HOUGHTON -- Ralph Hurley had plenty of help, but he was definitely the catalyst in "that championship season" Houghton High School enjoyed in the 1954-55 campaign.
The Gremlins completed a nearly clean sweep of athletic honors that season. They won the Class C district, regional and state basketball championship titles, and captured the U.P. Class C track and cross country crowns.
For good measure, the HHS football team went 5-2 with a 14-6 win over powerful Negaunee. The Gremlins, who were quarterbacked by Hurley, also won the second Copper Bowl ever played with a 26-0 decision over Hancock.
Hurley, who stood just 5-foot-9, was a multi-sport athlete, competing in football, basketball, track and cross country for the Gremlins.
His longtime friend and teammate Tom Prout said that a group of West Houghton neighborhood youngsters grew up playing sports.
"There wasn't anything like a one-sport athlete in those days," Prout recalled recently. "Whatever sport was in season ... we got together ... and played. And that was from the age of 7 or 8."
All that experience together began paying dividends as Hurley and Prout were soon joined by Einer Anderson, Juan Mentink, Melvin Kananen and Hurley's younger brother Bob.
All but the younger Hurley would be in the the graduating class of 1955.
"We had a good group," recalled Hurley a few years ago. "And the main thing was that we knew where the other guys were going to be just about all the time."
Gremlins coach John Gaffney knew he would have a good team as the 1954-55 basketball season approached.
"We had been 17-5 the year before and won the district tournament," said Don Meyers, another key member of the team. "He (Gaffney) prepared us well for the next season."
The 16-member HHS squad started off the season with impressive victories over Calumet, L'Anse and Lake Linden. There was a 60-57 scare against Besssmer, but Hurley kept the team going with his great dribbling and playmaking skills.
"Ralph Hurley had the ball in his hands 80 to 90 percent of the time," Prout laughed. "He was a point guard before they invented the term. But he made sure our big guys (Mentink and Prout) got the ball most of the time."
A late-season test against a strong Mass City team was the final regular season test for the Orange and Black.
"Mass always had very good basketball teams," Gaffney would say later on. "We knew they would give us a battle."
Houghton rallied for a 74-64 win in the game played at Michigan Tech's Sherman Gym. Mass wouldn't lose another game that season, winning the Class D state title behind ace forward Roland Antila.
The Gremlins downed Rudyard and Crystal Falls in the regionals, then squeezed past downstate Holt and Charlevoix. That set up a meeting in the finals with Wayland and its all-state center Phil Regan, who would later pitch for the Detroit Tigers.
"Regan was the tallest (about 6-foot-5) player on the floor that night and he was pretty good," Hurley commented. "But our inside players did a good defensive job on him and we won the game."
Hurley led HHS with 16 points and a handful of assists in the 65-62 win. The always steady Prout and Mentink added 14 each to offset the 23 markers tallied by Regan.
Hurley, who had averaged 15 points a game as a senior, attended MTU for one year. He was a starter on a 14-4 Huskies team but left school after the season ended.
Incidentally, Bob Hurley would go on to average more than 29 points a game in the 1957 season.
Ralph would play fast-pitch softball for the powerful Bosch Beer teams in the early 1960s. The South Range team won three Upper Peninsula championships while he was on the team.
"Those Bosch teams were very, very good," Hurley recalled. "John "Topper" Ricci and Paul Coppo were as good as anyone in the U.P. And we had a great manager in Angelo Guisfredi."
Hurley said his memories of the championship season remain vivid.
"I don't think a person ever forgets something like that," he noted. "I can still envision the caravan of cars waiting at the Snake River Hill (near Chassell) to greet us after we won downstate. I guess we'll be remembered for that."