THE GIANT KILLERS OF 1930
By BRANDON HURLEY
George D. Smith had the most important job in all of Paton.
As most of the small town’s remaining 414 residents flocked to the historic Ideal Theatre, eager for action, the Paton Mutual Telephone Exchange manager pulled a few strings with the higher-ups in Des Moines.
The local high school boys’ basketball team was about to tip-off inside the Drake Fieldhouse in the 1930 state tournament and Smith had become the most popular man in town. The local line manager had set up a direct wire from Des Moines, connecting it to a loud speaker inside the Ideal Theatre, allowing fans to hear a mostly live, play-by-play rendering of the on court action 68 miles to the south.
Those lucky enough to squeeze into the old movie theater were blessed with easily the most riveting upset in school history. They collectively envisioned what Vernon Grant’s elegant game-tying basket looked like, sending Paton’s first round game into overtime and later, Lowell Pack’s game-winning free throw.
The stunning victory over Oskaloosa was just one of 23 that winter, later resulting in a thrilling consolation championship. The Panthers won three state tournament games, finishing third among a throng of powerhouses, a feat the Panthers never approached again.
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The combined communities of Paton and Churdan boast a fairly underwhelming and unfortunate basketball history. Never has the consolidated school district of Paton-Churdan High School reached the state tournament, while each town reached the promised land once, though 60 years have passed since Churdan last visited Des Moines (Churdan’s only state tournament appearance came in 1960).
The lack of significant success makes Paton’s run 90 years ago even that more impressive.
The roundball sport of basketball in 1930 relied on the art of a slow burn. Scoring was greatly limited, typically hovering in the mid 20s, and consistent action was nearly non-existent. A lack of a half court line really hurt the overall product, which meant teams were not penalized for over-and-back. As one could probably imagine, this slowed the pace tremendously. Offensive players often spread across the entirety of the court, playing keep-away until they found an open shot. Offenses followed the lead of scripted plays, staying patient until the perfect moment. Analytics were of no concern, either. Players often launched open 20-footers though there wasn’t a three-point line for another 50 years.
The sport as a whole was only 39 years old in 1930, invented by the great James Naismith in 1891. The game certainly was still discovering itself, if you will. The athletes were accustomed to the sport of basketball, but it would be a few more years until it reached its full potential.
Nearly every Iowa town, big or small, had a high school basketball team back then – Grand Junction, Rippey, Churdan, Copper, Stanhope, Harcourt, Gowrie and Dana played some form of competitive high school basketball.
By all indications, high school basketball games were split into two phases, not unlike that of the girls’ six-on-six game. The two guards often stayed back on the opposing end for defensive purposes while a three-man set evolved on the offensive side, typically the three tallest players on the team, not too unlike that of the girls’ six-on-six game.
As the sport grew, so did Paton’s on-court success.
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Paton began the 1929-30 winter loaded for a run at history behind a successful and veteran lineup. Head coach L. Forrest Corey leaned on a core of forwards, including eventual first team, all-state center Walter Pack and second team, all-state forward Vernon Grant. Glen Cross, Lowell Pack and Harold Magner rounded up the quick and versatile starting lineup. Paton was known for its impressive ball handling and significant size, riding the talent of their dynamic duo at forward. Walter Pack was known as a level-headed big man who often led the team in scoring.
The Panthers obliterated their regular season competition, tallying a 14-1 record, with their only loss a 26-24 nail-bitter to Boxholm. The pair split their two regular meetings that year, with Paton eventually securing revenge in the sectional championship, prevailing in a hard-fought 30-27 win. One of the largest crowds in school history watched Paton fall to Boxholm the first time around, a back-and-forth battle deemed “one of the fastest games ever played in Paton.” as observed by a Jefferson Bee sportswriter in the March 5, 1930 edition of the paper.
Paton was the class of Greene County basketball that winter, absolutely demolishing nearby Scranton, 37-7 also doubling up Rippey, 24-12. Paton defeated Grand Junction three times that season and swept Scranton in their two meetings. Little Paton even blitzed the county seat of Jefferson to the tune of 25-13, in the Greene County tournament cup final.
The postseason was a grueling journey back in the day. If Paton was to reach its lofty goal of playing in Des Moines, the Panthers would need to win six games, requiring Paton to exceed more than a third of their regular season wins.
The Class B sectional tournaments (the Class A tournaments were for the larger schools) were held as a two-day affair back in the 30s. Paton absolutely shined, defeating four teams in two days, showing few signs of struggle. Paton throttled Milford Township, 40-20 in the opening round of the postseason and absolutely ravaged Rippey, 48-12 the following game.
