Friday, October 25, 2019

Cherokee’s 1956 football Braves, under second-year coach Bruce Pickford, turned around a struggling program and finished 6-3 that year.

Take note. Programs that struggle can be rectified. The ’56ers are the proof’s pudding.

The Braves of ’56 halted a two-year skid and turned things around to reestablish a winning foundation for many successful Pickford coached Cherokee teams to follow.

We always enjoy sharing these memories and hope our readership do as well. Sometimes revisiting the past gives us direction for the future.

Leading the Braves’ turn-around were six seniors - quarterback Merle Pruett, halfback Mike Clausen, fullback Jim Nelson, guard Chuck Dunn, halfback Keith Reiter and end Don Nelson. Pruett, Clausen, Jim and Don Nelson and Dunn all brought all-conference status to the table in the fall of ’56.

Quoting the school’s annual, The Cherokean, “The Braves, with only four returning lettermen, developed into one of the best teams the school has produced in several years. The players made up for the lack of experience by desire and fight, and by developing much football know-how.”

The ’56 squad ran from a split “T” formation and developed into a real break-away club, surprising many local sports fans by compiling a winning 6-3 record and gaining a tie for third place in the Lakes Conference.

Cherokee outgunned its opponents 2,158 to 1,799 in yards gained. The Braves recorded its six wins over Ida Grove (19-14), Storm Lake (26-13), Sibley (33-7), Spirit Lake 20-13, Sheldon (33-14) and LeMars (25-12), with losses to Emmetsburg (14-6), Estherville (19-7) and Spencer (45-13).

Pruett, one of the team’s leaders, noted recently that teammate Don Nelson went on to scholar at Ivy League’s Harvard. “Don was one smart cookie,” said Pruett. “He was also a helluva football player.”

This is where yours truly turns it over to the Ivy Leaguer. Harvard grad Nelson penned these “Lettermen Sketches” of his teammates for publication in “The Cherokean.”

Take it away Mr. Nelson.

—Mike Clausen: Fine ball carrier, break-away runner who was always good for long yardage in the clutch. Leading scorer and ground gainer.

—Chuck Dunn: Fast, hard blocking guard with lots of go. Made some big holes in the opponents lines.

—Don Nelson: Played both end and quarterback and did a fine job at either job. Hard runner on offense and a hard tackler on defense.

—Jim Nelson: Elected team’s most valuable player. His play at fullback made him a definite threat to the opposition. Leadership and hustle were his contributions to this fine team.

—Merle Pruett: “Did the most with the least for the team.” Quick thinking, crafty little quarterback who kept the opposition in stitches.

—Keith Reiter: Fast break-away ball carrier who was a definite threat to the outside.

—Jerry Lindberg: A tackle living up to the old proverbial tackle. A hard blocker and tackler who was a standout in every game.

—Roger Hahn: Tough and ready, go get ‘em main. Like it best when it was rough.

—Stan McKenzie: A hard blocker. Opened up a lot of holes for diving halfbacks.

—Bob Hicks: A fine junior guard who came along fast. he ripped up the center of the opponents’ line.

—Loyd Swanson: Lindberg’s partner-in-crime. Played both end and tackle. Good blocker and pass receiver. Racked them up on defense.

—Ken Roberts: Fast-moving junior lineman who made himself a great asset to the team.

—Stan Roberts: Good utility guard. Played a tough game on defense.

—Jim Mueller - Fine sophomore center. Was an extremely rugged performer for an underclassman..

—Bob Hall: Fast-moving, shifty halfback. A real workhorse on both offense and defense. Ran hard and tackled hard.

—Denny Smith: Played well at end and punted some of the time. A good team player with lots of hustle.

—Roger Cunningham: Fast, hard blocking end. Beat the opposition to the punch on both offense and defense.

—Dave Lickiss: A tough reserve center who could make himself felt. Played a tough game when called on in the clutch.

—Doug Wray: Fine untililty back and played both halfback and fullback. A smashing runner who barreled his way through the holes.

Some other underclassmen on this Braves team were Larry Hetrick, Roger Cunningham, Dick Orchard, Paul Fuhrman, Pete Augard, Jim Becker, Dan Hankens, Don Bechtel, Gary Bunn, Larry Clark, Dale Allen, Denny Tharpe, Dick Anderson, Jim Waddell, Denny Mummert, Mike Holderness, Sam Gianopolis, Bill Lee, Don Witcombe and Curt Tolzin.

And, let’s not forget the cheerleaders of ’56 - Judy Simmons, Myrna Scheider, Doris Maffin, Nancy Niles, Delores Bengston, Mary Ann Miller, Barbara Brasser and Betty Clark.


We’ve done some homework on Pickford’s days as coach of the Braves.

He first came to Cherokee in the fall of 1953 and coached here for 10 years before taking the head grid job at Sioux City Central.

At Cherokee, if our calculations are correct, Pickford’s football record in eight years as head grid coach was a sparkling 51-11-4. Not too shabby.

His first job in Cherokee as an assistant to M.E. Christopherson. After a dismal 2-7 season that year, Pickford remained an assistant in 1954 and the Braves went 3-3-1. The following season, Pickford was named head coach and the 1955 Braves went 4-4-1.

Then came the 6-3 season of ’56 followed by a 6-1 mark in 1957. Notably, Cherokee’s Paul Furhman was the quarterback of that ’57 squad who were co-champs of the Lakes Conference and rated 12th in the state’s final grid poll.

Pickford’s teams won six straight Lakes Conference football titles, not to mention six consecutive district track championships, and three straight conference track titles.

In ’57 the Braves only played seven games because Storm Lake and Spencer games were not played cut to the flu.

In 1958, Cherokee won the Lakes and were ranked 14th in the state and went 7-1-1, followed by a 1959 Lakes Conference title and had four running backs all on the first-team all-conference.

Pickford’s 1960 Braves were against atop the Lakes for the fourth consecutive year finishing 6-0-2, tying Sibley and Sheldon.

Also noteworthy was Pickford’s track team success. His 1960 track squad won the state indoor title that year.

In 1961, the Braves were co-conference champs at 7-1, followed by perhaps Pickford’s best football team at Cherokee. The Braves went 8-0 led by running backs Leo Sand (514 yards), Gary Hatterman (504 yards), and Mike Ballantyne (333 yards) along with the talented quarterback play of Alan Burkhart and Bill Thomas.

The ’61 Braves never allowed a single pass touchdown that year.

Pickford, who passed away in 2007 at age 77, left Cherokee in 1963 on to successful coaching careers at Sioux City Central and then on to Fountain Valley in California. His last four years at Fountain Valley, Pickford’s teams went 44-6.

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