A Brief History of Some of the Best Bluford High School Basketball Teams and Scorers, 1950-1970

During the exciting, highly successful, and tremendously hectic Bluford High School basketball season of 1968-1969, we players often heard fleeting stories about other great Bluford basketball teams and players, stories we had little time to digest. While many claimed at the time that the 1968-1969 team was the best Bluford squad ever, there were other great teams that came before us. As I’ve worked on a book about my own Bluford playing years, I’ve often come across newspaper articles about some of these past teams and players, and these materials suggest stories that I wish to share. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this, but only wish to share my thoughts after looking through a ton of newspaper articles.

The 1949-1950 Bluford Trojans

The 1949-1950 Bluford Trojans celebrating another win. They were 18-1 in the regular season. Front row: Don Colwell (20), Jim Stover (28), Kenny Gowler, Jim Gillespie (22). Back row, Marlin Manning and coach Dwight Mannen.

It was unfortunate timing that Bluford had three exceptional teams in the early and mid-1950s, just when Mt. Vernon was dominating state play and winning the state tournament back-to-back in 1948-1949 and 1949-1950 and again in the 1953-1954 season.

During the 1949-1950 season, the Bluford Trojans racked up an incredible 18-1 record in the regular season, its sole regular season game lost by a single point. The team moved to the semi-final game of the regional state tournament, going up against Fairfield. Six two center Don Colwell, my first Bluford high school basketball coach in 1965, was the Trojan’s leading scorer the 1949-1950 year and the star of the team. Colwell bagged twenty-six points in the first regional game and was also praised for his “neat defensive game” in the Mt. Vernon paper. In the semi-final game, Bluford stumbled against a Fairfield team they could have beaten, losing in the last few minutes of the game. Had they won, they would have played the eventual state champion in their next game, the Mt. Vernon Rams.

Bluford’s coach that year was a former Waltonville High School and Monmouth College basketball star—tall, lanky Dwight Mannen, a distant cousin of my mother’s. Players on that team were Don Colwell, Don Braddy, Junior Lewis, Jim Gillespie, Jim Stover, and Kenny Gowler, along with players whose last names were Lane, Gutzler, and Baker. After high school Don Colwell would go on to play basketball at Virginia Military Institute, where he was one of their better players.

Jim Gillespie takes a shot in a semi-final game of the 1950 regionals against Fairfield.

The 1954-1955 Bluford Trojans

The team I remembered our 1968-1969 squad being most compared to, the 1954-1955 team, had a great foundation on which to build. Their season before was one of the few times a Bluford team won a district championship. Bluford was pounded, however, by South Seven conference school West Frankfort in the first game of the Regionals. Bill Irwin, a sophomore, was the main scorer that 1953-1954 season, although Henry Sauls lit up the scoreboard on several occasions. Erwin scored thirty six points in the district championship victory game against Woodlawn, the Mt. Vernon Register News reported.

It was the championship game in every respect—with both teams playing great ball. Bluford led the first quarter, 21-19 but the game was tied at the half 38-38. Bluford took a 54-52 lead at the third quarter mark. With three and a half minutes to go in a torrid final quarter the same two-point margin separated the teams at 63-61. That is when Bluford went into a deep freeze with brilliant dribbler Bill Irwin taking over. The rest of the game followed the same pattern. Irwin, whose dashing dribbling antics reminded observers of the great Benny Purcell of Mt. Vernon and Murray State took charge. He did the keep-away dribbling until fouled, then stepped to the free throw line.

Mt. Vernon Register Article

Members of that team were Joe Bob Green (captain), Bill Irwin, Bill Williams, Henry Sauls, Larry Wilson, Bill Wilson, Harold Ellis, Kenny Gregory, Maurice Woodworth, and Harold Chambliss. J. M. Hooper was the Bluford coach.

The 1953-1954 Bluford tean, winners of a district championship. Many of these players would return next season to win twenty six games. Bill Erwin, one of Bluford’s very best all-time players is fourth from the right.

The next year’s 1954-1955 team won an amazing twenty-six games, one more than our 1968-1969 team.  They placed second in the Little Egyptian conference and again took the district title. Almost all the main players were back from the year before, along with Coach J. M. Hooper. Bill Irwin was again the consistent big gun for Bluford, but five of the other players—Henry Sauls, Bill Williams, Fred Hiatt, and the two Wilson boys, Larry and Bill, had spectacular scoring games during the season as well. Fred Hiatt, for example, scored thirty four points in the district championship victory over Thompsonville.

