When it comes to points of pride throughout the 150 years Rock Falls has been a community, sports has been the theme for several of them.
From Slim Howe’s baseball days to the state championships of Niles Ager and Brayden Hamblen this past school year, sports have played a role in shaping several of Rock Falls’ most noteworthy natives.
Extra-curricular athletics in school were where most of the successful athletic skill took shape, evident in the state tournament successes throughout high school and junior high. Among those teams, seven state team championships and 28 individual or running relay state championships have been won by Rock Falls students.
Tom Rucker, a 1975 Rock Falls High School graduate who helped re-establish the school’s athletic hall of fame, attributes much of the town’s sports successes to a hard-work mentality.
“I’ve always believed that Rock Falls is a blue-collar town,” Rucker said.
The high school faced financial issues when Rucker was in school, and the very existence of athletics was in doubt. However, that all changed with plenty of community support.
“That’s when the booster club was formed,” Rucker said. “It was a bunch of parents, and the community got together. That first year that the booster club formed, they actually paid the salaries of the coaches.”
During his first year in town, Glenn Truesdell was impressed at how the community came together to install lights at the Rock Falls Little League diamond at Wallingford Park.
“I think it’s just a community commitment,” said Truesdell, a Rock Falls High School coach and athletic director from 1969 to 2000. “When I first moved here, there was a massive fundraiser being done to put lights at Wallingford Park. Then Rock Falls Little League could play under the lights. That was all done by the community, no tax dollars involved.”
Establishing a means of competitive spirit in Rock Falls goes back to around the turn of the 20th century. Manufacturing companies such as Keystone, Eureka, Geyer, and RB&W organized baseball teams within a league alongside several industrial companies from Sterling.
Keystone employee Roy “Slim” Howe came to Rock Falls in 1902 and settled on a farm south of town. Howe and his wife Gertrude had 15 children, and the family laid out a baseball field near the home. Howe’s Field was located where the junction of Route 40 and Interstate 88 now sits.
Several of the Howe children were noticed by major league scouts. Calvin Howe pitched two innings in a game for the Chicago Cubs on September 26, 1952 – his only major league appearance. Almost 20 years would pass before Rock Falls developed another top-level professional athlete, one who has been considered one of Rock Falls High School’s best all-around athletes: Gary Kolb.
Like many youth baseball players in his day, Kolb developed his skill by playing games at Howe’s Field. The 1958 graduate played seven seasons in major league baseball, and played alongside 14 hall of famers in his career. Kolb’s greatest claim to fame came on September 29, 1963, when he pinch ran for Stan Musial after the Cardinals legend’s final at-bat.
One way or another, baseball programs in Rock Falls have helped establish two more major league baseball players. Dan Kolb, Gary’s cousin, played 2 years of baseball at RFHS before transferring to Walnut, where he graduated in 1993. Dan Kolb played 9 seasons of major league ball, and was an all-star in 2004. Jakob Junis graduated from RFHS in 2011 and currently pitches for the Kansas City Royals.
“I think each town seems to gravitate to one sport,” said RFHS baseball coach and alum Donnie Chappell. “For Sterling it’s football, and Rock Falls it’s always kind of been baseball. When I was a kid, I played all three sports, but I loved baseball, that’s all I wanted to do.”
Kolb and future University of Wisconsin hall of famer Ken Siebel played on the 1958 basketball team which took second place at the state tournament. That 33-2 team set many scoring records – including an IHSA modern-day playoff scoring record of 142 points against Ashton in a regional game. That squad carried over state tournament successes they had accomplished during their junior high days. From 1942 to 1955, Rock Falls Junior High basketball teams finished in the top four at the state tournament eight times, winning a Class B championship in 1947, and a Class A championship in 1948.
“I don’t think any athlete that went through Rock Falls did not know who Ken Siebel or Gary Kolb were, at least up until the new millennium,” Rucker said. “You had to have known who Siebel and Kolb were, because that’s what was always talked about.”
During that era, Rock Falls also had a 4-year string of football success from 1957 to 1960 when it went 30-4. That was the second of three stretches of abundant wins for Rock Falls football – the first when they won over 75 percent of their games between 1924-1942 with six unbeaten seasons (1924, 1931, 1934, and 1940-42); and another from 1964-66 when they went 22-5.
“You go back to the ‘60s – Rock Falls football, they were rugged,” Rockets football coach and athletic director Rich Montgomery said. “That’s a sport that’s struggled, and hopefully someday we’ll figure it all out and stop the struggle.”
While Kolb became a Rock Falls legend, Brian Vance would create a legendary moment more than 40 years later. Trailing with 0.7 seconds left in the 1999 Class A championship game against Waterloo Gibault, Vance sank a 3-point shot from the top of the key to seal the school’s only state championship and a 31-3 season under coach and RFHS alum Thom Sigel. That season was the second of 10 consecutive regional championship seasons and five straight sectional wins.
