The Fab Five is 25!
One of the most significant upsets in Tuolumne County high school sports occurred 25 years ago. Kevin Sauls is a longtime newspaper sports reporter and editor who was on hand and he authored this feature story.
This season marks the 25th anniversary of when Jesse Wolf, Seth Houck, Beau Miller, Jacob Bailey and Jacob Peacock staked their claim to fame on a cold winter’s night of red-hot, championship-caliber high school basketball at raucous old Rex Heath Gym in Tuolumne.
They were five teammates on uncertain ground when the big game began. They were the Fab Five – with due respect to the Chris Webber-led quintet at the University of Michigan a few years earlier – when it ended with a shocking 56-50 victory over Turlock Christian in a duel for Mountain Valley League supremacy.
Wolf, Houck, Miller, Bailey and Peacock were all Mother Lode had left after school disciplinary action cut the roster in half just before the game. They banded together and dug down deep. Guided by coach Seth Sponsler and spurred by a roaring home crowd, they prevailed in a hotly contested game against an opponent which had beaten Mother Lode earlier in the season and came into the game undefeated in league.
Turlock led 9-6 after one quarter, but Mother Lode fans seemed to sense that something special was afoot and the Cougars proved them right by hitting the Eagles with a 21-8 thunderclap in the second quarter for a stunning 27-17 halftime lead. Mother Lode led 36-33 after three quarters and, with the roof practically coming off the stately hilltop edifice, stretched its advantage to a high-water mark of 48-37 with 4:33 to play.
The visitors made a final desperate push to within 52-50, but Mother Lode clinched the most improbable of victories on two free throws apiece by Houck and Peacock in the waning seconds. At the final buzzer, fans ran onto the court to join the celebration as the now-Fab Five and their coach danced around in a happy little knot of a group hug.
It might not have registered on the larger Richter Scale of sports, but in Mother Lode’s little corner of the world, the victory combined with the circumstances was as good as it gets.
The players are all in their 40s now, but their memories of the time are fresh.
“You couldn’t believe it just happened,” Miller remembered.
“It felt pretty incredible,” Bailey recalled.
“It was really exciting, and the crowd was going crazy,” Houck said.
“They were No.1 and to knock them off was unbelievable,” Peacock said.
“It was,” Wolf said, “a Hoosier moment.”
That was an apt homage to the 1986 Gene Hackman film, considering both that Mother Lode was a huge underdog and that the Cougars played in an ancient, throwback gym with a stage on one side of the court, seating that reached to the rafters on the other side and endlines practically against the walls at either end of the court.
Here’s a look at what each of the Cougars did that magical night, and what he is doing now. Each is a father and lives far from the site of his Fab Five notoriety.
Wolf, then a senior and basically the team’s center, scored a game-high 16 points and seemed to be in the middle of every clutch play down the stretch.
Now 43, Wolf lives in Riverside, has two children and works in the medical laboratory supply business. Bailey credited Wolf with “an incredible performance, in my estimation.”
Houck scored 13 points and dished five assists as the Cougars’ junior point guard. At 41, he lives in Lake Forest in Orange County, has one child and is self-employed in the hotel and theme park transportation and parking industry. He still has his jersey number, 11, as part of his e-mail address.
Miller also scored 13 points as a senior power forward. The 43-year-old father of three resides in Pocatello, Ida., after a 15-year career in the U.S. Air Force piloting the F-16 fighter and the U-2 reconnaissance plane. He now flies bombers for CalFire.
Peacock, a junior power forward who fancied himself a shooting guard, scored 12 points and shared game-high honors with nine rebounds. An actor and hotel remodeler, Peacock, 42, has two children and lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., after years in Santa Monica.
Bailey, a junior shooting guard at the time, put in two points, played a critical floor game and ventured inside to tie Peacock with nine big rebounds. A resident of Salem, Ore., and father of three, Bailey, 42, is a commercial filmmaker.
