A Country Boy on a City Boy Basketball Team
Some of the great Illinois high school basketball players sometimes get lost in the shuffle. This is the story of one such player. But first, a little back story. During the 1968-1969 season, the Mt. Vernon Rams made it to the Super Sectional level of state tourney play, winning the championship and moving on to the Elite Eight. Lost in the shadows of that great 1968-1969 year, however, but almost as successful, was the Rams team from the year before.
The 1967-1968 Rams squad also made it to the Super Sectional final game, losing the contest to Carbondale by a single basket. On that team were Tommy Williams, Mike Payne, Jim Smith, Steve Strickland, Nate Hawthorne, Terry Sledge, Bob Windhorst, Jerry Seibert, Darrell Gray, Frank Sanders, and Bob Donoho. The initial starters on the 1967-1968 squad were seniors Williams, Payne, and Smith—along with juniors Strickland and Hawthorne. All five of these players would go on to play at least one sport at four-year universities, Payne and Smith at Illinois State, Williams and Hawthorne at Southern Illinois University, and Strickland at the University of Mississippi. Hawthorne would later play in the NBA.
Each of the initial starters had their share of great games. Early on, Carbondale sports writer Merle Jones named Tom Williams the “quarterback” of the team and praised Mike Payne for his quick-release jump shots and accurate shooting. Senior Jim Smith was touted by Jones for his strong rebounding efforts and scoring abilities. Juniors center Steve Strickland and forward Nate Hawthorne also had some high scoring games in several key contests.
A somewhat forgotten player that year, the initial sixth man, was Terry Sledge. In some ways, Terry’s contributions to the Rams team that season have tended to be forgotten. An in depth study of newspaper sports pages, however, reveals his essential part in the successes of that year’s team.
Terry Sledge came to the Mt. Vernon school system his freshman year from the rural Opdyke area of Jefferson County. He was at somewhat of a disadvantage in terms of playing basketball for the Rams, as he had not been a part of the school’s junior high system. (Jim Smith was also an outsider from rural Dodds Grade School.) As a junior, Terry was six-five and gangling, looking on first glance as if he might be easy to push around. The truth was quite the opposite. Terry was no stranger to the harsh, sun-blasted hay fields and to the kind of hard work that served as a tough initiation into late adolescent manhood. In the summers, he led his own hay hauling crew in the Opdyke area, a crew made up of his brother, Steve, and two nearby neighbors, the Hodge brothers. Farmers soon learned to call on Terry and to plan on cutting their hay around his dependable crew’s availability. Terry’s father’s family was from the Horse Creek region of Jefferson/Wayne countries, and Terry also probably picked up a bit of a “being able to take care of yourself” attitude from the colorful but sometimes rough Horse Creek culture.
While running his own hay hauling crew helped build his teenage confidence, Terry’s success in basketball at Mt. Vernon High School were hard earned, coming at a slower pace. He was first discovered by Mt. Vernon coaches playing in the city’s church league. In his sophomore year, 1966-1967, two of Terry’s classmates, Steve Strickland, and later in the season, Nate Hawthorne, moved up to starting varsity. The next year, despite his height, Terry had still not cracked the starting varsity lineup when the season started. The initial 1967-1968 team starters, as noted, featured three very solid seniors—Tommy Williams, Mike Payne, and Jim Smith—along with juniors Steve Strickland and Nate Hawthorne. They were a powerful combination, one that Terry could not seemingly hope to break in to, leaving his talents undiscovered.
The Rams did not disappoint their fans as the 1967-1968 season started. After humbling Carbondale 72-47 in the first half of the season, they found themselves perched at the fourth spot in the state rankings. One Carbondale sports writer, Larry Odell, wrote after the Carbondale game, “Coach, you’d better hope something happens in Mt. Vernon. Like maybe an earthquake or a mass invasion by Asiatic flu. That’s about the only way you could conquer this year’s basketball Rams.” Just before the Carbondale Holiday tournament, Merle Jones of the Southern Illinoisan labeled Steve Strickland as the leader of the Rams’ powerful offense, noting how Steve headed “A deliberate attack that has bowled over Centralia, Carbondale, West Frankfort, and Fairfield.” However, a bad bump in the season occurred when Mt. Vernon lost its first game in the holiday tourney to a Decatur team. In late January, the Rams lost another game to the state’s number one rated team at the time, Effingham, but they still held an impressive a 17-3 record.
