As Racine County high school basketball teams were making their push for the state tournament this month, Robbie Collum was a passionate cheerleader from behind the scenes.
He didn’t care if St. Catherine’s, old arch-rival Horlick or any other program earned a trip to Madison. Collum, who made history 20 years ago Wednesday as a guard for the Case High School boys basketball team, wanted kids to experience the same joy he experienced on March 20, 1999.
That’s when the Eagles pulled off a second straight stunner in the tournament, this time over mighty Milwaukee Bay View, and won the WIAA Division 1 championship at the Kohl Center in Madison.
“I was cheering for these other schools to, hey, go out and win it, too,” Collum said. “It’s a pretty good feeling. It feels so good being part of that team.”
Added Jerome King, a sophomore forward that season: “I wish kids could experience it because it’s something you never forget. Being on the floor, being in the locker room, going on the bus ... when you would pull in, you felt like NBA players.”
The high school seniors of today weren’t born when Collum, All-State guard Taron Barker, Bryan Bedford, Barry Thompson, Jermaine Jones, Jordan Malone, King and the others made their mark that is even more monumental when looked at through the lens of history.
At the time, Park was the only Racine County boys public school program to win a state championship in basketball and that came 56 years earlier, in 1943. Since the merger of public and private schools in 2000, St. Catherine’s would win five WIAA championships and Catholic Central two.
But that Case team remains the only public school boys program from the county to win a state championship in 76 years.
Case had made three earlier appearances in the 1990s in the state tournament. The most recent was 1998, when the Eagles trailed eventual state champion Milwaukee Vincent 22-4 at halftime in a semifinal they went on to lose 51-31.
But Barker, who would earn second-team Associated Press All-State honors as a senior and play for Bob Huggins at the University of Cincinnati, was back the next season. So was Thompson, who would play for Louisiana Tech, Collum, whose father, Rudy, is a longtime coach in the area, and Bedford, an overachiever who got the most out of his 6-foot-4 frame, among so many others.
Their coach was 52-year-old Bob Hayes, just the second coach in the history of Case’s program. Steve Jaskulske, who would go on to coach the Eagles from 2002-17, was an assistant.
That historic 1998-99 season opened Nov. 27 with a 72-59 loss to Milwaukee Washington in Milwaukee. And then the Eagles won 17 straight until Feb. 23, when Bay View pulled off an 89-85 victory in Case’s fieldhouse.
They were two losses at the most opportune times in retrospect. The first jolted the Eagles to start the season. The second was a wake-up call going into the postseason.
“I think each one gave us an opportunity to reflect and prepare for what was to come,” said Bedford, now an elementary school principal in Ohio.
By the time Case went onto the Kohl Center floor March 18 for a quarterfinal against Rhinelander, all the championship components were in place — experience, passion and motivation.
After trailing Rhinelander 28-20 at halftime, Case roared to a 61-52 victory. Barker scored 20 points, Bedford muscled for 11 rebounds and Collum handed out five assists.
And then came Vincent, the three-time defending champions who was still dangerous even after graduating Jose Winston, the 1998 AP Player of the Year in Wisconsin. In what was a classic showdown, Collum and Bedford each made four free throws in the final 1:36 and the Eagles persevered for a 41-38 victory.
Bedford tied a tournament record by going 10 for 10 from the free-throw line and finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds in that game. And Barker produced the key moment, swishing a 3-pointer from the top of the key as time ran out in the third quarter to pull the Eagles into a 31-31 tie.
Energized, Case outscored Vincent 12-7 in the fourth quarter. Barker had a knack for producing such impactful moments.
“He was the leader of the team,” Collum said. “He was the point guard, everybody respected him and he played hard every day. He was would set the tone for everybody, his defense was outstanding, his ballhandling impeccable, he could score, shoot and penetrate and he always took up the challenge of going against the best guards.”
The stage was set. Case (24-2), which finished the regular season ranked ninth in the state in Division 1, would meet second-ranked Bay View (25-1). This was the same Bay View that had defeated the Eagles on Case’s home court one month earlier.
“I remember vividly after losing that game that we wanted to see them again,” King said. “We wanted to play them again in the championship.”
The Eagles got their wish. What they couldn’t have realized is that Barker got into foul trouble, played just 13 minutes and was held to four points.
With their leader sitting out 60 percent of the game, the Eagles relied on their bench strength to hold on. King contributed four points and four rebounds in 16 minutes. But perhaps the biggest factor was Malone, a junior, who played 24 minutes off the bench (third most for Case that night) and had nine points, four rebounds, three steals and an assist.
“He was a solid defender for us all year, but particularly in that game because they were so strong in terms of their guard play,” Bedford said of Malone. “We definitely needed someone to come in and keep them from getting to the point.”
But the biggest presence that day might have been the 6-foot-7 Thompson, whose son, JaKobe, has been a starter for Case the last two seasons. Thompson went 8 for 13 from the floor and finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and a block. Bedford had 17 points and 12 rebounds.
“To tell you the truth, a lot of people didn’t know it, but Thompson was really the overall best ballplayer as far as scoring and rebounding,” Hayes said.
Twenty years later, that Case team stands alone in the county for what it was able to accomplish.
“We were a balanced team throughout,” said Hayes, who was named the AP Coach of the Year in Wisconsin after that championship. “And that team played together.”
Said Bedford, “From day one, we didn’t settle for mediocrity. It was constantly getting on each other and striving to be the very best players we could be.”