The first sanctioned basketball season in 1922 had intrigue, drama, and an under-the-radar champion

Following the fall season in 1921, high school basketball squads began preparing for the upcoming season which was slated to be a special one. It was the first basketball season to be played under the umbrella of the Colorado High School Athletic Conference — or the Colorado High School Activities Association, as it is known today.

It was at an early-April meeting in 1921 that high school athletics in the state of Colorado had established the early stages of organizational structure with the creation of the conference. In the fall of 1921, Colorado Springs played their way to an official state championship while two other squads also claimed rights to a state title.

There was an aura of confusion and uncertainty surrounding the initial season of organized scholastic football.

The structure of the basketball season as it had previously been played allowed for more certainty and fewer chances out of an outside team claiming the rights to a state champion. After all, four previous unsanctioned championship tournaments had been played with no debate looming over the winners.

So the 1922 boys basketball season, the first season to be sanctioned by a statewide organization, should've gone off with little to no controversy.

But that’s not what happened.

A major rule was broken by a dominant team and the ensuing fallout greatly changed the landscape.

This is the story of that season.

• • •

Sanctioning the tournament

Fort Collins Courier | Feb. 17, 1922

The idea of a state basketball tournament first arose in 1918. After Boulder Prep High School had soundly beaten all of the teams in its area, it craved tougher opponents.

As CHSAA assistant commissioner Bert Borgmann wrote in Rocky Mountain Basketball, a collection of historical Colorado basketball stories, "Boosters from the University of Colorado rounded up ten teams from across the state for a round-robin tournament."

Colorado Springs (now Palmer High School) claimed the first three championships, and Greeley won the fourth.

The format was working well in its time, but it was missing something in the way of official recognition. The development of the Colorado High School Athletic Conference in the spring of 1921 brought high schools throughout the state under one athletic umbrella.

Although the format for crowning the state basketball champion was in place, there was still the formality of making the tournament official in the eyes of the new state conference.

Basketball season had already started, but on Feb. 16, 1922, the executive committee of the Colorado High School Athletic Conference gathered on an unseasonably warm, 58-degree day in Colorado Springs.

The purpose of the meeting was to "support the state basketball tournament as conducted by the Boosters club of the University of Colorado," the Fort Collins Courier the following day.

Getting to the tournament was a relatively simple concept: The winners of six leagues throughout the state would all convene in Boulder, where they would play five games in a matter of three days. At the time, the leagues were the Arkansas Valley, Northern, Northeastern, South Central, Southern, and the Western Slope.

The state championship would be awarded to the team with the best record after those five games.

The executive committee consisted of four divisional representatives that spoke on behalf of the six leagues made up throughout the state.

Professor R.W. Truscott of Loveland High School represented the northern district, which consisted of the northern and northeastern leagues. Truscott had been the temporary president of the Colorado High School Athletic Conference from May-October 1921, was a member of the initial board of control, and later the organization’s commissioner from 1926-48. He also officiated the first football championship game on Nov. 24, 1921.

Rocky Ford's C.M. Wilson attended the meeting on behalf of the southern district. Professor J.J. Coy out of South Denver was the rep for the central district, and Grand Junction's J.C. Maley attended for the western district.

Also on the agenda for the meeting was a "remodeling" of the football constitution, which had been first used the previous fall. That issue was to be taken up at the principals conference the following spring.

But the primary objective had been set. The state tournament for the season that had already begun play was now an official event and was to be recognized by the state league.

• • •

The regular season

Pueblo Chieftain | Jan. 5, 1922

The athletic rivalry between Pueblo Central and Pueblo Centennial was just beginning to heat up heading into the 1922 basketball season.

It had started in 1892 when the two teams met on the football field for the first time. In what is now known as the "Bell Game," the rivalry between Central and Centennial is nearly as old as American sports as a whole.

Heading into the basketball season in 1922, it was widely believed that the South Central League title would be won by one of these two teams.

Central had advanced to the 1921 tournament. Vernon Cochran, the center and captain for the Wildcats, was the team's lone selection to the All-State team that year.

Across town, the Centennial Bulldogs were also gearing up to start the year as they, too, played their first game on the road. They traveled to neighboring Canon City, which was in the South Central League along with Central, Centennial, Trinidad and Florence.

