In researching these three seasons I had the privilege of talking to several of the individuals discussed in this article.
The first is Coach Morrie Goodnight. His memories as sharp as ever he said “I had some good teams and players before those years and some good players and teams after. But those seasons were really special.” I learned that in Coach Goodnight’s senior season of high school in 1954 at Covington, his team played and beat a team from Westville, IL, coached by future Valpo coach Virgil Sweet. Oddly enough, Sweet was also a graduate of Covington. Coach Goodnight provided memories from that game from decades ago, as he did the respect for Coach Sweet. He knew when he beat a Sweet coached team, that his team had beat a well-coached squad. To me, it was apparent that the six consecutive wins over Valpo meant a great deal to him. He also shared the respect he had for Bob Donewald at South Bend St Joe, Doug Adams at Michigan City Elston and Jerry Hoover at North Judson. He said competing against those teams was special as he knew how well coached, they were. Adams and Hoover are in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. He provided that he knew the seniors of 1971 were special when he arrived at Portage and they were sophomores. He still remains in contact with several of the players from that 1971 team including Horner and Lajcin.
Coach Larry Casbon, affectionately known by most simply as “Cazzie,” provided additional insight. He could recall with great clarity many of the games through these seasons and even a couple practices. The victory over Hobart in the 1973 season which he referred to as “Goodnight-Lichtenberger 3.” Rehashing with Cazzie the standing room only (SRO) crowd, the ropes to keep fans off the court and the win over Hobart after the previous two season heart breaking losses was enjoyable. As was a brief discussion of another SRO game in Portage history, when Calumet nipped Portage in 1966 to edge the Indians out of the Calumet Conference title. He mentioned that going to scout an opponent with Coach Goodnight was an experience. He said they’d usually leave by half time as Coach Goodnight had seen everything he needed to. Clearly, he respects Coach Goodnight’s basketball mind. The respect that Cazzie has for the school, Coach Goodnight, the staff, players and fans came through loud and clear. His admiration when discussing what the players have done since playing for PHS in their careers is noteworthy. Clearly, he was and is interested in the individual and not the trophy case. Always a class act.
I spoke with Jim Combs who candidly shared “Chris, Dennis and Jim, they were basketball players. I just worked hard.” He was the first to share of a practice around Christmas of 1970 where he and several others considered quitting the team after Coach Goodnight made them run close to two dozen suicides. Now I say close to, as the number run from the players, I spoke to ranged from 20 to 36. The actual number isn’t important, what is important is the memory and how it helped galvanize the team for the winning streak and the sectional title. Jim shared many of his clippings from the 1971 sectional title run.
Chris Lajcin provided that he hadn’t really played organized basketball until his freshmen year. In 8th grade he had been talked into playing the last two games of the season. After seeing his skills in those games, Dean Snider (coached PHS to the school’s first sectional title in 1956) convinced not only Chris, but more importantly Chris’ father that he should play basketball in high school vice wrestle. That decision prompted Hall of Fame PHS wrestling coach Bruce Sheriff to personally visit the Lajcin home to try and reverse that decision. That didn’t happen and the rest is history. He mentioned the tough practice that Jim Combs had mentioned as well. A practice which Coach Casbon recalled as very physical. He provided that Notre Dame legendary football coach Ara Parseghian had visited him after watching Chris and his teammates beat South Bend Adams in the regionals at Notre Dame about Irish football. Notre Dame decided to recruit a player from Valpo who left the ND team after his freshmen year, an Irish loss. Always the competitor, Chris mentioned the losses that shouldn’t have happened as much as the wins. Chris shared many of the photos he has of the 1971 season as his father loved to photograph the game and his late brother Louie (PHS ’73) was a photographer for the school’s Legend yearbook and Pow Wow newspaper. I am thankful for Chris sharing them and his family taking them a half century ago.
Dennis Horner provided that he had moved to Portage from Richmond, IN during junior high and had initially not been given much playing time. However, that would change quickly as he had played grade school basketball in that hotbed city of Hoosier Hysteria. He also mentioned that tough practice and he recalled Coach Goodnight starting the practice by saying “I don’t think we’ll be needing the basketballs today.” He spoke fondly of Coach Goodnight’s “humor.” An example was in preps for an opponent the Coach had mentioned what a talented shooter a player they were getting ready to face and how they had to work hard to defend him. The game started and the player hit a couple of shots. Coach Goodnight called timeout and remarked “I told you he was a good shooter; do you believe now?” Sarcasm, but spot on coaching.
Tom Taylor discussed how he grew up watching PHS basketball and the common theme was Portage could score, but defense was not as important. He remarked when Coach Goodnight came, that changed and defense was paramount. Defense and playing physical. “We may lose the game, but we were going to be physical and play defense. We weren’t going to lose the fight.”
Mark Cahillane had a lot of great memories of his two seasons on the team. He felt that despite limited playing time on the 1971 team, he and his junior teammates and Greenway had gained valuable experience practicing and competing against the seniors. He felt the training under Coach Goodnight was very intense and that he didn’t realize it at the time, but he was in the best physical condition of his life. He recalled running suicides and then shooting free throws with Cazzie to finish the practice despite being exhausted. He said the 1972 team wasn’t as big as the previous years team, but they didn’t back down from anyone. The number of fouls and the players fouling out, supports that. He recalled a technical foul he got his senior year after fouling out of the Calumet game and slamming the ball down on the court and the ball soared towards the rafters. Coach Goodnight told him that would never happen again (and his teammates got a laugh out of it in the locker room). Fans of the era will recall that Coach Goodnight made everyone have a crewcut. By Christmas time, many needed another trim. Coach used Mark as an example to get a hair cut, saying he looked like a “Mad Russian.” Which brought howls from his teammates. He felt the heartbreaking one-point loss to Hobart in overtime and the Chesterton game turned the season around. He talked about the close friendship he had with Tom Taylor, Chuck Shields and Tony Greenway. He recalled meeting Tony several years before in a pick-up basketball game. They got into a scrum and he threw the ball as hard as he could at Tony. Tony didn’t bat an eye, picked it up and fired it right back. He said they were friends from that day on. He mentioned a unique bit of trivia. In the Muncie North game during December 1971, he had scored the 100th point in the game. The last time Portage had scored 100 points against Lowell in the 1969-70, his older brother Jim had scored the 100th point.
Chuck Shields would recall that to play for Coach Goodnight, you had to play defense first. Fundamentals, especially defensive, were forefront in every practice and especially in games. As a freshman he recalled scoring over twenty points in two consecutive games. His freshmen coach told him that Coach Goodnight wanted to talk to him. Thinking the Coach was going to say something positive about his scoring he was given an awakening when the Coach said “Chuck, I don’t care if you score 50 points a game. If you can’t play defense you won’t play for me.” He understood that defense would be a priority. He commented on what a great teacher of fundamentals Coach Casbon was with the players.
Rick Sabo recalled the great fan support and positive atmosphere around the team. He said the upset of South Bend St Joe was really special, as was passing 22 fan buses on the Toll Road on the way home from South Bend that night. In discussing the Portage coaching staff, he provided that when he played at Ball State the approach to practice/game preparation was not close to what he had experienced under Coach Goodnight at PHS. He truly appreciated the coaching and development he had received from the PHS coaches.