Better than 'Hoosiers'
Tiny Forrest won two basketball championships during the early 1930s
Last updated 12/28/2021 at 4:23pm
The 1986 hit movie "Hoosiers" depicted a small-school Indiana basketball team that improbably won the state championship, defeating bigger-enrollment schools along the way.
Forrest in southern Quay County can boast a real-life version of "Hoosiers," except the Pirates won the state title twice in the early 1930s and might have done it a third time if misfortune hadn't struck.
Forrest's state title treks might sound like the stuff of fiction. However, tangible evidence of those feats remain in a back room of the village's firehouse, steps from the long-closed school and gymnasium.
There, yellowing photos of the state-champion teams of 1931 and 1933 are affixed to a wall. A case holds several dozen trophies, including the school's state crowns in basketball.
After Forrest's school was built in 1928, the Pirates basketball program quickly became competitive.
Forrest made it to the state playoffs seven straight seasons, despite the fact the entire school district seldom enrolled more than 200 students.
Most attribute the rise of Pirates basketball to coach Bill Wilson, who hailed from Archer City, Texas, and was hired as the district's superintendent before the 1930 school year, according to a University of New Mexico Center for Regional Studies interview decades later with 1933 team member Oran Caton.
"I think we were good in those days mostly because we had some big old 18- and 19-year-old boys who were strong," Caton recalled.
Caton, who originally hailed from the nearby settlement of Plain, attended Forrest after several school districts were consolidated to there.
"Sports brought us together," Caton said. "I can't remember when we didn't have a homemade basket. We played all sports, but the younger boys learned toward basketball.
"We used a barrel hoop, if I remember correctly, bent down so it wasn't quite as big, and fastened it up on the garage," he added.
Caton also said basketballs at the time contained laces and outside stitching. He said to inflate the ball, one had to unlace the stitching, pump up the bladder inside and re-lace it.
Forrest's gym also was a half-size court inside the school until a full-size gym building was built next to it in the late 1930s.
The 1931 Forrest squad consisted of Fred Craig, Clyde Ramsey, Floyd Shook, Delmar Buttram, Virgil Walker, Glenn Hass and Pearl Caton, according to a team photo hanging at the firehouse. Pearl was Oran's older brother, and he stood at 6-foot-1, which was tall in those days.
Forrest defeated Mosquero 38-25 and Endee 27-26 to win the rugged District 7 tournament, which also included Quay, San Jon, Logan, Porter, Tucumcari, House, Wheatland, Nara Visa and McAlister. The Pirates averaged a tournament-high 33 points per game.
Forrest advanced to the state tournament at Carlisle Gym in Albuquerque, where it nipped Las Cruces 21-19 in the opening round.
According to one report, Wilson borrowed $75 and two automobiles to take his team to the tournament.
The Pirates knocked off previously unbeaten Albuquerque 24-20 in the quarterfinals, beat Raton in the semifinal 18-13 and dominated St. Michael's 24-13 in the title game, with Buttram scoring eight points in the finale. Ramsey also made the all-tournament team.
The Albuquerque Journal proclaimed the Pirates as "the darkest dark horse that ever won a state tournament."
So how did Wilson and his team do it?
A Journal account from the St. Michael's game provides a clue: "Every time a Horseman shot for the basket, Caton or Ramsey snapped the ball from off the backboard. When the Forrest team passed, they made sure it was to one of their teammates, and when they shot for the basket, there were generally three of them trying to recover for a follow shot."
A later Journal story described the Forrest team as "five ball hawks."
"Their play was simple, a compact zone defense and a cautious offense, but their big factor of success was again to gain possession of the ball and keep it," the article stated. "They seldom lost the ball on bad passes or for improper pivoting or dribbling."
After the triumphant Pirates returned home, the Tucumcari Chamber of Commerce hosted a banquet attended by 350 people to honor the team's championship.
Forrest appeared set to make another championship run at the 1932 state tournament.
The Pirates defeated Roswell 27-22 in the first round and downed Las Cruces 27-18 in the quarterfinals.
But misfortune struck the team right before its semifinal.
"We got a bad case of food poisoning the day before the game, eating in a restaurant," Caton recalled. "I can't even remember where. We started to forfeit ... we should have forfeited, but we wanted to play. I remember we were running to the bathroom during the game. One of our players was so bad, he never left the room."
Albuquerque High trounced Forrest 29-3 in the semifinal. The Pirates were the only team in state basketball tournament history to not score a field goal during a game.
"We got whipped pretty bad, and it's an awful feeling, playing in that condition," Caton said.
Forrest, undoubtedly still feeling the effects of illness, also lost its third-place game to Albuquerque Indian, 22-14.
The 1933 team included Fred Craig, Johnny Best, Oran Caton, Otis Yates, Bill Stockton, Harold Miller, Pearl Caton, Charles Stockton and Ardis Beevers.
Stockton, a forward, was one of the standouts, as he reputedly could outrun a horse. Pearl Caton was the team's point guard.
That season, Forrest was the District 7 runner-up after Tucumcari "slipped up on us" during the tournament, Oran Caton said. The Pirates earned an at-large berth to the state tourney.
That defeat to Tucumcari wound up being Forrest's only loss of the season.
Caton recalled the journey to Albuquerque for the tournament.
"We had a flat tire over at Moriarty and one of the players, Otis Yates, ripped the seat out of his pants changing it," he said. "His dad had given him 50 cents to take to the tournament, and told him to bring back the change. He bought a needle and thread in Moriarty, and I stitched it back up. It probably cost him a nickel or a dime of his money."
In the opening round of the tourney at Carlisle Gym, the Pirates dispatched Willard 25-19.
In the quarterfinals, Forrest gained revenge on Tucumcari, easily winning 29-16.
Forrest whipped Rogers 30-16 in the semifinal.
The Pirates edged Raton 19-18 in the championship for its second state title in three years. Stockton scored 14 points in the game.
Pearl Caton and Stockton were named to the all-tournament team.
Oran Caton said the team had a shoestring budget during its trips to the tournament.
"We didn't know if we'd have the money to go. We were pretty spread out during the Depression and the Dust Bowl," he said. "But folks donated food - eggs, bacon, sliced hams, canned meat, vegetables. Then, in Albuquerque, we got motel rooms with kitchenettes."
Tucumcari again hosted another congratulatory banquet for the Pirates, with 500 people attending. A newspaper account stated the tables "fairly groaned" from the weight of fried chicken, baked chicken, ham, salads, pickles, pies and cakes at the event.
After winning that second state title, Wilson stepped away from coaching and school administration and went into the sheep business.
"He moved to a place on the highway between Rowe and Pecos, leased some forest land, ran some sheep and cattle back in the mountains, and started a summer camp for boys," Caton recalled.
The Caton brothers ended up playing basketball at New Mexico Highlands University.
Stockton later became a coach and led Clovis High School to state basketball titles in 1951 and 1953, then became the coach for the University of New Mexico's program for a while.
Forrest continued to field competitive basketball teams, but the village's population and student enrollment dribbled away.
The Pirates' last basketball team was in 1956. Forrest's high school consolidated into the Melrose school district the next year.
The school building was used for elementary students until 1966, when it finally closed for good. Forrest's last business closed in 1975.
The school building has continued to decline. Sunlight streamed through the partially caved-in roof, and the half-size gym floor also has collapsed.
But if one stands on tiptoe at the front entrance and looks through the door windows, one can see a basketball backboard still hanging in the back of the dilapidated gymnasium. The hoop is long gone, but this was where dreams were made - and fulfilled.