By Con Marshall
It was a golden year in Rushville 50 years ago this fall. The football team—always very important in the Sheridan County seat because the fans were ardent supporters—went 11-0 and the wrestling team became the first Class C state champions in Nebraska annals.
Now both sets of Longhorns and their coaches will receive the Golden Anniversary Team Award during the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame festivities on Sunday, Oct. 2 at East High School in Lincoln.
The Rushville football team was definitely dominant. It was the state’s only 11-0 team in 1966. Besides sweeping its regular-season opponents, it won both the Rangeland and Panhandle C Conference championships in post-season playoff games.
The fledgling Longhorns’ wrestling team then won the Class C State Tournament championship in February of 1967.
Coached by Rex Jones, who has lived much of his life in Chadron, the football team outgained its opponents 4,139 to 1,157 yards, or an average of 376.3 to 105.1 yards, and outscored the opponents by 490 to 54 points, or 44.5 to 4.9 points per game.
The opponents scored just nine touchdowns against Rushville in the 11 games. The Longhorns never gave up more than 12 points in a game, shut out four of the opponents and yielded just six points in each of the remaining five games.
At the conclusion of the season, columnist Conde Sargent wrote in the Omaha World-Herald that Jones placed his Longhorns in the category of a “once-in-a-lifetime team, a squad you dream about but rarely ever have.”
That fall, Nebraska had five undefeated Class C teams and there was no playoff system, creating a controversy over which was the best.
Both the Lincoln and Omaha newspapers put West Point first and Rushville second, perhaps because West Point also was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in 1965 while Rushville lost once that season—7-6 to Gordon. The Longhorns blew out the neighboring Broncs 55-0 in 1966.
Western Nebraska fans pointed out that West Point opponents scored 17 touchdowns in 10 games and Rushville’s opponents just nine in 11 games.
While putting together his book, Nebraska High School Sports, published in 1980, the late Jerry Mathers solved the situation by placing four of the undefeated teams—Rushville (11-0), West Point (10-0), Newman Grove (9-0) and Grant (8-0)—in a tie for first at the top of the Class C rankings.
Rushville leaders included quarterback-safety Gary Hollstein and center-defensive tackle Mike Kearns. Both earned first-team Class C all-state honors from the Omaha and Lincoln newspapers. Both also were selected to play in the Nebraska Shrine Bowl.
The remaining starters were Tom Kearns and Loren Orr at the ends, Jerry Harris and Bill Thomas at the tackles and Ron Hoffman and Bernard Strong at the guards. Fred Hollstein and Rick Roffers were the starting halfbacks with plenty of assistance from Bobby Janssen. Glen Forney was the fullback. Jim Tiensvold also saw lots of action that fall.
Later a college placekicker, Mike Kearns nonetheless did most of the long snapping and let Hoffman boot the extra points. The latter included all 10 that Hoffman attempted during the 70-0 verdict over Bridgeport.
Jones had experience with winning football teams before he coached the Longhorns to their banner season. As a senior at Chadron High in the fall of 1954, he quarterbacked the Cardinals to an undefeated season and earned first-team Class B all-state honors.
He also played on the 1958 Chadron State football team that went 8-0.
Jones has always given lots of credit for Rushville’s success in 1966 to his top assistant, John Miller, another former Chadron High and Chadron State football player. Miller has lived in San Diego for years, but plans to be in Lincoln on Oct. 2 to get reacquainted with his former student-athletes.
Hall of fame programs are familiar to Jones. He was inducted into the Chadron State Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995, into the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Nebraska High Sports Hall of Fame in 2010, eight years after he had retired as associate director of the Nebraska School Activities Association, a position he filled for 27 years.
As noted before, the same school year as the Rushville football team had its 11-0 season, the Longhorns’ wrestling team had the distinction of winning Nebraska’s first Class C state tournament championship.
Without much fanfare, the Rushville wrestling program was begun in 1962-63, when Jones felt football players who weren’t playing basketball would benefit from a winter activity. Large schools, particularly in the Omaha area, had put wrestling teams on the mat for years and more and more schools in Greater Nebraska were also checking out the sport.
Finding qualified coaches and arranging a schedule took time. Three years later, Rushville needed a new math teacher and the job description stated he would also coach the wrestling team. Lanny Neese, a May 1966 graduate of Chadron State College with endorsements in math, physical education and driver’s education, was hired.
Neese’s transcript at Chadron State reveals that while he took courses in the techniques of coaching football, basketball, track and field and baseball, he had not taken the wrestling techniques classes.
Neese tried his best to make up the deficit. He headed to Iowa State University to attend a wrestling coach’s clinic.
Neese was an assistant football coach in the fall of 1966 and after that 11-0 season finally ended, he began coaching the wrestlers. He admitted several years later that he took wrestling magazines and journals that illustrated various holds and maneuvers with him to practice, laid them out on the stage where the Longhorns practiced and tried to replicate what was shown.
With nearly 25 wrestlers on the team, the Longhorns apparently learned their lessons well and worked hard. They won the Class C District Tournament before winning the State Tournament.
Six of the seven Longhorns who placed among the top three at the state tourney were also members of the undefeated football team.
Although several of the football standouts played basketball, the wrestling team caught fire at the state tournament and won the Class C championship with 78 points. Crawford was the runner-up with 69.
Longhorns Gerald Bruns and Bobby Janssen were state champions. In addition, Jim Tiensvold and Bill Thomas placed second and Glen Forney, Tom Kearns and Gary Sones finished third at state. All but Bruns, who was the 103-pound champ, had also been on the football team.
After teaching and coaching at Rushville a few more years, Neese moved to Columbus, where he guided the Discoverers to Class A state championships in ’74, ’75 and ’79 before accepting a position at a large Arizona high school. He later became a successful financial advisor who specialized in helping educators grow their savings.
The Neese household in Columbus was showered with gifts, including a freezer filled with food and a new television set, when parents of the wrestlers and other fans honored them in the late ’70s for his coaching successes.
Undoubtedly, Sherry Neese viewed it as a payoff for the lonely hours she had spent away from her husband just a few days after they were married and he was far away learning about the new sport he’d been assigned to coach.
The wrestling fever that Jones established and Neese inspired remained in Rushville until the high school consolidated with Gordon. Although it was 24 years before the school won another state championship, the Longhorns won three more in both the 1990s and the 2000s.
Another highlight at Rushville High during the 1966-67 school year occurred at the state track meet, when Gary Hollstein, the all-state quarterback of the football team and the leading scorer with a 16-point average in basketball, won both of the Class C hurdle races.
Hollstein broke the Class C 120-yard high hurdles record and tied the 180-yard low hurdle record. His high hurdles time of 14.6 sec. won the all-class gold medal and remained the Class C state meet record for 38 years. It was finally broken in 2005.
Hollstein lettered twice as a defensive back at the University of Nebraska, where he received his bachelor’s degree. He has been nominated for induction into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame.