ROVA's 1948-49 team, Part 5: Asplund locked in as Tigers stun Zippers, head to state

Barry McNamara
Special to The Register-Mail
Clark Main poses with the sectional championship trophy, along with two Canton High School majorettes.

Late in the 1948-49 regular season, Monmouth topped the Peoria Journal-Star area basketball rankings. That was not surprising, as the Zippers had been ranked as high as No. 4 in the entire state.

The rest of the newspaper’s top five included Kewanee, Peoria Manual, Good Hope and ROVA. Galva checked in at No. 7, with Galesburg ranked 10th. The latter ranking showed that, like Bob Milroy, the Journal-Star was predicting a victory for ROVA against Galesburg.

The rankings showed Monmouth with a clear path to the Sweet Sixteen. Joining the Zippers and ROVA at the Canton Sectional for the right to play in Champaign were Dallas City and Farmington.

If the Zippers had been shown a copy of the Monmouth-ROVA box score prior to their sectional game in Canton’s Alice Ingersoll Gym, they would’ve been happy with every line in it except one. They could have lived with Harley Pearson and Dean Truelove combining for 30 points, since Bob Heflin, Bob Seiler and Clark Main had just 10 points between them.

But what beat Monmouth in the sectional semi-final was Jim Asplund’s eye-popping line: 10 field goals (on 11 attempts), 20 points.

“The best game I ever played was against Monmouth in the sectional,” said Asplund. “They played a zone defense against us. I couldn’t do a lot of things, but I could really shoot. I made 10 shots in a row. Some of them would be three-pointers now.”

Jim Asplund’s phenomenal shooting display lifted underdog ROVA past state-ranked Monmouth at the Canton Sectional.

“They were three-pointers, all of them,” said Truelove, who added 13 points.

Asplund is probably right that it was his best-ever game, especially considering the stakes, but what is definitely true is that it was his best-ever half of basketball and, to that point in Illinois hoops history, one of the best halves ever for anyone.

Nine of Asplund’s 10 baskets came before halftime, as he nearly outscored the Zippers all by himself. The scoreboard would’ve read Monmouth 21, Asplund 18. He did outscore the Zippers in the second quarter, 10-7. And the hot-shooting junior had a little help from his teammates, so the actual halftime score was ROVA 35, Monmouth 21. The outcome was all but decided.

“Asplund put on a shooting exhibition ... that was really something to behold, and he had Monmouth on the ropes before the Zippers knew what it was all about,” wrote the Register-Mail’s Leo Sullivan.

ROVA still needed to score some points in the second half to keep Monmouth at bay, and Pearson was one of the Tigers who responded, netting eight of his 17 points. Monmouth outscored ROVA 20-13 in the final quarter but, as Sullivan wrote, it was “too little, too late.”

Ray Brooks (16 points) and Wayne Vest (15) led Monmouth, which finished 21-5 on the year.

The subhead of Sullivan’s story about ROVA’s 60-53 win was “Jim Asplund Sparks Team to Surprise Victory in Canton Sectional Thursday Night.”

“Clever ball handling, cool and steady play at all times, a determination to win, which has been backed up with capable shooting, are among the things which have played a part in the Tigers’ success,” he wrote.

Suddenly, a ROVA team that many thought would exit before the regional final was playing for a sectional title and the right to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. A capacity crowd of 2,945 turned out at Alice Ingersoll Gym to see if they could do it. Also in attendance was Abingdon’s John Lewis, the future namesake of the Carl Sandburg College gymnasium, who officiated the contest.

In ROVA’s way was Dallas City, which edged Farmington 56-54 in the other semi-final. The game played out much like ROVA’s regional final against Princeville, right down to the score of 48-45, which was just a point off for each team from the ROVA-Princeville result. Close throughout, the game was tied at the end of the first and second quarters, and at 42, 44 and 45.

Bob Seiler snapped the final deadlock with a free throw, and ROVA got the ball back with a one-point lead and the clock inside of 20 seconds. Truelove then provided the heroics, although it came with an asterisk.

“I think I forgot the score,” said Truelove of sinking the final points on a 15-foot shot. “I should never have shot it. But I shot it, and it went in.”

The first-year ROVA consolidation was heading to the Sweet Sixteen, despite trailing with three minutes remaining in three of their five regional and sectional contests.

“I never thought we would go to state,” said Asplund. “I never thought we’d beat Galesburg and Monmouth.”

Not heading to the Sweet Sixteen was Dallas City. The sister of one of the Bulldogs’ players had a hard time forgetting the ROVA player who made the clinching shot.

“A few years later, I’d been hired on at the railroad, and I was up at a bunkhouse in Aurora, looking to eat breakfast,” said Truelove. “A woman walked by me and looked at me, but she wouldn’t wait on me. It happened a couple times. Finally, I said, ‘Lady, I’ve never met you in my life. I just want some breakfast.’ She said, ‘You may not know me, but I know you. You kept my brother from playing in the state basketball tournament.’ Her brother had played for Dallas City. After she told me that, she waited on me, and we had a good laugh about it.”

In his “Round About Monmouth” column, reporter Earle Bennett acknowledged that ROVA was a tremendous representative of western Illinois basketball.

“As I said last evening, if ROVA can defeat both Monmouth and Galesburg, they deserve to go to the state. Basketball fans in both cities should be pulling for these Rover Boys. ... The Tigers showed a brand of courage throughout tournament play that was of the highest order.”

Sports writers covering the buildup had fun with the fact that ROVA was a consolidated school.

“Don’t look for Rova, Ill., on a map,” wrote one.

A story that declared “R.O.V.A. Spells Out Trouble” said the Tigers had advanced to state in “Horatio Alger fashion ... knocking over giants all season.”

A giant school with a giant player was waiting at 7,000-seat Huff Gym at the University of Illinois.