Small town folks can sometimes accomplish great things, and that was certainly the case for the 1966-67 Branson High School Bearcats boy’s basketball team that won the Class A Colorado State championship. The team was honored by the Colorado High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) on the 50th anniversary of its winning the state title at halftime of this year’s Class 5-A state championship game held at the Denver Coliseum on Saturday, March 11.
The small school in the small town located near the Colorado / New Mexico border about 50 miles southeast of Trinidad had just 31 students at the time. Of the 17 boys in the school, 15 of them played on the basketball teams and 10 of them represented Branson at the state tournament.
The team featured three sets of brothers, including twins John and Ben Doherty, brothers Bob and Fred Buhr and twins Gerry and Jerry Nickell, whose father, W.M. Nickell was the team’s coach and the school’s superintendent. Other team members included current Las Animas County Commissioner Mack Louden, Jim Chacon, Ron Gomez and Gary Hudson.
The Bearcats lost their first game to a team from New Mexico, and then reeled off 24 consecutive victories to claim the state championship. After winning a tough regional final against a much taller Sanford team, the Bearcats beat Bayfield, Roaring Fork and Walsh, 59-57, in an overtime final. The championship clash was considered one of Colorado’s best state tournament games at that time. The lead changed hands 11 times and the teams were never separated by more than five points.
With only center Bob Buhr standing over six-feet tall, the Bearcats had to rely on quickness, shooting accuracy and aggressive team defense. Since there were only three classifications of sports in 1967, the team was forced to play against schools with enrollments up to 175 students.
The team togetherness driven by strong community support was also put on display later that spring, as many of the same athletes won a state baseball championship.
The Nickell twins suffered quite a culture shock as they followed their dad from Canyon, Texas, just south of Amarillo, to tiny Branson, which is just a little bit more than a wide spot in the road, according to a 2012 article. The town had a lumberyard, post office and a general sore in 1967, but the nearest gas station was 50 miles away in Trinidad, causing some careful consideration of logistical issues by the local residents.
“My brother and I weren’t going,” Jerry Nickell said in the article. “We decided we were going to stay in Texas. Our grandparents were there and we had started classes for our sophomore year.”
Both 15-year-old, multi-sport athletes, the brothers moved to Branson sight unseen and were more than a little shocked by what they found.
“Our class in Texas was about 200 students,” Jerry Nickell said. “When we got to Branson, we were in a class of seven. They didn’t have a football program and when I looked in the gym, I wasn’t sure it was a basketball court. We felt as if we had dropped off the end of the world. We got homesick very quickly.”
The brothers quickly found that Branson already had more than its share of gifted athletes for such a small place, and they fit right into the picture. Jerry Nickell has spent a long career as a school administrator, and he looks back fondly on the town he, at first, dreaded moving to.
“The people were really friendly and were genuinely glad to see us,” he said. “We found some really good athletes already were there. I still think of my initial disappointment. But what happened outweighed that. Looking back, it was the best thing that happened to us.”
Mack Louden is the only team member who still lives in the Branson community, although John Doherty lives in nearby Des Moines, N.M. Bob Buhr, Jim Chacon and Gary Hudson all own property and visit family members in the area frequently. Louden spoke in a Tuesday interview about what the state championship experience had meant to him.
“It was a very special year for all of us in the fact that we won the championship in basketball, and then that spring we won the state championship in baseball,” Louden said. “It was a community effort and everybody pulled together, the community and the kids. We were the smallest school in the state.
“I guess as I look back on it, it’s even more special now than it was then.”
The school’s enrollment has continued to decline, though its Branson Schools Online is a popular option for many students in the far-flung reaches of Southeastern Colorado. It now combines its athletic teams with the neighboring Kim School District. The town’s residents can still look back with pride to that golden era of 50 years ago when the Branson Bearcats were among the best of the best in Colorado high school sports.