Winning teams are tradition in East Chicago. And nobody did it better than East Chicago Washington in 1971. “A team for the ages”, “greatest of all time” – these are a couple of the superlatives often heard and debated when talking about the 1971 East Chicago Washington Senators. Perhaps Junior Bridgeman said it best when he said it was a team that only happens “once in a generation.”
By the numbers, the 1971 EC Washington Senators state championship team were a once in a generation team: 29 wins, 0 losses, 91.5 points per game, and an average victory margin of 29.7 points. Five senior starters (Darnell Adell, Ruben Bailey, Pete Trgovich, Junior Bridgeman, and Tim Stoddard) that all averaged over 12 points per game and all went on to play Division 1 basketball. Reserves Albert Pollard, Howard Williams, and Francisco Sanchez added talented depth to an already loaded roster. A high school team with the size, speed, depth, and skill that the ’71 Senators is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find.
Three players would go on to start in an NCAA Final Four – Trgovich (UCLA), Stoddard (NC State), and Bridgeman (Louisville). Trgovich would win NCAA titles in ’73 and ’75 while Stoddard won a title in ’74. Two players (Bridgeman and Trgovich) were NBA draft picks. Bridgeman averaged 13.6 points per game over a 12 year NBA career. Stoddard would go on to a 13 year Major League Baseball career and was a member of the 1983 World Series Champion Baltimore Orioles. He is the only athlete to win both an NCAA basketball championship and a MLB World Series.
One look at the numbers and the achievements it is easy to tell this truly was a once in a generation team. But, that certainly doesn’t tell the complete story of the 1971 EC Washington Senators.
For the Senators, the 1971 season began in the locker room after the heartbreaking sectional loss in 1970 to the EC Roosevelt Roughriders. Bridgeman and Trgovich said that Tim Stoddard was the vocal leader after that game stating in no uncertain terms that they would not lose the following year. The message and goal were clear. And, the Senators would set out with drive and passion to accomplish what they all dreamed about growing up in the harbor.
Passionate fans are part of the tradition of the East Chicago lore. The old Washington gym was a rare gem in the history of high school basketball anywhere. With a stated capacity of 6,222 sold out and standing room only crowds were the norm with fans filling the bleachers and lined up in the corners trying to get a view of the floor. “When the organ player started to play ‘Hail Noble Washington’, it was the greatest feeling” Trgovich said. Bridgeman, with a smile, recited the words to the school fight song while talking about all the things that made the atmosphere special in East Chicago.
Head coach John Molodet was a leader from the sidelines and behind the scenes. Bridgeman said that Coach Molodet gave players confidence by saying things at the right time, oftentimes after practice or in the hallways at school. Trgovich said that Coach Molodet gave the team the freedom to play a style that not only fit their strengths as a team, but was a fun style for players and fans alike. He added “the way the game should be played.” Trgovich noted that all championship teams have talent, but not all talented teams win championships. Coach Molodet was able to maximize the talent of the ’71 Senators.
The Senators talent, unselfishness, and perfection of the fast break was on full display from the start of the season. In the first five games the Senators posted scores of 92, 109, 95, 95, and 77. But hidden in all the glamour and beauty of the break was the defensive pressure, rebounding, and the unselfishness of the team that would ultimately lead their run to the state title.
Bridgeman noted that in the first five games of the season the team had five different leading scorers. And, the sharpshooting Trgovich also helped lead the defensive pressure that created fastbreak opportunities. Guards Adell and Bailey had great speed and were excellent finishers at the basket. Bridgeman and Stoddard were one of the greatest rebounding tandems in the state’s history. At the State Finals, Bridgeman pulled down 33 rebounds in two games as Stoddard grabbed 32 rebounds. Both totals rank in the top 8 for State Finals history. Simply put, this was a complete team with few, if any, weaknesses.
In 29 games, the Senators reached 100 points seven times. They had 11 additional games in which they scored over 90 points. In only three games on the season was the victory margin single digits – a 7 point early season win over Gary Roosevelt and 2 wins over Gary Westside. The Senators defeated the Westside Cougars 88-85 in the final regular season game and again 94-89 to win the Regional championship.
The Senators completed their state title run with two convincing wins at the Semi-State followed by two more at the State Finals. The Senators defeated Floyd Central 102-88 in the morning game behind Trgovich’s 40 points. They went on to defeat Elkhart 70-60 in the championship.
Winning a state championship in Indiana is something almost all high school basketball players dream about. The members of the ’71 EC Washington team were no different. A team that went from playing in the parks, alleys, and driveways in East Chicago growing up to playing in front of sold out gyms and a sold out Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis at the State Finals. It was a dream season completed by a dream team.
The 1971 Senators finished the year ranked the #1 team in the country by the National Sports News Service. More recently, both the Indy Star and ESPN.com have ranked the Senators team in the Top 5 of all-time Indiana HS basketball teams. Were the ’71 EC Washington Senators better than the ’70 EC Roosevelt Roughriders? Were the ’71 Senators the best team in the history of Indiana HS basketball? Those are questions that will continue to be debated for a long time. What isn’t debatable was the greatness that East Chicago Washington showed on the court for all 29 games that season. A team that played every facet of the game with a drive, passion, and enthusiasm that, like Bridgeman noted, comes around once in a generation.
After winning the State Championship, Coach Molodet said of his team “I can’t think of a team I’ve seen whose kids work better together.” Over 40 years later, there is no doubt that is still the greatest compliment to the 1971 East Chicago Washington team.