What a difference 50 years can make.
It's now January of 2013, and the grade school basketball teams at St. Joan of Arc in Nashotah have it made. Like a lot of schools, they have a big, beautiful and warm gymnasium to play and practice in. Parents can enjoy home games playing at the same site as the school itself.
That wasn't the case back in the winter of 1963. That St. Joan of Arc team had to practice outside on the church parking lot in downtown Okauchee because they had no gym. That meant constantly shoveling the snow off the court and practicing when the temperatures hovered anywhere from 20 degrees to 5-below zero.
They always practiced with their coats on and had to wear gloves. Everyone had a stocking cap.
Bordering the court, especially behind the baskets, were snow banks sometimes as high as four to five feet.
But despite all of those trying conditions, St. Joan of Arc had an outstanding team that year, maybe the best team in school history. That season they captured the prestigious Waukesha County Catholic Grade School tournament championship, defeating top-seeded Elm Grove St. Mary's by eight points at Waukesha Catholic Memorial.
Longtime Oconomowoc resident and St. Joan of Arc church member Pat Smith coached the team that year. He was famously quoted that year after winning the championship. "Well, when the boys found out they didn't have to play in coats, long pants and gloves when they took a shot, things came easy," Smith said.
John Simonis, the team's starting center and one of its top scorers, thought all of those practices out in the cold, wind and snow actually helped the team win games once they got into a gym.
"I think our conditioning was better than a lot of the other teams we played against because we had to practice all the time outside," Simonis said. "It wasn't easy. Most of the time, we had to first shovel the court and then practice with pants, gloves and hats on. Even though we played all of our games on the road, it was a nice to finally get to play in a warm gymnasium."
Besides the snow and ice, the St. Joan of Arc players had trouble keeping the basketballs warm enough to practice. The cold temperatures sucked the air out of the basketballs, and sometimes after practicing for 30 minutes, the balls wouldn't even bounce any more.
"Almost every guy on the team brought his own basketballs to school for our practices," said starting forward Mike Dinnauer, who still lives in Oconomowoc. "The team didn't have any, so we brought our own."
Father Whelan helped out
St. Joan of Arc played that year in two leagues, a public school league in the Lake Country area and the Waukesha Catholic League, featuring teams from Pewaukee, Waukesha, Brookfield and Elm Grove. They finished with a 25-5 record.
Unlike other schools that had their own gyms and practiced after school, St. Joan's practiced at morning recess and during their lunch hour. Most of the time, Smith would take off work and make the lunch-hour practices. If he couldn't make it, the team's favorite fan, Father Lincoln F. Whelan, would run the practices.
"Father Whelan worked with us a lot," Dinnauer said. "If it got really cold, he sometimes would stay inside and watch us practice by looking out one of the windows. He was always in our huddle, saying a prayer or two for us. I can remember calling a time out and Father Whelan would get into our huddle and say a prayer, taking up all of our time in the timeout. He was a big fan of ours."
Besides Father Whelan helping Smith coach, Ken Dinnauer (Mike's dad) also helped out as did Pat Smith's brother Bob.
The team got a real treat in January and February that year when the St. Joan's Holy Name society raised some money so the team could rent the Okauchee School gym and practice on Monday nights.
"We had a good bunch of guys that year," Simonis said. "I think we only had 12 boys in the eighth-grade class and seven of them were on the team. Practicing every day at school really brought us together."