Paton also held off Jordan, 22-17 in an unexpected battle before demolishing Lytton, 49-8 in the opening round of the district tournament, the Panthers’ highest output of the season.
The closest of Paton’s long line of victories was an 18-12 upset of Ellsworth in the Class B district championship in Webster City, securing the school’s first and only state tournament berth. Ellsworth was considered the district favorite, finishing runner-up at the 1929 state tournament until they ran into Paton’s suffocating defense. The victory was the first of Paton’s four giant slayings that winter, a feat which set the stage for even more thrills.
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Despite Paton’s impressive 20-1 record, they entered the 1930, all-class state tournament as an afterthought. Three of the last five state champions were in the field that year, providing quite the intimidation factor for any school. A tiny, rural town on the big stage was a neat story, but certainly not a school anyone needed to worry about. The big teams would certainly prevail. Paton couldn’t possible compete with the likes of Davenport, Waterloo West or even Newton.
Paton’s roundballers cherished the role of underdog, relishing a chance to shock the state. The massive jump in competition from playing small, rural Iowa basketball teams in tiny gyms to facing off against some of the largest and most talented schools in the state clearly did little to deter the Panthers, even if the deck was stacked against the small-town athletes.
Paton was home to just 414 residents in 1930, a far cry from the large, metropolitan populations of Davenport and Waterloo. The high school was home to less than 100 students (96 to be exact) back then, and they were somehow expected to compete with schools nearly 10 times their size. To add insult to injury, Paton only had access to six players at the state tournament, relying on a tight core of well-conditioned athletes. The bigger schools were well-known for their depth, often using nine or 10 players per game.
Oskaloosa was considered one of the title favorites as the state tournament began. OHS as well as Newton and 1929 defending champion Davenport were considered head and shoulders above the rest. Paton was certainly far from a threat, the pundits believed, with many struggling to even pin-point where the town was on a state map.
Paton paid little attention to their lack of press, instead using it as motivation. The Panthers were the first team to arrive in Des Moines, eager for their tournament debut against the title favorites from Oskaloosa. Paton’s instant ambition and clean-cut dedication impressed the writers from the Des Moines Tribune, finally catching someone’s eye during practice.
“The Paton cagers went through a snappy practice on the Drake court in preparation for their opening contest,” a local basketball writer observed.
Paton wasted little time announcing their presence in their first-ever state tournament game, jumping out to a quick lead against Oskaloosa, carrying an 8-7 first quarter advantage. Paton’s first period outburst was the most they’d score in any ensuing frame, as the two teams settled into a defensive slugfest. The Panthers scored just 15 points the remainder of the game, but certainly held their own. The two squads entered the halftime break dead-locked at nine, pouring in just a total of three points in the second quarter. Oskaloosa came out of the locker room as a rejuvenated squad, taking control with a 20-11 lead. In a game of limited offense, Paton seemed doomed, scoring just three points since taking that surprising first quarter lead.
But somehow, the underdog Paton Panthers remained composed, ripping off a magnificent scoring run of their own, clawing back thanks to vicious defense and a patient offense. But, The Panthers still trailed by four with a minute left in the game, 20-16.
Harold Magner and Vernon Grant stepped up as the saviors, punctuating Paton’s overtime-forcing 9-0 run. Magner found Grant open under the basket where he calmly sank a game-tying two-point basket with five seconds left in regulation, sending the first round state tournament game into overtime tied at 20.
Paton’s suffocating defense carried over into the extra frame. The Panthers were the only team to connect on a basket in the overtime period, as Grant followed a pair of Oskaloosa free throws with a clutch, game-tying connection.
The Panthers finally secured their historic upset thanks to a lone Lowell Pack free throw, breaking the tie and sending Paton to a 23-22 win, shocking the state. Paton was victorious in their tournament debut.
“Paton displayed a brilliant quintet when it vanquished one of the pre-tournament favorites,” read the ensuing Des Moines Tribune write-up. “The little Greene County quartet showed the fastest flying of the first round and outplayed Oskaloosa. It too had a sensational basket shooter in Vernon
Grant, stocky diminutive forward, who (scored six field goals) including the game-tying bucket (in regulation).”
Paton had little time to celebrate their rare accomplishments - another giant awaited in the quarterfinals, standing in the way of the Panthers’ growing title expectations.
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Paton’s endured a stunning transformation during the state tournament, from dominant frontrunners to comeback kids. It was never more evident than during their quarterfinal matchup.
Waterloo West was an Iowa high school basketball power in 1930 and as Paton’s quarterfinal opponent, was ready to silence the budding dreams of an upstart program. West, with an enrollment of more than 1,000 students, was only five years removed from the 1925 Class A state title. They were not only experienced, but keenly aware of Paton’s own talent. The Waterloo Courier took notice of the Panthers’ first round upset, believing it wasn’t a fluke.