Long having competed against larger Class AA schools in postseason play, a drop in enrollment caused Rock Falls to compete in the lower classification during the late 1990s. Once the small fish in the big pond, the Rockets soon became a big fish in a small pond, and the Rockets’ postseason successes soared while in the small-school ranks.
“You couldn’t put another person in our gym with a shoehorn,” Truesdell said. “Before that, I never had to open the balcony on the east side of the gym. Once we started winning, every seat was full.”
Without a classification system, wrestlers at Rock Falls Middle School in the late 1990s and early 2000s had to compete against athletes from larger schools. Seven Jets wrestlers – Seth Heim, Brad and Brock Hollowell, Tristan Hunsberger, Shaun Murphy, Kyle Schwarz, and Taylor Walrath – won state championships under coach John McCue from 1995 to 2003. Heim won three in a row from 1995-97, and in 2001 became the only wrestler to win state titles in both junior high and high school.
Montgomery, a hall of fame wrestling coach, saw four Rockets wrestlers win state championships: Heim, Willie Dale (2002), Justin Reyes (2004), and Chad Williamson (1998). Rockets wrestlers have won 30 state medals since 1960. Their first two state titles were won by the Fiorini brothers – Dan (1975) and Tim (1976) – and the most recent was won by Niles Ager in February.
“We’ve been really fortunate to have a large number of people who still like the one-on-one, and are not afraid to be out there by themselves,” Montgomery said. “As long as you can gain and gather kids that like that one-on-one, all-by-myself – if you can find people that take care of that, and can respond to that, wrestling as it has been will continue to be successful.”
Other state champions in Rock Falls High School history were the 800 relay team of Tyler Barnes, Zohar Burciaga, Brian Diaz, and Alec Dorathy in 2009; Jose Oquendo in the 100 and 200 dashes in 2004; and Brayden Hamblen at the 1A cross country state meet this past November and the 3,200 run at the state track meet in May.
To date, there have been no individual female state champions in Rock Falls; however, the Montmorency girls track team took runner-up in the Class B junior high state meet in 1974, and the Rockets volleyball teams of 1974 and 1975 qualified for the state tournament.
Rock Falls girls have had plenty of success in softball, both at the little league and high school levels. Along with a 3-year stretch of little league state championships from 1991-93, Rock Falls Little League teams have won 24 state softball championships among its age levels since 1997. The 2004 senior league team advanced to the Little League World Series.
Boys little league teams have won five state championships since 2001, and many of the kids from those teams have played for the varsity Rockets under Chappell, a Rock Falls graduate who has won over 400 games as coach since 1998.
“We had a lot of coaches at the time that were Rock Falls people,” Chappell said. “So when Rock Falls basketball turned around, Coach Sigel was there, and we’ve known each other since we were 8 years old. Sometimes I wonder if it is because they were Rock Falls people that they were a little more invested in it.”
Wallingford Park hosted the Little League Central Regional softball championships from 1993 to 2001, and, according to Rucker, it was a big deal and a point of pride for a town of Rock Falls’ size (9,700 residents at that time) to organize a tournament of such proportions.
“Now they show them on TV,” Rucker said. “For a town the size of Rock Falls, in the ‘90s, to put something on like that was damn near unheard of.
“You cannot get anything done without the hard working people in the community behind it, you can’t.”
Rock Falls’ lone parochial school, St. Andrew, has also seen athletic success in recent years. Hornets teams have won three state track and field championships: seventh grade boys in 2010, eighth grade boys in 2012, and eighth grade girls in 2013.
Rock Falls’ sports successes aren’t limited to the schools. Notable golfers from the former Rock River Country Club (now Rock River Golf and Pool) were Andrew Blackburn, Jim Swanson, Jean Hungate, and Marian Prince – each of whom are former Lincoln Highway Tournament champions. Notable bowers from Rocket Lanes include Sterling-Rock Falls Bowling hall of famers Anthony Droste, Clare Schutt, and Lawrence Stern.
Rock Falls’ boxing roots go back to the fighting days of former resident Linto Guerrieri, who won the light heavyweight Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing championship in 1937. Jon Russell started a boxing club in the basement of the American Legion building. Al Silva is the current owner of the club, which has seen several young boxers achieve amateur success.
One never knows if a Rock Falls kid playing on the park district tee-ball league, which concluded its current season 2 weeks ago, will one day stand out on a larger stage in the world of sports – perhaps from Sieglinger Park to a major league ball park, just like Dan Kolb. And they’ll have that extra community commitment to thank for it.
“We had a ton of people involved in tee-ball,” said Truesdell, who helped organize the league in 1974. “It was all community-based, and that’s baseball and softball. There’s been a tremendous community commitment to those. That’s why they’re so successful at that.”