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Jes' li'l ol' country boys

Stephen F. Austin's Lumberjacks, tops among small colleges, may talk country but they play ball like city slickers

"That "bigness" bug is biting some ' Texans again, and what is making matters worse is that they are being called small. The group, even by Rhode Island standards, is not large, but it is lusty, and it has this thing about the basketball team at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. The Nacogdochians are pleased enough that their Lumberjacks are recognized as the best small college team in the country, but they figure that SFA is just as good as any of the major college teams in the state. They just could be right.

Since its season began SFA has defeated Eastern New Mexico, the defending NAIA national champs, and Howard Payne, the third-ranked small college, on the way to earning the top spot in the polls. What is just as important to Lumberjack rooters is that their team, which is merely a bunch of country boys dressed out like coaches and basketball players, manhandled Texas and Texas A&M in preseason scrimmages by an average of 28 points. That, the Lumberjacks contend, takes care of the Southwest Conference. Now they would like nothing more than to bring on the state's tough teams, Houston and UTEP. The truth is that SFA might lose, but it would not be embarrassed, not by any 28 points.

Stephen F. Austin can play with anybody, because it has come up with six excellent players, four of them from out-of-the-way places. That is fine with Head Coach Marshall Brown and his assistants, since the populations of their three home towns add up to only 3,000.

James Silas, the 6'2" sophomore who looks like Oscar Robertson and is one of the best big or small college guards in the country, was raised in Tallulah, La. So was 6'7" Surry Oliver, who once out-scored Elvin Hayes when their high school teams played. Tallulah is part of the same rural subculture that brought Hayes and Willis Reed to the major leagues.

Small college All-America Center George Johnson, a 7-footer, hails from Harleton, Texas, where, he says, "we have right around 500 people." When the Lumberjacks' sharpest shooter, 6'6" Harvey Huffstetler, came gunning out of Waxahachie High School all those big Texas schools were in there recruiting him along with SFA.

Only Ervin and Marvin Polnick, a pair of 6'6" mirror images from Houston, grew up in a town with more than 15,000 citizens and, although they have developed into strong rebounders and defensive players, they were the least widely recruited of SFA's top six. The rest were brought in after hot battles with other schools by one of Brown's assistant coaches, Al Barbre. Barbre, from Deweyville, Texas (pop. 1,000), is a quick-talking country slicker who knows the names of all the small towns in Texas and Louisiana because he has been to nearly every one of them. "Sometimes I pass through a place where I don't know anyone," he says. "In those cases I find me a little boy, give him a dollar, set him down in the front seat of my Volkswagen and tell him to point out the best player in town."

It has been money well spent. Since Johnson, Oliver and the Polnicks arrived in 1966, SFA's record has been 85-14. Yet it was not until this season, with Silas moving in as a regular, that the Lumberjacks reached national championship caliber. The ruggedly built guard has added the ball handling and leadership the team needed to go with its scoring and rebounding talents. Silas leads SFA's six double-figure scorers with a 19-point average, but he could be much higher. So far he has attempted only nine field goals a game, and he has made six of them.

Last week, in the 122-89 rout of Tarleton (Texas) State that ran SFA's record to 15-0, Silas gave a glimpse of what could happen whenever he decides to break loose. Annoyed by a debatable offensive foul called against him in the second half, he hit two consecutive long jump shots, set up a fast-break layup by Marvin Polnick with a daring cross-court bounce pass thrown on the run and then immediately hit another jumper. A moment later he came out of the game with 21 points but left the crowd with the feeling it could have been 50 or 60 if he had not restricted himself to 11 shots.

Nacogdoches began in high old Texas style, surviving under eight different flags in the stormy 1800s, but it and SFA stagnated from the 1920s to 1960. In 1945 the school almost closed for lack of students and funds. Then Stephen F. Austin went into the familiar instant university cycle, growing from a 2,000-student teachers college to an 8,000-student university, and the East Texas city grew with it, almost doubling its size to 28,076.

The explosion has choked the school's 3,200-seat gym. With a local bank vice-president calling the play-by-play and faculty members operating the cameras, the games are televised over the Nacogdoches cable TV hookup, usually supplanting, to the anguished outcries of only a few, either Laugh-In or Andy Williams.

Nacogdochians are proud of their friendliness, a quality that is noticeably lacking once the gym doors are closed and the game is on. The Lumberjacks have won 39 straight games there and have six more scheduled this year. A fellow would have to be mad to take seriously the invitation of Arlie Duff, Stephen F. Austin's most famous alumnus. He wrote the country hit, Y'awl Come (to see us now and then).