Orphans are family in Centralia, Ill.

Monday, November 14, 2005

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

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

The Orphans lead the nation in all-time victories with 1,969 since 1906, the year Centralia's program began, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the keeper of 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 have 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," said Border, 62.

It's been that way since a guy named Arthur Trout came along. While coaching the Orphans from 1915 to 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 that the players looked orphaned.

"We just accept either version," Border said.

Trout's charges included Dwight "Dike" Eddleman, the Orphans' all-time leading scorer who in the 1940s even got featured in Life magazine. He later lettered in three sports at Illinois, won a silver medal for the high jump in the 1948 London Olympics and played four seasons in the National Basketball League -- the forerunner to the NBA -- for Tri-Cities, Fort Wayne, Ind. and Milwaukee before retiring in 1953.

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, vaporizing nearly 900 good-paying union jobs.

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

Outside the 69-year-old gym bearing Trout's name, framed black-and-white photos of Orphans 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 and nostalgic. 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 -- one-time leader 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 season since 1983-84, thanks to the Orphans' 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 Orphans' coach in the past five years. His predecessors either got other jobs or were forced out, the Sentinel's McManus said.

As Lincoln gears up for an Orphan season that starts Nov. 23 with a Thanksgiving tournament at Decatur, he understands the pressure to win.

"At the same time, not everyone gets to play in front of crowds. Our kids do," he said. "It can be scary, but it can be a blessing in that you don't want to be part of a program no one cares about, and that's certainly not the case here."

Kory Smith, a junior on the team, says 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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