In a Chieftain article dated Jan. 5, the team was "rounding into midseason form thru their strenuous workouts under the directions of Coaches Doubenmier and [Williard Stanley] Kettering and the team is confident they will defeat Canon City Friday night in the opening game of the conference schedule."

Both the Bulldogs and Wildcats entered the year confident that they could be the South Central representative at the state tournament, but it was Centennial proving their dominance as they took the first of two games against its crosstown rival.

The headline of the Jan. 18 Chieftain proclaimed it to be an "exciting basketball game" as Centennial got a 22-17 win. Central's Hughes led all scorers with eight points while Hatfield Chilson led the Bulldogs with six.

They met again on Feb. 17, with the Bulldogs getting a more decisive 29-14 win to all but lock up the league title. Centennial actually dropped its first game of the year to Canon City but won every game from there on out and led the South Central league in scoring with 331 points. They also held their opponents to just 156 on the year, and finished the regular season 7-1.

It was this level of play that gave the Bulldogs confidence that they were coming back from Boulder with a state championship.

That confidence radiated throughout the city. In a Chieftain article dated March 8, reporter Harry Kletzky identified Colorado Springs as the most formidable foe. Kletzky then pointed out the high level of play that Centennial displayed in a practice game against the Steel Works "Y" team.

"If Centennial plays as good a game as they did when they defeated the Steel Works 'Y,' which they will, it will be practically impossible for the Terrors to defeat the South Central champions," Kletzky wrote.

The Bulldogs took that confidence and boarded a 5:45 a.m. train to Boulder on March 8 to battle for a state title as the South Central champions.

Also set to take part in the inaugural state tournament:

Lamar Register | March 15, 1922

  • Gunnison, champions of the Western Slope, who had stormed through their conference. On March 1, the Top O' The World in Gunnison reported on two regular season wins the team had by using this lede: "The week-end rampage of the Gunnison Cowboys over the Western Slope proved disastrous for the villages in that locality." They cruised through the league tournament with wins over Delta (55-16), Paonia (65-19) and Telluride (51-25), before beating Montrose 33-27 in the finals in front of 1,200 fans on March 4.
  • Arkansas Valley champion Fowler, which entered its league tournament an impressive 15-0. They beat Holly in the final to win the league.
  • Southern league champion Colorado Springs, who were widely regarded as the best all-around athletic department in the state, and who had just won the first football championship in the fall.
  • Northeastern champion Yuma, described as "fine, clean young athletes" by the Wray Rattler on Jan. 12, won its league tournament with a 23-15 win over Holyoke, a 25-24 win over Merino and a 15-9 win over Fort Morgan. Despite winning the tournament, Yuma didn't have a single player named to the all-conference team.

The final participant was an unidentified Northern champion.

Events were unfolding in the up north that would have significant implications on the state tournament.

• • •

Chaos in the Northern league

The archives at Greeley Central High School did not paint an optimistic picture of the 1922 season for the Greeley Wildcats.

The unsanctioned 1921 state title had been won by Greeley and the team afterwards played the Wyoming state champions, winning the battle of Rocky Mountain championship teams.

But according to the Greeley Central archives, "All of the members of the team that had won the 1921 state championship and defeated the champions of Wyoming, had been graduated from school."

The Greeley High School gym in 1921. (Greeley Museums)

Greeley was starting from scratch.

But at the bare minimum, they had a solid example to build off. The 1921 Wildcats had played their way to the final unsanctioned state championship just a year earlier. While the 1922 version of the team was seen as a bit of an underdog, the 1921 Greeley squad ventured to Boulder as the heavy favorite.

The Wildcats knocked off Wheat Ridge in the first game of the 1921 tournament before coming back the next day to beat Pueblo Central and Simla. They then knocked off Fort Morgan and Steamboat Springs to become just the second team to win a state title since the inception of the tournament three years earlier. They also sent three players to the All-State team giving the Wildcats the most representation of any team in the tournament.

The Wildcats were loaded with seniors who would depart the school leaving the basketball program with an inexperienced group of kids coming back the next season.

What Greeley lacked in experience, it made up for with a pool of athletes from which they could pull. Joe Enright had just come off a football season where he had earned a varsity letter, as had Ruel Heck and Sidney Smith.

From a league standpoint, the Wildcats were going to be challenged by Boulder Prep High School, a team that had proven to be dangerous on an annual basis despite not being able to claim a state championship since the inception of the tournament.

