A Heartbreaking Loss: The Story of the 1942-1943 Waltonville Commandos

While my book, An Almost Perfect Season, primarily features Bluford basketball teams, the book also give ample space to many of the great teams we went up against and their coaches and players. These teams include Wayne City, Waltonville, Crab Orchard, and Woodlawn just to name a few. Waltonville carries a special fascination for me, as my mother, Mary Alice Newell grew up and attended high school there. Every game was a tough contest when we played the Spartans. I began watching Bluford and Waltonville go at it while I was in grade school, and I easily recall Coach Dave Simpson and several hard-nose players named Hamilton, Fagan, Bicanich, and Norris. By the time I played, I was facing great players like Roger McGovern, George Morgan, Dave Stelmazewski, Terry Hall, and my cousin, Lee Newell. “Stelm” was my favorite Waltonville player to go up against as we were both in the same class and both played the center position.

My mother’s senior year class at Waltonville High School. Basketball great Voris “Sleepy” Robinson is in the upper left hand corner. My mother, Mary Alice Newell is in the right, middle row.

I gained another perspective about Waltonville’s basketball culture by reading my mother’s high school diary on rainy days when I couldn’t go outside to play. Her yearbooks also give clues to that day and age.  Mom especially mentioned her freshman year of 1942-1943 in her detailed diary writings and the successes of the basketball team. It’s the story of that team I wish to tell now. First, however, some context.      

It always fun to search back in newspaper archives and find interesting but forgotten stories. Illinois has always had a great number of small town and rural high schools, more than a few having less than a hundred or so students. Because of this circumstance, before the state went to a class system in 1971, these smaller school had to first compete in individual district play. District winners would then advance to the regular first round of Regional state tournament action where the bigger schools played.

“Illinois Newspaper announcing Waltonville’s 1943 district championship win over Opdyke at the Ina district location.

Few district winners got very far in the next round of play, the regional level, having to play much bigger schools in larger gyms and before much bigger and louder crowds. The only Illinois district school to ever achieve a state championship was Hebron in 1952, a school of ninety-eight students. Tiny Cobden, a team from deep southern Illinois, and one having a line-up of six players who stood at least 6-5, was state runner-up in 1964.

Jefferson County Illinois, where I grew up, was a prime example of the small school/large school differential throughout the state. The county seat, Mt. Vernon, was for many years the largest city in southern Illinois. But the county, in the 1930s and 1940s, had a number of tiny high schools scattered throughout the county, including Bluford, Waltonville, Woodlawn, Bonnie, Ina, Opdyke, Nason, Belle Rive, Dix, and a two-year high school in my area called Shields. By the late 1950s, only three of these small school were left: Bluford, Waltonville, and Woodlawn.

Two stunning scores from the Fairfield Regional, the latter showing Waltonville’s unexpected win over a much larger McLeansboro team.”

In 1935, Waltonville had consolidated with nearby Nason High School. That same year Nason’s little gym was dismantled and rebuild near the Waltonville High School. The gym was often referred to as “The Barn.”  During the 1942-1943 season, tiny Waltonville, playing its home games in the barn, stirred hope of becoming another Hebron. While having less that thirty-eight students, only twenty-five of them boys, Waltonville still managed to make a short but impressive run in the state tournament. They won three games at the district level, besting Opdyke in the finals, 41-36. At the Fairfield Regional, they stunned a much larger school, McLeansboro, 37-31 before losing a heart breaker to the host Fairfield Mules, by a single basket, 34-32. Had Waltonville won, they would have faced mammoth Mt. Vernon for the regional title.

Lineup of teams at the Ina district tournament. Jefferson County, Illinois, like many counties in the state had a multitude of small high schools from the 1930s into the late 1960s. Bluford High School still exists today, as does Waltonville and Woodlawn.

There lingers a mystery about this team. Waltonville was known as the Spartans in more recent times, but in the Mt. Vernon Register News the paper carried a photo of the 1943 team on the front cover of its sports page titled “WALTONVILLE COMMANDOS,” a nod perhaps at the ongoing war that many of the youths in the photo would soon be fighting in. The narrative recounted the team’s successes, noting the small town team captured both the Jefferson County tournament (minus Mt. Vernon) plus the district tourney. On the Commando team were Jimmy Cunningham, Richard Robinson, Leslie Hodge, Billy Walters, Charles Parrish, Junior Lance, Maxie Cunningham, Edgar Fairchild, Bill Green, and Voris “Sleepy” Robinson.  The team was coach by Wiltz Book.

Mom must have had a bit of a secret crush on “Sleepy” Robinson, who was in her class. She vented some anger in her diary at him when she discovered him smoking a cigarette at a freshman class party. In her sophomore year, Waltonville won the district tourney again and played in the finals of the district the next two years. In a senior year diary entry, Mom wrote, “Weenie roasts, parties, skating parties, movie parties, and basketball games all added to the fun I had this year in school. I’ll always remember the ball game at Bluford (We won!) and how it rained so hard on us on the way home in an open truck.”

The 1945-1946 Waltonville basketball team. My mom wrote in her high school diary how much she enjoyed going to the games. High School basketball was often at the center of a community’s identity.

All this knowledge probably made me play harder whenever my Bluford teammates and I faced the Waltonville Spartans. It must have paid off. We defeated them in mostly close game six contests in a row from the 1967-1968 through the 1968-1969 season.