When it comes to high school sports in this area, Regionites love to tell the tales of a glorious yesteryear. And we do so with a territorial chip on our collective shoulders. It’s always us against them.
Being this is Indiana, discussions of this nature usually start with basketball. Granted, Calumet Region schools have won only seven state championships in the entire history of the illustrious basketball tournament hosted by the Indiana High School Athletic Association – hardly the numbers of dominance – but plenty of locals will argue that’s because many times the state championship was decided during the grueling Northwest Indiana sectional and regional rounds. Still others will tell you it was anti-Region referees at semi-state that doomed the local boys.
Despite the low number of trophies accumulated, Lake County has nonetheless seen its share of great teams and players through the years. The argument has been made countless times that the best two teams the state of Indiana has ever seen came from schools located less than two miles from each other, who played their home games in the same gym in front of the same 6,000 fans and recorded state championships in back to back seasons.
Of course, I’m referring to the Roosevelt and Washington teams of 1969-70 and 1970-71 respectively. Due to the success of these two legendary programs, the city of East Chicago has basked in high school basketball glory more than any other Calumet Region community.
In 1960, head coach John Baratto and his Washington Senators brought home the first of the city’s three state titles. Many great teams followed throughout the sixties, but it wasn’t until the start of the next decade that the community could once again hoist the hardware.
This time around, it was Bill Holzbach and the cross town Roosevelt Roughriders who would win the state championship, going undefeated (28-0) in the process.
The following season it was more of the same for the Twin Cities. This time it was the boys from the Harbor (Washington), coached by John Molodet, who registered a perfect season, finishing 29-0 en route to the single class championship.
The topic of who was the better champion – Roosevelt or Washington – will always be up for debate. But that argument will have to wait for another day. Rather, this article looks at the elements that came together to forge these two unbeatable teams and the legends who played on them.
What was it about the city of East Chicago and that era that created so many great athletes and teams? Were there high levels of iron ore in the water? Were young boys baptized with Inland Steel coke dust? Was it someone’s grand plan or merely a coincidence? Whatever the cause – the effect was clear; from the fall of 1969 through the spring of 1971, East Chicago was at the top of the high school basketball world. As state champions, the EC twosome was a combined 57-0! Overall the two schools were 94-6 in that same two year span.
Three players from those teams – Pete Trgovich (ECW), Junior Bridgeman (ECW) and Jim Bradley (ECR) – were drafted and/or played professionally. Bradley, generally considered to be the best high school hoopster to ever come out of the Calumet Region, had a solid supporting cast at ‘Velt that included Cavanaugh Gary, Jim Rossi, Napoleon Brandford and Mike Artis.
All five Washington starters would play Division I basketball – Ruben Bailey (Ball State ‘75), Darnell Adell (NC State ’75), Trgovich (UCLA ’75), Bridgeman (Louisville ‘75) and Tim Stoddard (NC State ‘74). Stoddard and Trgovich played for national champions. And in the 1975 NCAA semi-finals, Trgovich guarded Bridgeman, while Washington’s Tim Stoddard went on to major league baseball fame, pitching for both the Cubs and Sox during a 13-year career.
In a 2005 interview with the RSN, Trgovich said it was a decade of playing together on the playgrounds and in the elementary schools that helped raise the talent level.
“It started around second grade. My friends and I all grew up wanting to play in that (Washington HS) gym,” he said. “We played all the time – before school, after school. In the summer we literally played from early morning until it was too dark to see the rim.”
“As we got a little older we started playing with kids from other parts of town and the competition was fierce. The games were all out battles,” he continued.
“By the time we got to high school, we had the system down and knew what was expected of us. Plus we all knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and could anticipate what each other was going to do,” said Trgovich. “Most games that year (70-71) we felt invincible.”
Darrell Brandford, whose brother Napoleon authored the book “Road Warriors; The story of the 1970 Roosevelt Roughriders,” was a sixth man for that team and reminisced about those days. “We scrimmaged against college guys all summer long and some of the games were really physical, but those guys taught us a lot,” he said.
“(Former Chicago Bulls) Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker and Bob Love used to play there,” he said of a court in Gary’s Brunswick neighborhood. “You brought a team and it was play till you lose. Once you lost, you had to sit out and it might be three or four hours before you got to play again because there was so many good teams. So you learned to minimize mistakes because you didn’t want to go home.”
Bill Holzbach, coach of that 1970 Roughrider team, credits the city’s youth leagues and a bunch of dedicated boys for the success. “We had a feeder system in East Chicago that was the best around. Not just in the Harbor either, it was on both sides of town,” he said.
“From an early age our kids played a lot of organized basketball. The (varsity) coaches were in charge and they told the others how they wanted the kids (coached),” Holzbach continued. “But you can’t win without the kids and we had great kids. They were very smart, intelligent, dedicated kids.”
How good were these two teams? “Picking one over the other is tough,” Holzbach said. “We were undefeated and so were they. You can’t do any better than that.” But in the end the coach concedes, “Naturally, I’m a little biased towards Roosevelt.”
Darnell Adell, one of the stars of that ECW club and now the principal at Central, cited camaraderie and chemistry as key factors. “We were all friends,” said Adell. “We hung out together all the time so there was social interaction. And there was a purpose and unselfishness to what we were doing. We were driven to win a championship.”
Like most everyone else interviewed for this article, Adell said ultimately it came down to experience. “We had played together for so long before we ever got to the varsity that we could let our instincts take over. We knew what to do and how to do it. We were taught well.”
When it comes to the fans – and 6000 plus showed up for nearly every game those two seasons – Trgovich, Adell, Holzbach and Brandford all agree they got their money’s worth.
“Fans came to the games and were entertained by the style of play,” Adell said. “And by the level of it.”
Pistol Pete concurred. “It was exciting basketball. We didn’t spend much time thinking about it. When we had the ball, the idea was to score and the fans loved it.”
And score they did. The Senators averaged better than 92 points a game and passed the 100-point mark on several occasions that season. To this day, no Region teams – in any sport – are revered and respected as much as the 1969-70 Roosevelt Roughriders and the 1970-71 Washington Senators.
The players on those teams are legends in their own time, who played at a time “when hoops ruled the Region…and Region hoops ruled.” Their remarkable feats will live on for eternity. And for their accomplishments, they’ll be forever remembered as “East Chicago’s Men of Steel!”
Chris Ramirez can be E-Mailed at