By the time the state tournament rolled around in 1955, Bluford was a real contender to move up through the regional round of the state tournament before two of their better players, Fred Hiatt and Larry Wilson, came down with the flu. Bluford lost in the first game of the Regionals by a few points to Johnston City. The next day a Register News sports headline related the sad outcome:

Trojans, Weakened By Illness, Puts Up Stiff Battle Before Falling 83-71 In Christopher Regional. Finish 26-4.

Low Winning Percentages but Great Players

Bluford would go on several years producing solid teams after the magical 1954-1955 season, but there would be a long drought in terms of district, conference, and holiday tournament championships. The Trojans’ won-loss ratio also seemed to slowly drop in the late 1950s and on into the 1960s, although several teams were at .500 or a bit better. Newspaper articles during this time often spoke of these Bluford teams as spoilers rather than contenders for the regular season Little Egyptian conference championships. A few great individual Bluford players emerged however.

It’s difficult to list the very best of the Bluford scorers of the 1950s and 1960s for fear of leaving out someone. There were so many solid players who were not always high scorers, but who played essential roles for the team. During my days of early recollection, for example, players like Dale Colwell, brother of Don Colwell, Dan Lovin, Darrell Owens, Norman Vance, Gene Donoho, Larry Lane, Barry Forsythe, and Cecil Wiley easily come to mind. 

So far in this narrative, the list of the very top Bluford players include Don Colwell, the leading scorer of the 1949-1950 team, and Bill Irwin, the leading scorer for 1954-1955 team. Irwin would continue to put up big numbers as the lone senior player in the 1955-1956 season under new head coach Richard “Dick” Jones. Irwin scored twenty seven points, for example, and led the Trojans to a grudge match victory against arch rival Wayne City before a packed house in the Bluford gym in 1956. (Interestingly, Max Allen, the future distinguished coach at Bluford Grade School was the leading scorer for Wayne City in the game followed by future Wayne City High School Coach Bennie Greenwalt). Bluford’s Larry Wilson and Harold Chambliss were also prolific scorers for Bluford during the 1955-1956 season. This team ended regular season play at a very decent 14-11 record but lost in the first game of the district tournament.  The next year the Trojans had a 10-4 record in conference play and took third place in the conference standings, but Dick Jones’ team once more lost in early district play. Wilson and Chambliss typically led the scoring parade that year. After two successful years at Bluford, Coach Jones moved on to bigger and better things in the spring of 1957, spending several years at McLeansboro and, after that, at sports powerhouse Washington High School in Indiana.

The 1957-1958 season saw the appearance of a new Bluford coach, Don Colwell, returning to his old high school roots. Don’s first season ended just above .500 and the Trojans had a great scorer in Ron Wilson. The next year, Wilson led the Trojans to a 13-7 record. Still, there were no district championships. In the 1959-1960 season, the Bluford team managed a fourth place standing among the nine team Little Egyptian conference.      

 The beginning of the 1960s witnessed a player who may have been Bluford’s best pure shooter, high scoring Merle McRaven. McRaven graduated in 1962 and went on to play and set records at Mt. Vernon Community College where Roger Yates, Bluford’s 1968-1969 coach, remembered seeing McRaven kindly teaching one novice basketball player the proper form for shooting a jump shot. When I was an eighth grader visiting my older brother’s junior varsity practice at Bluford High School, McRaven spent an entire practice patiently helping me to learn the art of shooting a jump shot. He came to a couple of more follow-through practices to guide me as well, acts of help and kindness I will always remember.

Laverne Donoho was an exceptional athlete for the Trojans in the 1960s before he transferred to Mt. Vernon High School and played for the Rams.

Laverne Donoho was another superb marksman and athlete who played for Bluford in the early 1960s, occasionally breaking the thirty point barrier during one season before he took his talents to Mt. Vernon High School. My cousin, Gary Wayne Pierce, a Farrington kid, was another great shooter during this time. He was an all-around player, moving beyond the thirty point mark in many games and hitting the thrilling last second winning shot at the Bluford basketball homecoming game in 1964. In Gary’s senior year, 1964-1965, the Trojans clocked a respectable 9-11 record and beat several strong teams, including Waltonville and small-school powerhouse Mills Prairie.