Sponsler remembers shepherding his team through, hoping for his players to stay out of foul trouble and to not run out of gas. He remembers being a bit discombobulated even in the immediate aftermath.
“Is this real? Did we really do this? Are they going to change their minds and take it away?”
At 58, Sponsler lives in Soulsbyville, not far from the original site of Mother Lode Christian, and facilitates Christian retreats for youth and church leaders. He and his wife, Mary Beth, have four children and their first grandchild is on the way.
The run-up to the game was tumultuous with the suspensions, including two of the team’s top three scorers.
“It was a gut punch,” Sponsler recalled.
“It was crazy and emotional,” Houck said. “My brother was one of the players suspended.”
“It happened really fast,” Bailey said. “It kind of freaked us all out.”
Peacock had a slightly different take. “To be honest, I was like, ‘Yeah! I get to play more!”
Nonetheless, the Cougars were concerned with not only a player shortage, but an earlier loss – at full strength – to Turlock Christian, 45-34.
They rallied around their coach, each other, and their program’s philosophy.
Bailey: “You had to understand the history and tradition of Seth Sponsler. We had two-a-day practices to prepare for games. It was always intense. We practiced at a level that was really intense. For us, everything was intense all the time. Going after Turlock with five players was not outside the realm of the culture.”
Wolf: “We were in twice as good a shape as the other teams. We had morning practices at the school and we ran up to Summerville (High, 1.3 uphill miles away). … that hill … at least we had the legs under us.”
Houck: “We were not that worried about having only five. Coach Sponsler knew what he was doing. He always kept us in great shape. We still had a good core there.”
Miller: “His mantra was, ‘we’re going to outhustle and out condition everybody.’ I think that really helped with our confidence. The idea of playing with five wasn’t daunting.”
Peacock: “Sponsler ran us to death, so we weren’t overly fatigued (during the game).”
Sponsler: “We had a tough culture based on conditioning. We could control three things – conditioning, defense and our free throw shooting. We practiced shooting free throws with our eyes closed.”
There also was a particularly diabolical drill called “mop-ups,” (running the length of the court in segments and touching the floor at each interval) after missed foul shots in practice.
Bailey: “It was painful and horrible.”
For some, the relentless conditioning began with the fall soccer season and led right into basketball.
“We played hard for Seth Sponsler,” Bailey said. “That was at the heart of everything.”
“And I’m sure,” Miller said, “they underestimated us.”
Turlock Christian coach Steve Tennis admitted as much at the time, saying, “Our guys took one look at them and thought the game was in the bag.”
The Eagles were in for a surprise, though, as Mother Lode’s confidence grew while the game progressed.
“As soon as we took the lead,” Peacock said, “it was ‘here we go … we got this … let’s keep going.’ ”
The game ended just in time as Miller had fouled out with 23 seconds left, and Houck, Bailey and Peacock had four fouls apiece. One more disqualification would have ended the game.
Wolf credited God at the time and still does.
“We wanted to give the glory to God … He was the inspiration for us,” Wolf said. “It was formative in my faith.”
Mother Lode was a kindergarten through high school campus in 1995 and had a small but ferocious athletic program. The high school ceased operations more than a decade ago, but the Fab Five game lives on in Cougar athletic legend and in the personal lives of its participants.
“It’s probably the No.1 highlight of my nine years there,” Sponsler recalled. “It’s even bigger than going to Arco (Arena, then home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V title game) the year before. The biggest thing is, I was so proud of the kids.”
“Going to Arco in 1994 was pretty rad,” Miller said, “but this game was probably better. The atmosphere … it was loud, the gym was small, everybody was into it.”
“It’s come up a few times (in the intervening years). Those few years playing basketball there … that one in particular was special,” Houck said.
“Oh, yes,” Peacock said, “I still talk about it once in a while.”
“It’s definitely,” Bailey said, “a story I tell the kids.”