushed the Blue and Gold on top 44-36 heading to the final stanza. From there Miller City coasted home for a 52-45 win.
The Wildcats utilized a balanced scoring approach. Meyer paced his team with 14 points, while Lammers added 12 and guard Frank Schroeder chipped in 11 to qualify for the state finals.
In the title tilt on March 25, 1950, Miller City met Eaton. Yet again the Mighty Mites stared down a first-team All-Ohioan. This time it was 6-2 senior Gene Neff, who was averaging 17.8 ppg.
The Wildcats earned a 12-10 first-quarter edge, but fell behind the Eagles 27-23 at intermission. Eaton held the ball for much of the third quarter, trying to force Simpson’s team out of its zone, but it didn’t work as Miller City climbed to within 28-27 as the fourth quarter began.
The crowd of 8,648 was triggered by the Eagles’ stall-ball strategy, swinging their loud support behind the Wildcats. Miller City fed off that energy and dominated all the way home for a 44-36 victory. Neff had 17, but none of his teammates made it into double digits.
Meanwhile, Meyer again led the way for the Wildcats with 16 points and Schroeder had 15. Those two team made the all-state tournament team, as did Lammers and swingman Junior McDonald.
Some described the squad’s reaction to winning the crown as bashful, even shy. But Lammers told Seggerson the team’s members had other things on their mind.
“A lot of us just wanted to get home because we had to feed the pigs and milk the cows,” Lammers said.
Simpson’s club became the only one of more than 1,100 teams in Ohio to end that season with a perfect record. An estimated 375 cars followed the squad home in a caravan, where approximately 8,000 fans greeted the players in a celebration and impromptu parade in Miller City.
The story was captured in Dave Hanneman’s book “Wildcats: The Story of Miller City’s Unbeaten State Championship Team of 1950.”
This was Ohio’s version of Hoosiers, the Hollywood film that depicted the fictional Hickory Huskers — based on the true story of the Milan Indians, who won the 1954 Indiana state championship. Miller City turned the trick four years earlier in Ohio.