Tennyson recalls Niles 1941-42 state title

Published 9:10 am Friday, March 22, 2019

NILES — It has been 77 years since Niles last won a boys basketball championship.

The 1941-42 Niles Vikings defeated Ecorse 50-30 in the Class B title game held at East Lansing High School.

There were 24 players listed on the roster. Today there is only one player left on that team, which was coached by James Tuma — Don Tennyson.

Tennyson is the last man standing for a team that he called average.

“We didn’t even win the conference that year,” Tennyson said. “We just came together and we had a new coach who was good. It just developed.”

Niles was not one of the favorites to win the 1942 state championship, but the Vikings got hot late in the season and knocked off some perennial powerhouses on their way to the championship.

Niles was 6-4 during the regular season. The Vikings started out the year 2-4, but won the final four regular season games, which included victories over Benton Harbor, St. Joseph, Buchanan and Dowagiac.

Benton Harbor was the 1941 Class A state champion.

Niles opened the postseason with a 32-23 win over Buchanan. Sturgis was the next team to fall to the Vikings, 36-29, before Niles captured the district championship with a 50-40 win over Three Rivers in St. Joseph.

In the quarterfinal round, Niles defeated Grand Rapids Christian 39-28 in Kalamazoo.

Niles kept rolling along with a 44-31 win over Marshall in the semifinals at East Lansing High School before defeating Ecorse for the state championship.

Among the top players for the Vikings were Dillard Crocker, Lewis Jeffries, Cecil Coleman, Robert Jugesen, Gemroe Fletcher and Jerold Wingeart.

“I was there to keep the bench warm,” Tennyson said of his status as a player. “Dillard Crocker was the star. Cecil Coleman, he was the next star. Jerold Wingeart was ineligible most of the year and he came back at the end of the year and played on the varsity team. Jim Tuma was our coach. That was his first year. He was right out of college.”

Tennyson said that Tuma was able to get Coleman, who was from Buchanan, to attend Niles and play on the basketball team.

“How he ever got him, I do not know,” Tennyson said. “That made a heckuva difference. He was a tough guy, too. He ended up in the Marine Corps.”

Tennyson recalled getting into the championship game only because of the lopsided margin of victory for the Vikings.

“We won it by 20 points, so I got into the game,” he said. “We had no problems with them during the game. Sturgis was our closest game. But we opened with our rival Buchanan, so that was a tough game, too.”

The Vikings were welcomed home as heroes.

“There were cars lined up from Barron Lake to Niles,” he said. “They were lined up on both sides over five miles. Then we had a reception down by the old high school. The were lined up waiting for us.”

Niles was the runner-up in the Big Seven Conference, which was won by Three Rivers with an 8-2 record. The Vikings finished at 9-3.

“Three Rivers was the toughest team in the conference,” Tennyson said. “Buchanan had some good boys.”

Rounding out the conference standing were Buchanan, St. Joseph, Dowagiac, South Haven and State High.

The Bucks were 5-5.