The comeback kids
By BRANDON HURLEY
Jefferson sports historically mirror a “Cinderella” storyline.
Grit, defying long odds and a perfect storm of success would fit beautifully as the high school’s motto.
Many of those tremendous stories have been resurrected in the pages of the Herald over the last several months, but one particular group of underdogs holds a special place in Ram lore.
The electrifying run of the 1983 Jefferson baseball team, a sub .500 unit that reached the state title game is perhaps one of the most shocking athletic feats in school history.
Baseball history hasn’t been too kind to Jefferson – its most recent district championship came in 2005 and they’ve only reached the state tournament twice (1983 and 1998).
The 1983 season seemed headed along the lines of more disappointment and lackluster efforts. The program didn’t have much to hang their hat on – Jefferson hadn’t won a district title since 1964 – so it was only natural to expect another underwhelming end.
That team was merely a small blip on the radar entering district play in 1983, three games below .500 with a 10-13 record. They finished sixth fifth in the Midwest Conference with just three wins.
There’s no scientific explanation as to what exactly happened that summer. Did the aliens from Space Jam drop in and create Jefferson’s version of the Monstars? Did their borderline insane superstitions actually pay off?
Tom Powers, an assistant coach under Dale Allensworth in 1983 saw something in the team as the regular season came to a close. He realized how fickle the sport of baseball is.
“We were playing good ball at the time. We had lost a lot of close games,” he said. “We got hot at the right time.”
The boys of summer thrived on confidence, with each upset they became more and more relaxed and it shone through in their play.
That senior-laden squad played loose but prepared meticulously for each game. And they had a surplus of athletes at their disposal, despite their deceiving record. That combination along with a knack for playing well on the road fueled a scorching hot streak that almost ended in glory – the program’s first and only boys’ team state championship – if not for a freak-injury at the Shrine Bowl.
Incredibly, the Rams ripped off four straight wins over ranked opponents, including a surprising shutout of the defending state champions and ended the year with a winning record at 15-14. They even held a lead in the state championship game. A tremendous turn of events in just a few short weeks.
Silly superstitions, a nothing-to-lose attitude and a knack for wild comebacks fueled the Cinderella run more than 30 years ago.
“When you’ve got a record like ours, nobody expects you to do anything,” legendary Jefferson coach Dale Allensworth was quoted saying in 1983. “I bet there are people in our conference wondering what the heck happened.”
Sit down, grab a cup of coffee or tea and relive the spectacular summer of ’83.
A pleasant surprise
The 1983 Jefferson baseball team epitomized the comeback kids, stringing together furious come-from-behind rallies in three of their tournament wins.
The Rams were led offensively by a potent one-two punch at the top of the order. Lead-off hitter Scott McPherson nearly batted .500 (.494 and 38 runs scored) and two-hole hitter Randy Rohovit drove in a team-leading 39 runs while batting .406. The two were each unanimous first team all-Midwest Conference selections.
“The thing about this team, Randy and Scotty were back-to-back double machines,” Powers said. “The stories get bigger as you get older, of course, but it felt like that’s all they did. Scotty was left handed and Randy was right handed, they were sending them to the fence left and right in the gaps. One would hit it one way then the next would come up and hit it in the other gap.”
Jefferson squared off against Audubon in the first round of district play, a team that had swept the Rams in the regular season. It was a tall task for a playoff opener, but Jefferson had little trouble moving on, steam-rolling the Wheelers, 9-2, setting the tone for what would become a magical run.
“Summertime baseball, it’s a little different,” Powers said. “I don’t think we ever felt disrespected. We had a few far away games in the playoffs, but I don’t think the other teams ever knowingly looked down on us.
Every time we knocked off a team, it gave us confidence. Mentally, once you start winning games, you know you can do it,” he continued. It was just so fun for them.”
