One of my favorite events that I related in the book An Almost Perfect Season: A Father and Son and a Golden Age of Small-Town High School Basketball involved Bluford High School’s adventures in the Wayne City Holiday basketball tournament when I played for the Trojans. Many sportswriters considered the sixteen-team event at Wayne City to be the best small-school holiday tourney in the southern part of Illinois. Connie Allen put the first sixteen-team tournament together in 1954. Prior to my first participation in the tourney as a sophomore in 1966, high school champions included Allendale (1954), Sesser (1955), Wayne City (1956), Valier (1957), Stewardson (1958), Ziegler (1959), Elkville (1960), Elkville (1961), Dahlgren (1962), Enfield (1963), Sesser (1964), and Mills Prairie (1965).
As you can see, Bluford had yet to win a holiday championship when I arrived with my fellow Trojan players on a cold December evening to play in an opening round game of the 1966 tournament. We had won but a single game up until then, beating Thompsonville in overtime. Bluford senior Tom Payne scored over thirty points in that roughed contest. Our poor record was a bit deceiving however, Bluford having lost several games by close scores.
As fate would have it, we were playing Thompsonville again in the tourney. Our coach, Joe Brockett, was positive in the locker room, fervently reminding us that we had recently beat Thompsonville and could do so again. Our opponents, however, played smart out of the gate in front of a crowded Wayne City gym, slowing down the pace to better neutralize Tom Payne’s scoring prowess, making several passes before attempting a shot. The plan seemed to work to perfection. We were down 14-8 after the first quarter and 22-8 at halftime.
At the beginning of the second half of the game, we started to crawl back into the contest. The slower-paced game meant more under-the-basket warfare, and Gene Donoho and I began to knock the Thompsonville players around, driving them out of the middle. We also snagged rebounds on both ends of the floor and knocked in put-backs. Meanwhile, Cecil Wiley began to connect with outside shots.
In the fourth quarter, Thompsonville began to panic, losing the ball with bad passes and taking poor, hurried shots, missed shots that Gene Donoho and I gladly collected. As the momentum changed, the crowd climbed back into the game, yelling encouragement. When the final horn sounded, we were charging down the court with the lead 58-57 in Thompsonville’s favor.
Thompsonville’s strategy had worked. Tom Payne had only eight points in the losing effort. Gene ended up with sixteen points, Cecil with fifteen, and I with thirteen.
The Cisne Lions ended up winning the 1966 Wayne City tournament championship, beating Enfield in the final contest. Cisne had also beaten Thompsonville in overtime in a semi-final game, a cruel hint that we could have gone deeper into the tourney with a little luck. Bluford’s misfortunes continued the rest of the season, the team winning only one more game, a victory in the first game of the district tournament against Ashley.
Nineteen sixty seven witnessed a one hundred and eighty degree turn for the Bluford Trojans. We had a new coach, Roger Yates, and we came into the Wayne City tournament that December undefeated, with an eight game win streak. Despite our record, we were still seeded third, behind Mills Prairie and Sesser. Waltonville was seeded fourth. Sports writer John Rackaway said of that year’s lineup, “Wayne City’s 16-team field, probably the best in the 13 tourney years, includes many of the strong small-school quintets in southern Illinois.”
Bluford breezed into one of the 1967 semi-final games, coming up against top-seed Mills Prairie. It looked like we were going to blow them out of the gym too, holding a big lead as the fourth quarter started. What followed, however, was one of the strangest games Bluford played during my years there, one you can read about in An Almost Perfect Season. Ed Donoho and I both ended up with sixteen points each in the heart-breaking two point loss. Bluford came back the next evening to beat Waltonville for third place, with Jack Michels being the hero of that game, hitting several timely outside shots. Sesser ended winning the 1967 tournament in an exciting overtime game against Mills Prairie. Later that year, Bluford would beat Sesser in the regional play, a bit of consolation for blowing a chance to win the Wayne City tourney.
The next year, 1968, John Rackaway at the Mt. Vernon Register News noted, “Over the past 15 years, Wayne City has promoted one of the finest small-school holiday tourneys in Illinois, and this year Principal Connie Allen and Coach Bennie Greenwalt and Co. have outdone themselves. Their 16-team field selection was outstanding. Bluford and Enfield are favorites—and either could provide a stiff test for most of the big southern Illinois preps.”
Bluford and host Wayne City fought it out in the final game that year before a packed crowd, with Bluford winning a hard-fought battle, 73-64. Ed Case bagged twenty-three points in the championship tilt for the Trojans and was voted to the tourney All-Star team. Bob Ed Osborn had nineteen, Ed Donoho eleven, and Jack Michels and I had ten points each in the championship game. Interestingly, it was the Bluford team’s discipline in not fouling that won the contest. Wayne City almost outscored us from the field but hardly had a foul shot opportunity. The next day John Rackaway, wrote in the Register News, “In winning the Wayne City Tournament crown, Coach Roger Yates’ Bluford Trojans were charged with just thirty-one fouls in four games. Wayne City coach Bennie Greenwalt, whose club lost the championship game, was tremendously impressed by Yates’ Trojans, who boosted their record to 11-1. ‘Bluford is a real tough ball club,” said Bennie, “and they have a group that you won’t beat at the free throw line. They just don’t foul.’”
I have experienced many things in my life, but playing in that championship game with my Bluford teammates just over fifty years ago will always be one of my best memories.