“These Paton boys are mighty - to the point of being a team which given just a few of the tournament breaks, will be a worthy finalist with Davenport,” wrote the Waterloo Courier prior to the March 21 matchup.
The Trojans looked like the better team in the opening period of the quarterfinals. The Trojans jumped out to a 6-1 lead, stifling Paton’s vaunted front court attack. The Panthers weren’t silenced for long as their own resilient defense stepped up. Paton held Waterloo to just 11 points over the final three remaining quarters, utilizing a well-orchestrated offense to claw their way back. PHS exploded for 10 points in the second quarter, taking a one-point advantage into the halftime locker room, leading 11-10. The Panthers were clearly the better team in the second half. The nifty Paton guards torched the Trojan defenders, slicing through West’s zone. A Des Moines Tribune writer described Paton’s patient offense as “tearing (Waterloo) to shreds” for a number of easy buckets.
Paton entered the fourth quarter with a 14-13 lead after scoring just three points in the third period. The Panthers at first sank into a stall, but when Waterloo West eventually caught on and began pressuring the ball handers, Paton’s quickness took advantage, pulling way for the 23-17 win. Pack and Grant each scored 8 points, combining for 16 of Paton’s 23 points in the monumental triumph, sending them on to the state semifinals.
“Five alert, shifty of foot basketball players from Paton turned in their second ‘giant killing’ performance of the state tournament.... packed all the thrills,” wrote the Associated Press in its recap.
Paton’s offense was a thing of beauty, bolstered by crisp ball movement and well-thought out plays. Even when the Panthers trailed by several baskets against both Oskaloosa and Waterloo West they never panicked. Waterloo Courier sportswriter Edwin Moore Jr. took notice of Paton’s beautiful offense, heaping praise on the small club. The Panthers prevailed even if they weren’t the best shooting team, Moore wrote.
“These Paton boys use a cool, deliberate style of play which remains at one even standard whether ahead or trailing,” Moore wrote. “Their perfect passing to the front, to the rear and either side, is something that cannot be matched by any team in the tournament. They wait for an opening, take it like lightning and make enough of their shots to win.”
Paton’s shocking jaunt through the state tournament had certainly caught the eye of the experts who doubted the Panthers coming in. A Waterloo Courier headline said it best “GIANT KILLERS.” The state now knew who the Paton Panthers were.
“Neither of the victories (over Oskaloosa and Waterloo West) were flukes, neither resulted from sheer luck or breaks of the game,” wrote Moore Jr. “It was simply a case of the best team winning on both occasions,”
Paton’s latest victory set up the toughest test yet in the state semifinals as the Panthers prepared to make one final push.
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Cinderella finally met its match in the 1930 Iowa high school state semifinals.
The Panthers’ dream run came to a sudden halt against Newton, a game shy the state title game. The Cardinals were one of the elite programs at the time, winning the Class A state title in 1926. They were experienced, and proved it in the 1930 semifinals. Paton’s offensive magic ran out, losing 23-16 thanks to just seven made shots out of 49 attempts, good for 14 percent. Fortunately, Paton’s tournament wasn’t quite done. Their semifinal loss knocked them to the consolation championship game, where they’d battle Henderson for third place overall. The Panthers bounced back quite nicely, dropping their highest point total of the tournament in a 32-24 victory. Paton jumped out to a massive 26-8 lead in the first half and eventually held on for the consolation title despite scoring just six second half points. Walter Pack led the Panthers in scoring with 11 points.
Following the victory, Paton was awarded with the state tournament’s sportsmanship award, which was voted on by the Des Moines Hotel Men’s Association.
Paton was treated to quite the party once they returned home with the engraved, silver third place trophy, complimented by a mounted silver basketball. The basketball players were ushered into the high school gym for a celebratory, cafeteria-style dinner with more than 500 residents in attendance. Even 50 residents of Jefferson made an appearance to celebrate the school’s greatest basketball team.
The Paton athletes went on to achieve a bit of success as well after their playing days, expanding their reach well beyond the rural Iowa county.
Harold Magner graduated and later lived in St. Paul, Minnesota while Walter Pack attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, becoming a chief chemist for the Iowa Light and Power Company. Vernon Grant worked for Iowa-Des Moines Bank and Trust in Des Moines while Lowell Pack lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
It’d be another 30 years before a Paton or Churdan basketball team returned to the state tournament when Churdan reached the 1960 tournament. Paton really was the best boys’ team in county history. Paton-Churdan has never reached the state tournament while Jefferson’s only state tournament appearance came in 1967.