The district title win over Atlantic was a high-scoring, back-and-forth affair. The Trojans grabbed a 5-0 lead as the Jefferson bats stayed silent for five innings. The Rams finally came to life and exploded for 10 straight runs in the sixth and held off a late Atlantic rally to escape with the 10-9 win.
The historic triumph was rewarded with a trip to Missouri Valley in the first round of substate. The Rams drove two hours for another slugfest with yet another highly-ranked foe.
“They probably thought we were the sacrificial lamb for Missouri Valley,” Powers said.
Missouri Valley certainly looked the part to start the game, jumping out to a 6-2 lead after five innings. But the comeback kids rallied again, scoring three runs in each of the sixth and seventh innings to pull out a 8-6, placing them one game from state.
“It was a wild back-and-forth affair until we pulled it out,” Powers said.
The climb up the ladder was just beginning.
The champs are done
On paper, the toughest task of the tournament awaited Jefferson in the substate finals.
The Rams hit the road once more to face the defending state champions of Norwalk.
Jefferson pitcher Craig Ladd produced, by far, his most sparkling performance of his career against Norwalk.
The senior entered the contest with a 4-6 record and was blasted in his last start against Atlantic, giving up nine runs, 10 hits and four walks.
The drastic heel turn he was about to undergo was mind-numbing. He transformed into an unhittable ace in the win over Norwalk.
Ladd struck out 10 batters, allowing no walks in a complete game, seven inning shutout, helping the Rams punch their first-ever state tournament berth.
“Craig was a battler, he was a tough kid. He wasn’t going to let one game dictate his career,” Powers said. “When he had command he was good. Norwalk didn’t have a clue, it was easy.”
A favorable umpire who was notorious for calling low strikes fit perfectly with Ladd’s pitching style.
“Craig was just phenomenal and he had his good stuff,” Powers said. “Norwalk just couldn’t touch him.”
The teams were scoreless through the first three and two-thirds innings before Jefferson scored on a dropped fly ball. Ladd came home for the second run on a grounder that slipped between the pitcher’s legs.
The Rams scored the final two program-altering runs in the fifth inning off a two-run double from Jeff Miner.
The Rams never trailed and knocked off the defending state champions, 4-0.
“Actually, that was our easiest tournament game and it was against the defending state champs on their field,” Powers said. “What was so great about it was how we dominated Norwalk. There wasn’t suspense. We took the lead and knew we could do it.”
Pandemonium ensued as the win secured Jefferson it’s first-ever trip to the state baseball tournament. They were now also over the .500 mark at 14-13 overall. Four dramatic wins culminated in history.
“We were going to the state tournament, nobody had done that except for the 1967 basketball team,” Powers said. “At that time, we hadn’t even made playoffs in football. There wasn’t a lot of things going for the school, as a team, it was a big deal.”
Allensworth called his team “the best kept secret in Iowa,” and it even had a tiny bit of truth in Jefferson. It took a win at the state tournament for the community to fully take notice of the feisty baseball squad.
Don’t fix what ain’t broke
Those Rams were a quirky but laid back bunch of high school students. The veteran squad was superstitious as they come. Maybe a supernatural force did in fact guide the Rams that summer.
“It was just crazy with all these superstitions. They didn’t want to chance it to luck,” Powers said. “Everybody had to sit in the exact same seats on the bus. You just didn’t mess with it. We pushed it all the way to the finals. It was a fun run.”
Pester’s, where the Shell gas station currently sits, was the makeshift hangout prior to each postseason game. Frozen bananas and chocolate milk were the pregame snacks. Powers became the full-time batting practice pitcher as well.
Jefferson played in the second state semifinal matchup against fifth-ranked Sheldon Friday, July 29 in Marshalltown. One of the most dominant pitchers in the state awaited the Rams. Sheldon’s left-handed Ron Prostrollo entered the tournament with an undefeated record (10-0), averaging 14 strikeouts per game with an earned run average below 2.00. Since Powers was left-handed as well, he was stuck with batting practice duty for the entire postseason.
