The Forgotten Bookend: The Story of the 1969-1970 Bluford Trojans

The 1950s and on through the early 1970s was a golden age of high school basketball in the Midwest and in the region of southern Illinois where I played. It was a time of single class basketball before the three point line. In this environment, a good small-town basketball team created as much excitement for their community as a larger city school. The gyms may have been smaller, but they were packed when a small-town team was having a good run.

Small-town southern Illinois gyms were usually packed in the golden age of small-town high school basketball

Because small schools always had a lesser pool of players from which to draw, they typically had fewer strong seasons. Looking back at the records, I found small-town high school basketball teams in southern Illinois tended to have a run of two or more exceptional teams in a row roughly every decade. Bluford high school, where I played, was a prime example.

1954-1955 Bluford High School Basketball team. This squad had Bluford’s best record in the 1950s- 26-4

In the early to mid-1950s, Bluford High School produced several teams that won over twenty games a season and captured four district championship crowns. This was followed by more than a decade of break even seasons until the 1966-1967 playing year when the Trojans won only a single regular season game. This would be the very bottom, the worst record for a Bluford boys’ basketball team.

The 1966-1967 Bluford team won a single regular season game. Two of the players in this photo, however, would play two years later on one the school’s most successful teams

Ironically, the next year witnessed the beginning of another round of greatness. In the early fall of 1971, the Mt. Vernon Register News sports page carried a brief article about the amazing run. “Since taking over coaching duties at Bluford High School in 1967, Roger Yates has won or shared the Little Egyptian Conference title every year. His 1967-68 club posted a 21-7 record. In 1968-1969 the Trojans were 25-2, and last season finished with a 20-5 slate.” Interestingly, these three seasons may have not been remembered or respected equally.

One thing the three teams did have in common was that they each experienced an iconic game, a contest team members, coaches, and fans would speak of for years to come.

The 1967-1968 team captured its notoriety with an amazing turn-around achievement, gaining a 21-7 season following Bluford’s single win campaign in the regular season, wrapped around 16 losses that year before. The squad also captured the Little Egyptian Conference and District tournament titles, and unexpectedly beat a powerful Sesser team in the first round of regional play.  The Sesser match was that year’s iconic battle, and Merle Jones, sports editor at Carbondale’s Southern Illinoisan and the guru of the region’s sport reporters, wrote a lengthy sports front page article about Bluford’s surprising win. The core of that 21-7 crew included juniors Bob Ed Osborn, Jack Michels, Ed Petersen, Rod Stover, and myself and sophomores Ed Case and Ed Donoho. This team would then serve as a front bookend to one of the greatest Bluford teams ever.

The 1967-1968 squad accomplished a 21-7 season, starting a three year run of twenty or better wins a year.

The 1968-1969 Bluford squad, with everyone back from the great year before, would complete the best win-loss season in the history of the school. They reeled off 25 straight victories after a first game defeat, and ended up with just one loss in the regular season. The team also won the Little Egyptian Conference tourney and the regular season conference title and was the first Bluford squad to win the sixteen-team Wayne City Holiday tournament. The team also gained high ranking status in the 56 schools southern Illinois region. There seemed to be no weakness with the group. The team had four great shooters and a big man in the middle who helped control the game underneath the basket. Five players typically contributed by scoring in double figures in each game. It’s difficult, however, choosing the seminal contest for that year, the team winning almost all their games by wide margins. However, Bluford’s holding a solid Waltonville team scoreless during almost the entire first half of the conference tournament championship may have been that game. Afterwards, the opposing coach labeled the Bluford squad the best team ever in the Little Egyptian Conference.  

In the white uniforms, winners of twenty-five games in a row, the 1969-1970 Bluford Trojans in action

The next year, 1969-1970, looked to be a down season. Gone was the year-before leadership and scoring of senior Bob Osborn and the scoring, defense, and rebound contributions of seniors Jack Michels, Rod Stover, and myself. Back however, were the two top scorers from the year before, Ed Case and Ed Donoho. It remained to be seen how the supporting 1969-70 cast would do.

The 1969-70 team, much like the Bluford squad two seasons before, surprised sports writers and fans alike by winning several games in a row in the first half of the season. During that run, many fans may have hoped the team might claim more wins than the 1967-1968 squad and even give the 1969 team a run for their money. Ed Donoho’s initial play suggested that possibility when he ripped off 30 points in the Trojans’ opening victory, a win over Enfield. More than once in the two prior seasons, Donoho’s explosive moves and scoring jags garnered him “hero of the game” recognition from opposing coaches and from sports writers.  By the second contest in the 1969-70 season, however, Ed Case, 6-4 and still growing, stepped up his game, capturing the head scoring spot in most of the games for the rest of the season. But no matter who was scoring, the two Ed’s were the go-to guys. Underclassman Dewayne Catron remembered when bringing down the ball on the Bluford offense that he always first made eye contact with either Donoho or Case “to see if they wanted the ball to make things happen.”   