The Wildcats had quite the task ahead of them for the year. They were one of four Colorado schools to face off against East Salt Lake out of Utah through the course of the season. A Jan. 25 Courier article says the Wildcats downed the out of state visitors 30-23. East Salt Lake also lost to Colorado Springs on its trip.

Through the course of the season, the Wildcats played a successful brand of basketball and was every bit in contention for the Northern league championship. They had to somehow get through a tough Boulder team, but the hand of fate was about hand Greeley a big assist.

On Jan. 24, the Courier published its first recorded score of a Greeley High game as the Wildcats downed Eaton 33-9. But just a few column inches below this report, the first signs of trouble for Boulder were published.

When the idea of a state basketball championship first arose in Colorado, the city of Boulder was the unofficial hub. As Borgmann documented in Rocky Mountain Basketball, the Boulder Prep High School team had beaten all of its area opponents and needed something more to validate its status as a basketball powerhouse.

That wish was granted and Boulder made it to the championship game before getting beat by Colorado Springs. The Terrors claimed the first three unofficial state titles in 1918, 1919 and 1920 before Boulder's northern league foe Greeley took the fourth in 1921.

Boulder went into the 1922 season with expectations of winning a state championship. They dominated the Northern conference at the midway point of the season. The league standings were published in the Fort Collins Courier on Feb. 18, noting that Boulder was "the only team to finish the first circle with a perfect percentage."

The "Preps," as they were known, were sitting at 5-0 with Greeley right below them at 4-1. The Wildcats dropped a Feb. 14 meeting with Colorado Springs, but that game did not count in the league standings. The Wildcats' lone league loss was to Boulder.

Boulder sitting at the top of the standings was especially impressive considering the news that had broken less than a month earlier. Team captain Dale Berkhimer had run into some academic issues and was deemed ineligible.

Berkhimer had failed to "pass the required number of hours" according to a story out of the Boulder Camera. But Boulder had powered through and remained undefeated nonetheless.

But the team's struggles were only beginning. For those that were following the high school basketball contests at the time, it felt like Boulder had a legitimate shot to capture the first sanctioned state basketball title in Colorado history.

Then everything changed on March 2, 1922.

Fort Collins Courier | March 2, 1922

The Fort Collins Courier published a story in its sports section that day that revealed that Robert Will, the "center and premier shooter of the conference" was born on May 4, 1899. The paper cited a birth notice in the Longmont Ledger dated May 5, 1899.

A search of the Ledger archives did in fact confirm that a birth notice was printed announcing that Mr. and Mrs. Burns Will had a son on Thursday, May 4, 1899.

At the time, it was a Northern conference rule that anyone over the age of 21 cannot participate in interscholastic athletic contests. It was also a founding principle and rule of the new statewide athletic conference.

Will was on the verge of turning 23.

Boulder coach Howard Breseford announced Will's confession of the matter in a telephone message. The Express noted that it was unlikely that any authority at Boulder knew of Will's age and it was suggested that Will was unaware of the age rule that was in place.

As a result of the discovery, the Greeley Wildcats ultimately became the Northern conference champions, giving them a berth in the state basketball tournament to be held the next week.

But the process in which Greeley actually won the championship is a little murky.

A story in the Fort Collins Courier on March 7 gives very different details of how Boulder was punished for Will's ineligibility.

Fort Collins coach Geo W. Scott makes the bold claim that "a mistake was made. Boulder should have forfeited each game in which an ineligible man played and should have been willing to have voluntarily made the forfeit."

The story claims that the Northern league coaches penalized the Boulder Preps only the points that Will had scored during the season.

But the original story in the Courier stated that once authorities at Boulder were made aware of Will's situation, they contacted the other schools in the league and forfeited the games. The Express even published the adjusted league standings which listed Boulder with an 0-7 record, and Greeley at 9-0.

To further fuel the confusion, the Courier then published an editorial on March 8 that once again stated that Boulder's only punishment was the invalidation of Will's points: "The coaches set a bad example Saturday when the Boulder high school basketball team was penalized only the number of points actually scored by Robert Will," the paper wrote.

Had Boulder not forfeited its games in which Will played, they would've maintained a record good enough to win the Northern league title and earn a spot in the state basketball tournament. But it was Greeley, not Boulder, which represented the league — which suggests that the forfeits were indeed made despite the two Courier stories that suggested otherwise.

