CHASSELL - The longest high school boys basketball winning streak in the state of Michigan ended rather inauspiciously 54 years ago.
And even more surprising, the 65-game winning string (which is still a state record) ended in the cozy confines of the Chassell Community Center.
"We seldom lost there (community center)," recalled Don Mattson, the heart and soul of the Panthers between 1956 and 1958. "I don't ever remember us losing a game at home, even before the streak started."
Dan Ojala stands in front of the Chassell Community Center, where he scored a game-high 18 points on Nov. 24, 1958, as the Ewen Bulldogs gave Chassell its first loss in nearly three years. (Paul Peterson photo)
But Mattson and most of the team that finished off the streak had departed by the time the 1958-59 season began. Senior forward Ken Tormala was the long returning starter.
On this night, the Panthers would begin the season against Ewen - a school with just a modest basketball tradition.
That would all change in 1967 when Ewen and Trout Creek consolidated to form Ewen-Trout Creek. But more on that later.
Dan Ojala was a senior forward on the EHS squad that season. He said he had the utmost respect for Chassell, which still had legendary coach Ed Helakoski on the sidelines.
"Everyone knew about Chassell and its winning streak," Ojala recalled recently. "They were the most renowned basketball program in Michigan back then. And Helakoski was the master of all coaches."
One thing any Chassell team had going for it was the Community Center floor.
A narrow court with a low ceiling and dead spots located on it, the gym also featured an overhang on one side and stage on the other. Those features created a built-in advantage.
"A lot of the gyms in those days were small and most of them had features that made it tough to play in," recalled J.A. Doelle's All-U.P. center Don Michaelson. "But Chassell was always a little tougher than most."
Ewen, coached by Denver Leinonen, had already played two games that season, losing both. It was Chassell's opening contest and the rust was apparent.
"I don't believe either team played as well as they could have," Helakoski said many years later. "There was just something ... going on ... that particular night."
The Bulldogs got off to a good start and took an 11-10 lead after one quarter behind the play of Ojala, who led all scorers in the game with 18 points.
The two teams were knotted at 19-19 at halftime, but Ewen took a slim 28-27 lead after three quarters.
"We had a 6-foot-4 center in Jim Meyer and he really controlled the boards that night," Ojala said. "His rebounding and tight defense by both teams made it a low-scoring game."
In the fourth quarter, Ewen surged to a 37-32 lead with three minutes to play. A pair of baskets by Chassell's Gary Jakkola cut the lead to 38-36, but the Bulldogs hung on to win by that score.
It was Chassell's first defeat since an 84-75 loss at Trout Creek in January of 1956.
The Chassell cheerleaders cried afterward and the Panthers fans filed out silently after the game. Helakoski, ironically enough, a Ewen product, offered no excuses and gave the Bulldogs full credit.
Ojala said that other than getting congratulations back home from fans, there was little publicity for his team.
"I don't think anyone believed that streak would still be the record to this day," Ojala commented. "But it sure has withstood the test of time."
Ojala ended up gaining U.P. and state honorable mention after averaging 16 points a game that season. He enrolled at Suomi College and played there for two years under coach Bill Mannisto.
"We had a pretty good team. We had players like Ray Gougeon, Harry Farley and Jerry Heide from Dollar Bay and Ken Tormala from Chassell. Later on, we had Tom Clisch and John Mayo from Baraga and Ray Henderson from Mass," Ojala said. "And Bill (Mannisto) was a demanding but good coach."
Helakoski moved on to White Pine in 1960 and become the first principal and basketball coach at that school. He guided the Warriors to the U.P. regionals in just two seasons. He passed away in 1969 at the age of 51.
Ewen and Trout Creek schools consolidated in 1967, and the Panthers have won more games than any other school in the U.P. since then.
Ojala's son, Mike, starred at E-TC in the late 1980s. Now the boys basketball coach at Calumet High, he tallied more than 1,800 points in his career.
Chassell went on to lose four straight games to begin the 1958-59 season and finished below .500 for the year. There would be more hard times for the Panthers - the team not winning another district title until 1986.
For Ojala, the memories of that long ago night in Chassell remain vivid.
"During a lifetime, there are fond memories, and some not so fond memories," he said. "But that game was memorable in a very positive sense for me."