Unfortunately, Terry’s big break came about this time at the expense of his good friend, Steve Strickland. Steve caught some kind of lingering virus after the holiday tournament and just could not seem to shake it. Steve’s last big game was in late January of 1968, a game where he was the top Mt. Vernon scorer with twenty one points, but one where the Benton Rangers pounded the Rams 87-73, tying Mt. Vernon for first place in the conference. Terry, who did not start, had only two points in that game.
With Strickland out of commission, everyone wondered how Sledge would do. Terry rose to the challenge and not only helped his team, but flourished in his new role. Terry started his first game on February 5, 1968, and was the leading scorer and rebounder in the Rams’ thumping of Carmi. In a game later that month, Sledge led the Rams in scoring against Harrisburg in a victory that again placed the Rams at the head of the South Seven Conference.
The Rams faced Benton in their next game, a crucial contest that would leave Mt. Vernon in sole possession of the conference if they won. It was a rough game, one where a country boy’s love of physical contact was a plus. Sledge played like he had worked the hay fields, with little flash but getting the job done. He ended up leading the Ram’s offense with twenty-three hard-earned points, but Benton prevailed 83-81 and gained at least a share of the South Seven conference title.
After easily winning its regional, the Rams played Benton in the first game of the sectionals at Davenport Gym in Harrisburg. As noted, Benton had been a terrible thorn in the side of the Rams, beating them twice so far that year, including a heart-breaker by two points at the next-to-the-last game of the season to grab a share of the South Seven conference championship.
The Rams squeezed out a 72-70 win, despite the amazing efforts of the Ranger’s great scorer, Danny Johnson, who scored thirty-four points. For the Rams, Terry was the leading scorer at nineteen points and the leading rebounder for the game, as Mt. Vernon took an incredible 25-9 edge in that department.
In the final game of the regional, Mt. Vernon faced the Eldorado Eagles, a team that had only lost one game during the regular season. The winner would move on to the state tournament round—the Sweet Sixteen. The next day, the Mt. Vernon paper, under a subheading, “Sledge leads charge,” noted, “6-5 Terry Sledge lead a Vernois charge which blew the game wide open.” Scoring fifteen points, Terry was also the Rams leading rebounder. Merle Jones also picked up on Terry’s essential contribution to the team after the Rams won the sectional title. “The Rams, who averaged 75 points a game in the sectional, were led by Terry Sledge’s two night total.”
All Mt. Vernon eyes now turned to the Super Sectional game that was to be played at the Southern Illinois University basketball arena. The Rams had beaten their upcoming foe, Carbondale, twice that year, easily pounding them in the first game at Mt. Vernon. Since then, Carbondale had improved greatly, but even the head Carbondale newspaper sports writer, Merle Jones, picked the Rams to win, touting the Rams’ cohesiveness and the fact that the scoring was so evenly distributed among the starters.
The game looked as if it would be a terrible rout. Rams players, their fans, and Coach Arnold were stunned half-way through the third quarter, after the Terriers had built up a 50-38 lead. Then something happened, as Merle Jones explained the next day in his sports column, Sports Talk. “The Rams seemed dead until Terry Sledge, 6-5 junior center canned four straight goals to close the margin late in the third period.” The team rallied behind Terry’s work, especially Jim Smith who labored inside to steadily rack up points. The Rams, in a hectic finish, had pulled within a single basket and had the ball in their possession when the final horn sounded. Terry was the team’s leading scorer in the tough loss with eighteen points. Despite the heartbreaking ending to the 1967-1968 Rams’ season, it was certainly not a bad season at all for country-boy Terry Sledge, as he made his mark on a city-boy team.