• • •

The first sanctioned state tournament

The Armory Building at CU. (Carnegie Library for Local History/Museum of Boulder Collection)

The state basketball tournament of 1922 looked much different than the tournament that is played today. There was no Selection Sunday, no bracket laying out a visual road map to get to a championship venue.

The event was held in the Armory Building at the University of Colorado, a three-story stone building with hardwood floors that had been built in December 1915.

Outside of the northern part of the state, the controversy surrounding Boulder had gone mostly unreported.

The Pueblo Chieftain focused mainly on Centennial's preparation for the tournament and promoted the support the Bulldogs were getting from the community and even from their rivals over at Pueblo Central.

"Centennial has a good team this year and they have a good chance for the state championship," Central coach Fred Huling told the paper on March 7. "Nothing would please me more than to hear Centennial win first place in Boulder."

But the Bulldogs would have their work cut out for them. Greeley, Fowler, Colorado Springs, Yuma and Gunnison were all making their way toward the Armory with the hopes of returning home as champions. From March 9, a Thursday, to March 11, a Saturday, six teams would each play five games for the honor of claiming the first official state basketball championship.

• • •

March 9

Pueblo Chieftain | March 9, 1922

The first day of the tournament was the only day in which each team would play just a single game. Getting a win to start the tournament was going to be essential in determining who had a legitimate shot at claiming the championship.

The schedule had been set as Greeley met Gunnison in the first game of the day with Pueblo Centennial and Yuma to follow and Colorado Springs and Fowler slated as the nightcap.

Ernest Ogle got right to work in the opening game of the tournament as he poured in 14 points to give Greeley a 44-21 win over Gunnison, the Western Slope champion.

Pueblo Centennial followed up that performance with an impressive 58-12 game over Yuma. Per the March 10 Chieftain, Withers was a "star" at center for the Bulldogs and scored 24 points, doubling Yuma's entire scoring effort.

Colorado Springs beat Fowler 36-16 thanks to a 16-point game from Broils. After the first day Greeley, Centennial and Colorado Springs had put themselves in control. The big test would be Friday’s slate of games as Greeley and Colorado Springs would meet, giving the winner of that game a definitive edge.

• • •

March 10

Pueblo Chieftain | March 10, 1922

Action at the Armory began at 11 a.m. as Gunnison grabbed its first win of the tournament, beating Yuma 44-29.

Centennial then took the floor hoping to move to 2-0, but an unexpected illness made a win over Fowler less of a sure thing than the faithful back in Pueblo were hoping for. Chilson played in the first half of the Bulldogs win over Yuma, but sat the second half of the game.

He had come down with a case of tonsillitis and was trying to battle his way through it, but couldn’t get on the floor at all on Friday. Kettering held out hope that he’d make his return on Saturday.

Enter Johnnie Elbeck.

He took over in Centennial’s first game of the day, a 26-21 win over Fowler. Elbeck totaled 14 points and added 10 in the Bulldogs' 42-34 win over Gunnison later that day. But his place in history had already been set.

Already a standout baseball player, Elbeck was the first African-American high school basketball player in Pueblo history. He wasn't even allowed to step on the court at Centennial until Kettering took over as coach.

He played a vital role in Centennial remaining undefeated through the second day of play, but would soon further cement his place in Colorado basketball history.

The 3 p.m. game provided perhaps the biggest shock of the entire tournament as Greeley beat Colorado Springs, the team that was supposed to be the biggest threat to Centennial. The Wildcats got a 33-20 win behind Edward James' brilliant 25-point performance. It avenged an earlier 38-17 loss to Colorado Springs back in Feburary.

Greeley carried that momentum into the final game of the day, where they topped Fowler 26-10.

Through Friday's slate of games, Centennial and Greeley were both unbeaten and went to bed knowing they had a 4 p.m. showdown with each other. The stakes, however, had not yet been determined as Centennial had a morning matchup with Colorado Springs. A Centennial win over the Terrors and a Greeley win over Yuma would put the Bulldogs and Wildcats on a championship collision course.

• • •

March 11

Pueblo Chieftain | March 11, 1922

There was still plenty of work to be done for the two unbeaten teams. As daylight broke and the Flatirons became visible across the Boulder landscape, one team was set to leave the University of Colorado with the first sanctioned basketball championship in state history.

