Today marks the anniversary of one of the most memorable basketball games in North Dakota history – it’s often referred to as David vs. Goliath. It took place in the Bismarck Civic Center as the Hillsboro Burros took on the Epping Eagles for the 1977 State Class B Tournament. The Burros had been to State eight times, had won back-to-back championships in ‘73 and ‘74, and had an enrollment of 210 students. On the other side of the state, tiny Epping High School had a total enrollment of only 23 students, and during the late ‘60s, they suffered 96 straight losses.
The Burros were led by legendary coach, Ed Beyer, whose teams had come to expect winning seasons. In fact, during the Region 2 tournament, the Burros had overcome 5 of the state’s top-10 class B teams, and now they were looking forward to playing teams who didn’t know them.
In Epping, Bob and Don Allard, Clyde and Mike Vinger and Jay Bingeman (Bing-a-men) had practiced all summer and knew this could be their year. Their coach, Larry Overbo, thought so, too. During the season, they lost only once – against Beulah – and the season highlight was beating Watford City for the first time in the school’s history; they beat them again in the district tournament and once more in the Region 7 tournament. Now they were going to State to represent a town so small, the streets weren’t even paved.
Overbo planned to use his team’s athletic ability for aggressive defense and fast breaking. He said, “The one thing about that team was we passed the ball so well.” The Eagles’ three front linemen were all over six feet and had averaged 70 points a game during the season.
In the Prairie Public documentary, One Shining Moment, Jay Bingeman laughed as he told filmmaker Matt Olien, “We wanted to win that first game so we could stay on TV. It was just wild. The teachers – we’d go to class, and all we talked about was going to Bismarck.”
Epping didn’t even have a bus; everybody had to get there in cars. By championship night, the team had taken on Cinderella status, and Hillsboro’s starting five were booed before the game even started. Coach Beyer said, “I think we had better talent, but boy, they were scary... I didn’t think it was going to be quite that bad... we were going to be the Lone Rangers on that one.”
The Eagles had the jitters and couldn’t make their shots, and by the end of the first quarter, the Burros led 16 to 5. Then, during second quarter, the Eagles settled down and started chipping away at Hillsboro’s lead.
With Epping having to fight so aggressively, Clyde Vinger fouled out by third quarter. He usually averaged 20 points a game – now he was out after only 2. Then Mike Vinger fouled out, too. Led by Bob Allard, Epping fought back, and by the end of the third quarter, Hillsboro led by only five points.
During a jump ball in 4th quarter, Bob Allard gave Don Allard a look, and Don knew what to do. Heading toward the basket, Don caught the ball on the run and made a basket. In a call that’s controversial to this day, referee Henry Milkey called Don for dribbling, and the shot didn’t count. It was a blow the Eagles couldn’t overcome; they lost 52 to 56.
Despite their loss, the Epping players were treated like heroes. In fact, many people still mistakenly say they remember that game... the one where Epping won State.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm