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Arnett hoops tourney starts Monday at Placer High School

1955’s overtime Placer win set the bar high
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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In terms of raw emotion and happy endings, the 1955 Kendall Arnett Tournament final at Placer High School’s Earl Crabbe Gym was a game for the ages. For starters, the 1955 version of the Arnett was the first tournament to bear the name of its co-founder, a beloved football and baseball coach at Placer High School. Arnett had died Jan. 19 that year at his Landis Drive home. No one knew he had a heart condition. He was watching TV with friends before dinner and died in his home. The death of a key Placer High educator was a shock to the school and Placer’s late-winter basketball tournament was soon afterward renamed the Kendall Arnett Tournament in his memory. Arnett had arrived in Auburn in 1942, after teaching for five years at Hemet High School in Riverside County. One of his students while he was a practice teacher in San Diego was baseball great Ted Williams. Arnett would establish Placer as a presence on the football field in the 1940s and early 1950s, coaching unbeaten teams in the Sierra Foothill League in 1943, 1944, 1950 and 1951. The Hillmen ran off a streak of 16 straight victories between 1950 and 1952. His obituary in the Auburn Journal-Republican said Arnett was especially proud that two of his Placer Players — Dick Petty and Charles Griffith —– were in Rose Bowl games for the University of Southern California. Arnett also coached the baseball team and headed the printing department at the then-Placer Union High School and Placer College, which shared today’s Placer High campus. To add to the emotion of the Crabbe Gym during the 1955 tournament, teams also vied for a new award — a handsome trophy shaped like a basketball donated by long-time Placer sports equipment supplier Merill Silva of Sacramento. The trophy was also named in honor of Arnett. But it was a come-from-behind win in overtime that sealed the game as one of the tournament’s greatest ever played. On Feb. 21, the Placer Hillmen basketball team and their veteran coach Ralph LeFebvre would reach the final game in a year when the tournament — first started by Arnett in 1942 as the Block P Tournament — was in its 13th year. There was no clear favorite that year and Placer — led by future NFLer Ola Lee Murchison of Foresthill and two-hand set-shot specialist Dave Vigil of Loomis — wound up in the final after victories over El Camino and Folsom high schools. Murchison, now living in Stockton, said Arnett had a reputation as a no-nonsense coach and that he was looking forward to the challenge of playing for him in the fall of 1955 when he graduated to the varsity football team. Instead, Murchison said he and other players on the 1955 basketball team dedicated themselves to winning the tournament and trophy that now bore Arnett’s name. At the time, Auburn was a bustling commercial hub for nearby rural communities. On the eve of the tournament, the city had just welcomed a new Packard dealership, the new Cardinal Auburn Square Shopping Center had opened earlier in the month on Harrison Street (with 500 orchids flown in from Hawaii for the first 500 ladies in the door), a 25-pound bag of potatoes cost 79 cents, men’s fine-quality handkerchiefs were being sold at the Cornet 5-10-25 for 8 cents apiece, and Lemmon Chevrolet on Lincoln Way could sell you a 1941 four-door Chevrolet for $99. San Juan built up a 37-30 lead with three minutes to go. But Dave Vigil, who now lives in Reno, began burying two pointers from beyond 20 feet to leave the score tied at the end of regulation time and a San Juan player on the foul line. When the player missed both shots, the game went into overtime. With the high school gym rocking to the rafters. Placer would pull away in extra time to not only capture the championship trophy with a 47-43 victory, but win the new Kendall Arnett Memorial Sportsmanship hardware. Vigil would finish with 19 points. Murchison, who was drafted by the 49ers in 1960 and would also play with the Dallas Cowboys during the 1961 season, scored seven. Murchison, 70, a retired school principal who continues to work in real estate, teach piano and lead a church choir, recalled the team was energized in the final in a quest to win the game in Arnett’s memory. “We pulled ourselves together,” Murchison said. “We really wanted to honor Coach Arnett.” Current Placer High coach Mark Lee said that the Arnett Sportsmanship Award is no longer awarded to a team. Instead, there are numerous team and individual trophies —most notably the Better Life Foundation Outstanding Placer Player award. The whereabouts of the Arnett trophy donated in 1955 are unknown, he said. “I’ve taught at Placer for 14 years and have never seen it,” Lee said. While the trophy may have disappeared into the annals of time — or the basement of a winning team from outside the area — Arnett’s name and legacy have lived on. That’s despite few people knowing who the man was and what he accomplished in his time at the school. He was only 43 when he died. “I’ve heard a lot about Ralph LeFebvre (whose name is on Placer’s stadium) but I haven’t heard much about Kendall Arnett,” Lee said. The 1955 tournament provided the gym with a barn-burner of a final game. Lee said that tradition should be carried into games being played Monday through Wednesday. “It’s a lot of fun for spectators as well as players — it makes for great high school memories,” Lee said. “And we have some great games.” The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com or comment at Auburnjournal.com. ---------- Kendall Arnett Tournament What: Oldest basketball tournament in Northern California When: Starts Monday, with Placer vs. Mira Loma (8 p.m.), Del Oro vs. Bear River (6:30 p.m.), Nevada Union vs. Colfax (5 p.m.) and San Juan vs. Del Campo (3:30 p.m.) Final game is 8 p.m. Wednesday. Where: Earl Crabbe Gym, Placer High School, Auburn.