Play began at 11 a.m. with Centennial taking on Colorado Springs, a matchup that the Chieftain had hyped a week earlier as a crucial one for the Bulldogs. Had the Terrors beaten Greeley on Friday, the first tilt of the day likely would have been the state championship game, but it was not to be.

As the Chieftain believed, the Bulldogs dispatched Colorado Springs 34-17 to claim their fourth straight win at the state tournament, setting up a likely championship game with Greeley.

All the Wildcats had to do was handle Yuma, the only team entering Saturday without a single win in the tournament. Greeley rolled to a 29-16 win, officially making the 4 p.m. showdown with Pueblo Centennial a true, winner-take-all state championship game.

The big setback for the Bulldogs was the departure of Kettering, who had to return to Pueblo to deal with a family illness. That left Doubenmier in charge. But Centennial also got a bit of good news: Chilson had returned to the floor despite missing both games on Friday.

In the penultimate game of the tournament, the Bulldogs and Wildcats took the floor in what remains one of the greatest championship games of all time.

Greeley opened the game making a fast run and taking the early lead. They went into halftime with a 12-4 lead and had effectively shut down Elbeck, who had been the standout player for the Bulldogs all tournament.

Desperately needing to get back in the game, Centennial greatly improved on both ends of the floor in the second half. They closed out on a 16-8 run as regulation ended with the teams locked in a 20-20 tie, forcing a five-minute overtime period.

Although the game followed the same overtime length and rule that remains in place today, it turned out to be a case of next basket wins.

Ogle, who had been subbed in for James, hit the game-winning shot with under a minute to play in the game, giving the Wildcats a 22-20 win. James led the Wildcats with 10 points and it was Chilson who matched that total to lead Centennial. The Chieftain's write-up of the game remarked that the game was exciting and fast-paced.

The Wildcats’ five-game stretch at CU was a major historical landmark on the timeline of Colorado high school basketball.

There are several teams that can point to recent titles or total titles. But Greeley is the only team that can point to the first title which played a major role in launching organized scholastic basketball in the state and advancing it to where it is today.

Fort Collins Courier | March 13, 1922

• • •

1922 state basketball tournament

• • •

The aftermath

Despite winning its fifth game of the tournament and officially claiming the state championship, Greeley had some waiting around to do. There was still a 6 p.m. game between Yuma and Fowler that had to be played before awards were handed out and the All-State team was named.

At the conclusion of the final game — which ended with a Fowler win — Greeley was officially presented with a “silver Loving Cup,” which was the standard trophy to be awarded at sporting events at this time. Joe Enright and Edward James were named to the All-State team for the Wildcats.

James was a unanimous selection as was Elbeck for Centennial. His selection was significant as he became the first African-American player selected to an All-State team in Colorado history. He later served in World War II and was elected to the Great Pueblo Sports Association Hall of Fame in 1984.

Relics from the 1922 championship team can be found in what is now Greeley Central High School. In a recent search for the Loving Cup or any trophy associated with the 1922 title, current Greeley Central athletic director Sean Scribbick discovered that it was misplaced during the 1924 move from the old Greeley High School to the current building.

But the championship banner still hangs in the gym as a constant reminder of the team's historic run to the title. Unofficially it was the team's second in a row. Officially it was their first. It wasn't the last.

Greeley proved to be a basketball powerhouse for the first half of the 20th century as it won a total of nine state titles between 1922 and 1962.

They are tied for third-most titles in Colorado history with Denver Christian. Only Manual and Denver East have more.

The 1922 basketball season stands out in the historic fabric of CHSAA for so many reasons. Although it was the first sanctioned season in state Association history, it provided historical landmarks in regard to both the advancement of social rights and the upholding of the values of the Association.

And it was the conclusion of the tournament on March 11, 1922 that marked a major milestone for Colorado high school basketball.

The values and operations of CHSAA have evolved greatly since the spring of that year, but the very seeds of those values were planted at that time.

The growth of those values has coincided with the growth of basketball in the state to the point where now 10 teams each season get to experience the championship journey that the Greeley basketball team embarked on so long ago.

The 1922 Greeley basketball team. (Greeley Central HS)

Pueblo Chieftain | March 12, 1922

The 1922 state basketball championship banner, hanging in Greeley Central's gym.