“We were seemingly facing left handers on tournament trail and because the kids were so superstitious, I’d throw batting practice night after night,” Powers said. “We had to follow the plan. My arm was about done.”
The batting practice paid big dividends for McPherson in the state tournament. He was unstoppable in Marshalltown, going four-for-five with three doubles.
Ladd was on locked in again on the mound as well, throwing six innings, striking out five while giving up six hits in the win.
But Jefferson stumbled out to another slow start and trailed 3-0 before they cracked the scoreboard in the bottom of the third inning. Sheldon never scored again while the Rams went on to win 5-3, punching their ticket to the state finals. The untouchable Prostrollo only struck out three Jefferson batters and they sent him to his first loss of the season.
Yet another unlikely upset generated a wave of support back home.
“I think the community kind of got on the bandwagon and woke up when we went down and beat Sheldon,” Powers said. “Then all the sudden, we had people coming out of the woodwork for the state finals. It was like they thought ‘Oh my God, this is real.’ It was it was just a dream come true.”
The 12-1 score of the 1983 state championship game doesn’t tell the full story. Though Maquoketa eventually secured the first place trophy, it was Jefferson who produced the initial threat in the summer finale.
True to form, McPherson and Rohovit launched the state final with back-to-back doubles. Mere moments in and the Rams held a 1-0 lead. Rohovit was on the mound, fully rested and ready to go. Maquoketa had outlasted Grinnell in 10 innings the day prior, the cards looked to be stacked in Jefferson’s favor.
“We were set up with a lead and we had our best pitcher going,” Powers said.
But the confidence quickly evaporated as an injury to Rohovit suffered earlier in the week flared up in the first inning. The senior tweaked his shoulder during a tackling drill at Iowa Shrine Bowl practices a few days prior. Rohovit was pulled from the game and since Ladd had reached his innings limit, the Rams were left to roll their third starter.
It didn’t turn out in their favor.
Maquoketa scored seven runs in the fourth inning to grab a 9-1 lead. Three more runs in the fifth ended the game by way of the 10-run mercy rule. Just like that, an incredible run was silenced.
“The magic ended right there,” Powers said. “There’s a back story. Randy was rested and ready to go. You just don’t put your three guy in and win a championship.”
The incredible summer of ’83 exemplified the true brilliance of coach Allensworth.
A legend gone too soon
Though fairly brief, Allensworth’s impact on the baseball team and the school district resonated for years after his death. He not only coached baseball, but he was also the first-ever girls’ basketball coach while staying on the cutting edge of innovation as a teacher, creating a futurism course and starting an industries class. He even served on the Jefferson city council. Powers lived across the street from the coach for many years before he passed of a heart attack Sept. 7, 1985.
“We played Guthrie Center the night before and I remember seeing flashing lights out the window,” Powers said. Allensworth had suffered a heart attack.
“That was probably the toughest weekend I had lived through. He was only 43 at the time,” Powers said.
Powers coached under Allensworth for several years. The Greene County baseball field is named in his honor.
“He was well liked and a very good teacher. He was innovative. He got a lot of living done in those 43 years,” Powers said. “He was tough as a coach but not overly tough. The kids knew where his line was. You didn’t dare miss a signal. He was hard to describe.
It was quite the shock when he died,” Powers continued.
Allensworth’s wife, Connie, still lives in Jefferson today, in the same house. Powers often adds color commentary to Greene County radio broadcasts on KGRA radio throughout the year. Randy Burkhardt, who played catcher on the second-place team, is the only starter that still lives in the area. He works for Danielson Auto.
The historic 1983 season is one Powers will never forget, and as a coach of 40 years, is something he used as a bench mark throughout the ensuing decades.
“Never give up,” the now retired coach said. “No matter what the scoreboard says, they proved it many times, once you get on a roll you maybe you are a team of destiny. I believe that happens in sports, when you start living it and feeling it like that. They came up a little short of a state championship, but it was a magical run.”