If these walls could talk

Earl Crabbe Gym filled with stories of guts, glory
By: Mike Ray, Gold Country News Service
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It's been called archaic. It's been called quaint. Some think it's outdated. And whether or not the Earl Crabbe Gymnasium at Placer High is a throwback to the days when it was common for the bleachers to loom high above the basketball court, the Placer Hillmen still call it home. Built in 1939 at a cost of $85,000, the Earl Crabbe has endured. Its mystique is timeless. An estimated guess is that more than 5,000 organized hoop games have been played there during its near 70-year existence. Named in honor of longtime Placer coach and instructor Earl Crabbe, a trip inside the gym is like one going back in time. Rows and rows of league and section championship pennants ” some dating back to the 1920s and 30s ” line the walls on each end of the gymnasium. State championship banners honoring individuals such as skier Ali Jacobsen, wrestler Gary Anderson, cross country's Stuart Eastman and track runner Lindsay Hyatt are surrounded by caricatures of current Placer High basketball players, a new tradition that dates back to the 1990s. Many say that the home court advantage the Placer boys and girls basketball teams enjoy in the Earl Crabbe can't be measured in points alone. I think it's more than the 10 points a game that home teams usually have, said former Placer High basketball standout Jim Hardey, who in the 1970s played on the Tom Barry-coached Placer boys teams that at one point won 45 straight games in the Agard Street facility. But it's got its quirky spots in it, too, Hardey added. It's like the Celtics in the old Boston Garden. They had a heck of an advantage in there. As Auburn lore is told, Hardey is said to have had his own set of keys to the Crabbe where he worked tireless hours in the off season to hone his game, which eventually earned him a scholarship to the University of Pacific. Actually, we used to pick up towels in the locker room for the old janitor we had and he would let us in the Crabbe to play, said Hardey, who finished his collegiate career at UC Davis and today is an Auburn businessman. It seemed we never had a problem getting in. One guy who did have the keys to the Crabbe was Jim Carroll, Placer's all-time leading boys scorer who tallied 1,689 points in his three-year career from 1993-95. It was a different time back then, said Carroll. Coach Tangeny gave me a set a keys and we used to play hours on hours. For Carroll, the hard work paid off as he played collegiately on scholarship at Utah and Nevada. This past season, Carroll coached the JV boys team at Woodcreek to a 20-5 record. The new gyms that we play in now don't compare to the Crabbe, Carroll said. Tonight, the Placer girls team will try and turn the familiarity of the Crabbe's home court into a second round playoff win. If the Hillgals can hold serve in their 7 p.m CIF playoff game against Vanden, a trip to the semifinals next week awaits. Steve Meade, an Auburn contractor whose daughter Madison is a standout on this year's Lady Hillmen team, grew up in the shadows of the Crabbe but opted to play his prep career at Del Oro in the late 1970s. Oh yes, did we hear it when we came to the Earl Crabbe, remembers Meade about the Golden Eagles making the short trip up from Loomis. What a great place to play in. The rivalry in those days was really big and the Crabbe was always loud. Placer definitely had the home court edge when they played there. If you don't think the Hillmen teams have a built-in advantage in the Earl Crabbe, think again. Back in December, Placer's girls team had lost to Del Oro in the finals of the Del Oro tournament on a Saturday. Three days later, with the Crabbe as their stage, the Hillgals handed Del Oro its first defeat of the season, 51-41. Earlier this month, Placer's boys team, slowed all season by several season-ending injuries to key players, dug down and came up with a win for the ages. Playing with nothing more than pride on the line, the Hillmen ended Colfax's three-year, 33-game Pioneer Valley League win streak in the Crabbe, 59-56. In fact, Colfax, which has lost only six games over the last three seasons while winning 82 during the same span, has seen four of those losses come in the Crabbe. It's a tough place to play in, said Colfax coach Ron Pucci. When Placer beat us there this year, Mark (Lee) had his guys ready and they did a good job. They really outplayed us and I think the home court helped. In 1990, Placer's Lady Hillmen used the magic of the Crabbe to carve out the school's first CIF state championship. Led by Christa Gannon, Carla Souza and Caree Anderson, the Jim Mallery- and Don Meads-coached team upended Brea-Olinda of Orange County for the whole ball of wax. Benhard Peat, another standout for the Barry-coached Placer boys teams of the 1970s, remembers 7-foot center Bill Cartwright, who would later go on to collegiate fame at USF and NBA heroics with the Chicago Bulls, coming into the Crabbe in 1973 with an undefeated Elk Grove team. They were undefeated, and even though Cartwright was a sophomore, you could see he had stardom ahead of him, remembered Peat. With Peat teaming with Hardey, Holger Heiland, Rick Land and Steve Stoner, the Hillmen turned the Crabbe's home court into a 44-42 upset win. Bill Flake, retired Placer High athletic director and former wrestling coach for the Hillmen, remembers introducing wrestling at the school in 1965 and the fans packing the Crabbe bleachers for Sierra Foothill League dual meets. We really used to put the fans in there, said Flake, whose teams had nicknames like The Wild Bunch, Desperados and The Hole in the Wall Gang. With standouts such as Gary Anderson, Steve Stratton, Ken Tokutomi, Doug Clark, Bob Cunningham, Mike McHugh and Ray Hickman leading the way, the Hillmen captured 14 league titles in a 17-year span. Fittingly, Placer returned to mat glory this season and bagged its first league title in over a decade by winning the Pioneer Valley League flag. The Earl Crabbe has been good to Placer over the years, said Flake. There's a lot of teams that dreaded walking into that building. Today, the Crabbe is still used by Placer's physical education classes and houses athletic offices. It's a grand old building, said Flake. There's a lot of history here.