Cordova Chronicles: A year without hoops, but growing hope

The famous 1956 Cordova Wolverines squad, which electrified the community with hopes for its first Class B title ever. Not shown in photo: Ted Siemion. Photo courtesy of CHS

Last weekend, on a day of blue skies and sparkling sun, my daughter Gretchen, granddaughter Ellie, and I went XC skiing below 10 Mile.

During a stop for a break, we realized it was almost exactly a year ago we were doing the same thing on Eyak Lake, when news of the COVID outbreak hit Cordova.

The bombshell fell at the 2A district playoffs in SuValley, when on Friday, March 13, 2020, ASAA immediately halted all basketball action to take the first steps in hopefully “flattening the curve.”

Since then, the Wolverines girls and boys have not played a game. They have held practices under strict COVID guidelines, and successfully avoided any major pandemic issues.

But Wolverine Court has remained closed for games and fans.

Credit to the players, their coaches, their school, and their families for the discipline and sacrifices they have made.

In fact, credit to the entire community for its commitment to one big bubble that has kept COVID at a relative low level throughout this past trip around the sun.

Unfortunately, the scorecard for our country is staggering — over 530,000 lives lost in 365 days, more than all the lives lost in WWI and WWII combined.

Yet with the days becoming longer, hope, which springs eternal, is growing.

The amazing development of COVID vaccines in just one year brings much needed cause for optimism. And its recently announced availability to anyone in Alaska 16 years or older is absolutely awesome.

However, there is a cautionary tale from Wolverine hoops history that reminds us not to celebrate and let our guard down too soon.

It comes from what was one of the most famous tournament disasters every to befall the Boys in Blue and White.

The cycles of success and talent in Alaska small-town basketball are legendary, and it just happened that in the 1955-56 season CHS had a team that electrified the entire community.

For years, come playoff time, Cordova had been dogged by losses to schools from Nome, Eielson AFB, Wasilla and Kodiak.

This was going to be their year.

The starting five for the 1956 CHS squad included a famous for a trio of sharpshooters named Teddy, Skookie and Carl. From top, Carl Arvidson, Ralph Fenner, Ted Siemion, Martin “Skookie” Parsons and Ray Behymer. Photo courtesy of CHS

Led by a trio of sharpshooters named Teddy (Siemion), Skookie (Parsons) and Carl (Arvidson), CHS blazed through the opening rounds of the Class B tournament, setting up a double elimination matchup with longtime nemesis Nome.

Wolverine fever was at such a pitch that CHS cancelled classes, because almost the entire student body was in Anchorage. Merle Smith’s Cordova Airlines DC-3’s were hauling plane-loads of fans at a special tournament fare of $12 for a round trip, so why not?

Cordova and Nome played a tense first game, with CHS gradually pulling away to win 58-53.

A victory in either of the next two games would give them their first Class B title.

Things looked bright as the Wolverines jumped to a 20-point lead in the first half of the second game.

In fact, they were so far ahead that Coach C.L. “Barney” Anderson started running in reserves prior to the end of the half to give them some playing time.

Big mistake. The Nanooks whittled away at the lead and gained confidence. Back came the Cordova starters, yet they could not regain the momentum, and Nome edged away to win by a heartbreaking two-point margin, 58-56.

When game three came around, CHS had lost its mojo. Nome led the whole game, winning by a big margin.

The Cordova Times, which had run bold-headlined front-page stories about the first two games, ended up sadly reporting the disastrous third game without even listing the final score.

I found it in a March 12, 1956 Nome Nugget newspaper: Nome 56, Cordova 32.

A 24-point loss.

The pain lingered for years.

More than once, decades later, while shopping at AC, I would run into David Glasen, a strong young talent for that CHS squad. He would retell the same frustrating story about “a big guy that couldn’t even tie his shoelaces” suddenly making every shot.

His description rarely ended before the ice cream in his cart had started melting, with other shoppers skirting by as he became increasingly animated.

Glasen passed away in Cordova in 2010, at the age of 71. He was unhappy about that final score for 54 years.

Ah, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.

What does this have to do with this year without hoops?

It has often been said that sports is a metaphor for life.

After a year of isolation and discipline, as of March 15, 2021, first doses of vaccines have been administered to over 70 million Americans, including a remarkable 1,050 in Cordova.

With spring in the air and shots in the arms, there is a rising sense of confidence that we will win this battle. Which is marvelous.

But let’s not declare victory too soon. In fact, over 80% of Americans are still unvaccinated.

The battle is far from over.

A recent spike in cases here in Cordova serves as a reminder.

Now is the time to stay the course.

Let’s continue to follow recommended guidelines.

And unlike the unfortunate 1956 Wolverines, wrap up this win for sure.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes.