Falls and Hamilton hoops rivalry still alive and kicking

Latest tilt harkens back to great games of the 1970s

Jan. 6, 2012

After I had waited for someone to open the locked doors Jan. 5 at Sussex Hamilton High School (the sign on the door said the game was sold out), and as I was squeezing into the far corner of the gym, I bumped into the Chargers retired (in name only) Hall of Fame football coach Stan Grove.

We were awaiting the start of the renewal of this old and heated boys basketball rivalry with Menomonee Falls and Sussex Hamilton and both of us very pleased to see the nicely refurbished Chargers gym packed to the rafters and noisy as heck.

And it got a laugh out of both of us. He told me he had been talking to someone in the Patterson family (fabled Hamilton athletes) a few minutes earlier and both thought it looked like a game straight out of the 1970s with the huge crowd and vast energy.

I noted the same being a 1977 Falls North graduate, stating that if you weren't there by halftime of the junior varsity game in those days, you weren't going to get a seat. To which Grove responded with a big laugh.

"And you'd better not get out of that seat either or you were going to lose it!" he shouted over the din.

And though the game is different than it was back then (no 3-pointers, to which both teams availed themselves generously and no halftime entertainment like the "Rim Rockers" slam dunk crew which bounded their way into the fans' hearts) there was still a lot that was the same regardless if it was 1975 or 2012.

You still had the Hamilton chorus singing the national anthem, the student sections were still trading taunts as they always do and the general anxiety and tension brought about from this "neighbor vs. neighbor" thing made all of us a certain age remember clearly our times sweating and swearing in the stands desperately wishing that Dave Gross, Mick Kohl or Mike Ehler (of Falls North) or Mike Greulich, Dan O'Rourke or Terry Youngbauer (Hamilton) would hit that critical shot and send us home happy.

Genesis of rivalry

Former long-time Hamilton assistant and head coach and now-Germantown assistant Jim Lawinger thinks one shot in particular in 1975 launched the Falls North-Hamilton rivalry into the stratosphere.

A Falls North player on that team, Joe Fox, emailed me a copy of the great old Falls News broadsheet photo of Gross hitting the free-throw line jumper with four seconds left that knocked Hamilton out of the unbeaten ranks with a 54-52 decision back in February 1975.

"That was a real sparkplug," said Lawinger, who was an assistant to Rich Ludka at the time. "After that for about six-seven years all the North-Hamilton games were sellouts every time we played. People just expected that they'd get that kind of game."

And, yes, I was at the contest, getting splinters in my butt three-quarters of the way up the bleachers at North.

Unfortunately, I was not at the game five years later in 1979, during which Mike Ehler and Scott Ohrmundt of Falls North and Youngbauer and O'Rourke of Hamilton lit up the cold winter night to the tune of a memorable, scoreboard-challenging 105-92 Hamilton victory.

"My goodness," Lawinger said. "That was the equivalent of a 150-140 game nowadays, because there were no 3-pointers back then. You had to hold onto your gym seats for that one because that was one of the best games of all time.

"That was a fun time. It was a happy coincidence that both North and Hamilton got good at the same time and that led to some really great games."

Back in the days from 1969-84 (after which Falls was consolidated) it was Falls East, Falls North and Hamilton and the fires always seemed to burn brighter for North and Hamilton, said retired Falls East and later Falls' coach Terry Thomas.

"I always thought the North and Hamilton rivalry was more intense," Thomas said, "even after the (Falls) schools combined. It just wasn't quite as intense, but boy, you'd see some great players back in those days."

East had its share, too

Thomas remembers a couple of East-Hamilton contests from the 1980-81 season when the Titans turned in a Braveland Conference championship season record of 19-2.

Led by a towering front line that included 6-8 Kurt McMahon and Dan Knuese, East was looking for an unbeaten Braveland Conference record with a late-season game against the Chargers on the docket. But the cagey Ludka and his Hamilton squad foiled the attempt with a slow-down tactic that stymied the much taller Titans.

"That was a tough game," Thomas said, "but we were able to get them back a few weeks later."

Thomas is pleased to see that the modern-day rivalry still holds the intensity it once did though he, like current Falls coach Dan Leffel (see his comments in the accompanying game story), is glad to see some of the extra-curricular cheap shots and occasional out-and-out obnoxious behavior that sometimes accompanied these tilts fade away a bit.

"It got pretty vicious sometimes," he said, "but it's still fun, especially when you see kids of kids (you used to work with) play."

Lawinger was pleased to be around during those great early days of the rivalry, and he's even happier to see the energy come back into the gym now.

"It was good to see the student section in full force again (on Jan. 5)," he said. "They (Charger coach Andy Cerroni and his staff) do a nice job over there keeping the interest up."

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