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Basketball team a boon to Ill. city

The Orphans, the nation's winningest team, are a source of pride for struggling Centralia.

By Associated Press
Published November 18, 2005

CENTRALIA, Ill. - Amid all the boasting by locals that the boys at the high school have won more basketball games than anyone in the country, Olen "Butch" Border is serious when he says he'll go to his grave heralding the program and its odd little mascot.

Around here, Centralia High's Orphans are family. So much so that Border, a retired railroad worker, has chosen his tombstone that bears the Orphans' logo - looking like a basketball-dribbling Dennis the Menace - and is red, one of the team's colors.

The Orphans, whose program dates to 1906, lead the nation in victories with 1,969, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations that keeps the national prep sports record book.

Basketball has been the constant in this struggling 14,000-resident city about 70 miles east of St. Louis. Many of the oil wells and coal mines that once helped this town flourish long ago died out, some big area factories are shuttered relics and the city's downtown is a collection of vacant storefronts.

Through it all, this community in America's breadbasket has clung to its hoops.

"Basketball is the glue that keeps Centralia together," the 62-year-old Border said.

It's been that way since Arthur Trout came along. While coaching the Orphans from 1915-1951, Trout went 809-334 - a .708 winning percentage - and won state titles in 1918, 1922 and 1942. His teams advanced six times to the state semifinals.

Trout widely gets credit for dubbing the team the Orphans, though the genesis of the name is a local mystery. Some say he named the team after seeing Orphans in the Storm, an early 1920s silent classic starring Lillian Gish that was one of his favorite flicks. Others theorize Trout went with the name after the team had to play in tattered - possibly mismatched - uniforms during a state tournament, prompting some onlookers to remark the players looked orphaned.

Trout's stars included Dwight "Dike" Eddleman, the Orphans' all-time leading scorer who in the 1940s was featured in Life magazine. He later lettered in three sports at Illinois, got a silver medal in the high jump at the 1948 London Olympics and played four seasons in the National Basketball League - the forerunner to the NBA.

"It was every boy's dream to be an Orphan," Border said. "You were somebody special when you were on this team."

Passion for the Orphans - and for the girls team, the Orphan Annies - has persisted even as the town declined. Quebecor shuttered its large Marion County printing plant in 2001, eliminating almost 900 good-paying union jobs. Not long afterward, electronic components maker Littelfuse Inc. pulled out, taking its operations and several hundred jobs to Mexico and overseas.

"By and large, we're a downtrodden town," said Mike McManus, a 1987 Centralia High graduate who now is a Centralia Sentinel sports writer. "Basketball is still the one thing that has kind of bonded this town together."

Each year, hoops-happy fans participate in a raffle for the 1,200 premium seats in Trout Gym. The lucky fan can get up to four seats, each costing $35 a season. Reserved bleacher seats in the 2,600-seat gym also are sold.

Outside the 69-year-old gym, framed black-and-white photos of Orphan teams of decades past hang on the entryway's walls, along with press clippings about Eddleman and other local hoops heroes. Tarnished trophies, some dating to the 1920s, pack the red-framed glass cases.

The gym has a 1950s feel, its hardwood floors looking rich but old. The walls are brick, the scoreboards outdated. Championship banners hang from the rafters and a section of bleachers is dubbed "the Orphanage."

When it comes to victories, the Orphans are just eight ahead of Dobyns-Bennett High of Kingsport, Tenn., according to the national record-keeping federation. Illinois teams are third and fourth - Collinsville with 1,900 victories, Quincy with 1,783.

In February 2004, USA Today tapped Centralia among the top 20 places to watch high school hoops, choosing the Orphans' home from more than 2,600 suggestions.

Many here expect that popularity to continue this season despite the program's tough run in recent years. The Orphans' 11-17 record last season was the program's first losing mark since 1983-84, due partly to the team's leading scorer being lost to a broken wrist midway through the season.

Coach Randy Lincoln is in his second year at Centralia and is the fifth coach in the past five years - his predecessors either got other jobs or were forced out, McManus said.

Kory Smith, a junior on the team, said the Orphans' winning tradition always "is in the back of our heads."

"When you have a bad season, it's also letting the town down," he said.

And as for the nickname?

"We'll never change that," Smith said. "We're the Orphans for life."

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