By Steve Woodhouse
Even though the ceremony took place a day early due to weather, spirits were still high as the Knoxville High School Athletic Hall of Fame inducted its fifteenth class Thursday night, Jan. 17.
This year’s inductees included Ann Davis Kuenstling, Ben Willetts, John Carle and Derald J. Swisher.
Kuenstling was a four-sport star for the Panthers when she graduated in 1980. On the track, she established school records in the mile and 1,500. Ann also led the first-ever girls’ cross country team at Knoxville, setting the school record in the two-mile run. She was also a basketball player and a four-year letterwinner in softball.
Beginning in her sophomore year, Kuenstling helped lead the Panther volleyball team to the beginning of eight consecutive South Central Conference titles. She was named All-Conference three straight years and unanimously named captain of the SCC team in her senior year, as well as All-State. There was only one class of All-State teams at that time.
Kuenstling had the honor of playing in the Iowa Girls Athletic Union All Star game, and in the Midamerican Regional Junior National Volleyball team. There were only 10 girls from four states on the team.
The University of Northern Iowa took notice of her volleyball skills and offered her a scholarship to play on their court. After two years, she chose to focus on her academic efforts.
Kuenstling currently lives in Knoxville with her husband, Mark, and works in the Marion County Auditor’s office.
KHS chose to restart its girls’ athletic programs after a brief break in the 1971-72 school year. One year later, Swisher was eager to return to coaching, after taking a break himself to focus on his own education.
Prior to coming to Knoxville, Coach Swisher took four different girls’ teams to the State basketball tournament – again, it was a one-class system. He led Grand of Boxholm to state in 1960, and then took Twin Rivers to three consecutive appearances from 1963-1965.
When he came to Knoxville in 1972, he immediately went to work building a force in this area that included Hall of Fame forward Pat McKay. In his first season, the Panthers went 21-4 and were Sectional Champs. Over five seasons, Swisher’s teams won three conference titles, placed 14 girls on All-Conference teams, and had a record of 103-21.
The Hall of Fame board believes the peak of his Knoxville career came in 1975, when the team finished with a 24-2 record. His Pantherettes won the Sectional, District, and Regional tournaments, and went on to State.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Knoxville football was a Central Iowa powerhouse, winning multiple conference titles. Willetts was a big reason for the success.
In his senior season, the Panthers went 7-1-1, and kicked off a stretch where they only lost 4 games over the next four seasons.
Willetts was a star at center and linebacker. Coach Ray Klootwyk noticed that he was unusually fast for his size, so it was not long before he was in the Panther backfield at times to gain yards.
Willetts earned first team all-conference honors in both his junior and senior campaigns. In 1951, he was named all state for his play. He was also selected team captain, alongside fellow Hall of Famer Dwight Nichols.
Following graduation in 1952, he turned down interest from several colleges – including Iowa State – and instead joined his grandfather in construction. He went on to spend over 50 years as a business own in Knoxville. Throughout that time, he built homes for countless families in town.
Carle was another multi-sport athlete for the Panthers in the 1950s. He is a second-generation Hall of Famer, the son of Stoney Carle, from the class of 1924.
He made a name for himself on the basketball court, and his exploits list him as one of the top players the Panthers have ever produced.
In his senior season in 1956, he averaged 23.8 points per game. His single-game record of scoring was 35 in a district game against Ottumwa. In that season, he scored 688 points and made 267 field goals. All four of those stats were school records at the time.
Carle earned All-State and All-Conference honors for those exploits and was offered a full ride to Drake University. After a couple of seasons at Drake, he transferred to Central College.
While at Central, John was a two-time All-Conference selection, setting school records for points in a season, points in a game, and averaged 41 points per game in his final year. He was named Small College All-American and has been inducted into the Central College Hall of Fame.
Once his playing career had ended, Carle continued to be active in the game as a coach. After two years and two conference titles at Cosgrove, he returned to Knoxville and won 96 games over eight seasons – including three conference titles.
He then moved on to Lincoln High School in Des Moines, coaching the Railsplitters for 11 seasons where he guided them to seven conference titles, four state tournaments, and a state title in 1975.
He has been inducted into the Iowa State High School Coaching Hall of Fame for his career.
The Knoxville High School Athletic Hall of Fame has now inducted 61 members – including players, teams, coaches and athletic directors. It was the brainchild of Doug Wilson, who stood in the spotlight putting the medals on the new inductees for the final time on Jan. 17. Wilson is stepping down from the board.
Following Thursday night’s induction, a luncheon celebrating the inductees and their families was held at the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum on Jan. 18. This event always provides the opportunity for the new members to share stories and appreciation for the honor with those in attendance.