My cousin, Gary Wayne Pierce, leading scorer for the 1965-1965 Bluford Trojans.

The next two seasons would take Bluford to its lowest ebb, perhaps leaving Tom Payne as the most forgotten and underrated Bluford scorer of the 1950-1970 era. There was interesting context to this story. Don Colwell stepped down as coach in 1966 and Joe Brockett took his place. The Trojans won only five regular season games in Colwell’s last season of 1965-1966, when Tom was a junior, and a single regular season game Tom’s senior year, 1966-1967. Payne managed to break the thirty point mark several times in his three year career as a varsity player. As an eighth grader, I watched Bluford pound a powerful Waltonville squad in the Spartans’ own gym, 75-55, the tall muscular sophomore Payne having a tremendous game for Bluford, bulling his way to the basket and scoring twenty-five points, leaving me wishing I could someday put on such a performance.

Perhaps the most underrated of Bluford’s great scorers, Tom Payne

After the 1-16 season, Bluford came roaring back under new head coach Roger Yates. On Bluford’s 1967-1968, 1968-1969, and 1969-1970 teams, all twenty plus win seasons, was an explosive scorer and game changer, Ed Donoho. Ed had many thirty plus point games and an incredible performance in the 1968 regional win against Sesser. One top sports writer in the state, Merle Jones of the Southern Illinoisan, called Ed the hero of that game, comparing him to the very best players in southern Illinois that year, including Les Taylor of Carbondale and Danny Johnson of Benton.  Jones wrote how Ed turned the game around in the middle of the fourth quarter. “Donoho started driving at the basket, making five of six shots, and drew eleven free throws, nine of which he made for a nineteen point quarter. His three point play at 3:18 gave Bluford a 69-68 lead it never lost.”

The great Ed Donoho, going up high for two points.

Another player that I would list as one of Bluford’s very top performers was Ed Case. Case was a classmate of Ed Donoho and had the sweetest left-handed jump shot you could ever imagine. During Bluford’s top season of 1968-1969, Ed was our overall leading scorer, consistently throwing in at least twenty points a game.

No one had a prettier left-handed jump shot that Ed Case. He led the 1968-1969 team in scoring as a junior.

Finally, my list would include Bob Ed Osborn, an all-around player and our floor general for the 1967-1968 and 1968-1969 seasons. Bob Ed was almost always one of the top three scorers in games he played, hitting many clutch shots and free throws in close contests that came down to the wire. He was the heart and soul of our 1968-1969 run.  

The 1968-1969 Bluford Trojans

1968-1969 Bluford Trojans. The best Bluford team of the 1950-1970 era, and perhaps the best of all time.

Like the 1954-1955 Bluford team, the 1968-1969 squad had a strong foundation from the year before upon which to build. We gained over twenty wins in 1967-1968, beat a tough Sesser team in the first game of the regionals, and had everyone back for the next season. As I noted, many observers have said the 1968-1969 team was the best squad in the history of the school. One can list a number of reasons for this claim.  

  • We won the prestigious sixteen-team Wayne City Holiday tournament, the regular season Little Egyptian conference, and the conference tournament.
  • Bluford’s first five wins that year were won by an average of over eighty points a game. We simply dominated almost all of the teams we played that year. 
  • Bluford was consistently rated among the top ten teams in the fifty-six school region of southern Illinois and as high as seventh among the best small schools in the state.
  • We owned the longest winning streak in southern Illinois—25 games.

The team was blessed with three constant big scorers—Ed Case, Ed Donoho, and Bob Ed Osborn, with Jackie Michels occasionally ending up as the top scorer in some games as well. Rod Stover was a perfect sixth man for half the season before coach Yates had Rod and Jack Michels splitting up equal time.

My main argument as to why we were so good was that we worked so well together. There was no jealousy among us and everyone was happy to play their role. We had four great shooters, and I was noted for stopping up the middle and helping to create a defense one sports writer said couldn’t be “picked except with a set of burglary tools.”  Another sports writer described our offense and defense as relentless and “methodical.”  To get the full story of the great 1967-1968 and 1968-1969 Bluford Trojans basketball teams, read my book, An Almost Perfect Season: A Father and Son and a Golden Age of Small-Town High School Basketball, coming out this fall.