The big surprise was sophomore Rick Huff. He performed exceptionally well, became the prime scorer in several contests, and often came through in a crunch situation. Coach Yates also recalled Lanny Donoho and Dewayne Catron making important starting five contributions to the team, Lanny with his scoring and upbeat banter and Catron with his consistent play.  Waiting in the wings were substitutes Mike Porter and Sam Henry.

Then came a bump. The Trojans lost their first game that year, a shattering, unexpected loss to rival Wayne City in the seventh contest of the season. Wayne City had put two of their players on Ed Case, the tactic enabling the Indians to get a win.  Gone was any hope of an undefeated season, an accomplishment that seemed possible before it was not. But that wasn’t the only negative outcome.

Southern Illinois high school fans took their basketball seriously. The surprising loss to Wayne City stirred up the Trojan fans, who thought the officiating poor. A few supporters got carried away, causing school administrators to caution the team’s supporters. John Rackaway, Sports editor at the Mt. Vernon Register News noted that Bluford High School officials were “conducting a campaign to promote good sportsmanship at the school” after some fans were “a little unruly at the Wayne City game.”

Ironically, just before the Wayne City loss, a sports writer from the largest newspaper in the region, the Evansville (Indiana) Sunday Courier and Press carried an entire page of photos and narratives about the Bluford team, emphasizing the team’s great two years of the past and the present squad’s quest for a third straight regular season conference title.  

A photo of the 1969-1970 Bluford Trojans from the Evansville Sunday Courier and Press

The annual sixteen team holiday tournament came at the end of the first half of regular season conference play. Going into the Wayne City holiday tourney in December of 1969, Bluford was on top of the world. They stood at 8-1, undefeated in conference play, and were seeded as the number one team at Wayne City. Excitement ran high. The year before Bluford had won its first Wayne City tournament. Winning back-to-back championships would give the ’69-’70 squad a special place in the school’s basketball history.

The 1969-1970 Bluford team won several games in a row at the beginning of the season

Looking back at a basketball season, one can often see a good or bad turning point. The first game in the Wayne City tourney against Dahlgren, a team Bluford had dismantled earlier that year, did not go well. The Bulldogs were ahead at the end of the first quarter and Bluford was up by a single basket at halftime. Dahlgren fans were going crazy, and Coach Yates realized he needed to do something quick. Yates remembered, “I put in a freshman, Kenny Johnson, in the game at the beginning of the second half and his play seemed to settle us down.” Bluford ended up winning, but not by much.

Then came the second shocker of the season. After beating Dahlgren in the first round of the holiday play, Bluford was stunned by Tamaroa, a team they had beaten earlier that year by eleven points. The score was 65-60 in a game that was close throughout. Leading Tamaroa’s onslaught was Bob Rusiewski, who scored 29 points, and his brother, Mark, who ended up with 18. As it turned, the Rusiewski brothers would soon become the Trojans’ major nemesis in the second half of the playing year.

Although Bluford lost early on in the Wayne City Tournament, and that after having been deemed the top seed, the good news was the Trojans were still in the driver’s seat to win the regular season Little Egyptian Conference championship and likely the conference tourney. When the conference tournament did roll around in late January, the Trojans were seeded as the number one team. At this point, the Trojans also carried the second best record, 13-2, among the 57 schools in the southern Illinois region. Two other teams were tied for the top spot, each with just one loss.

Bluford had the second best winning percentage in southern Illinois towards the end of the 69-70 season

Conference tourney play started out as one would have expected. Bob Rusiewski hit for 42 points in the first game and his brother, Mark, knocked down 25 in their team’s easy victory over Ashley. Meanwhile, Bluford cruised by Woodlawn to set up another battle with the Rusiewski brothers and a chance for the Trojans to take revenge for the unexpected Wayne City tourney loss.

It was hardly a contest. The Mt. Vernon Register News sports page reported Tamaroa “upset top-seeded Bluford with surprising ease, 81-69, outscoring the Trojans 22-9 and 20-12 in the third and fourth periods.”  

There would not be a conference tournament trophy for the Trojans, not after the Rusiewski boys scored almost 60 points between them. Tamaroa had now bested the Bluford team two out of three times in a single season. Bluford did manage to grab the third place prize, knocking off Crab Orchard.  

Mark Rusiewski, number 20, at work, grabbing a rebound for Tamaroa.

Despite the disappointment in the conference tournament, Bluford was still winning all their other games in the second half of the playing year, run-aways as well as thrillers. Against Ashley, Case cashed in for 34 points and Huff 23, Bluford crushing the Wolves 92-66.  Waltonville the second time around was a different story. The Spartans had the ball with three seconds left in a tied game but threw the ball away. Then Bluford, according to the Waltonville coach’s comments to a sports reporter after the contest, “performed well under the late game pressure” and won in the overtime, 59-52.

There were two really sweet victories and one bitter disappointment in February, just before state tournament time. In early February, Bluford likely wrapped up the regular season conference championship by clipping Thompsonville 66-59. Ed Case had his usual big night, gaining 24 points, followed by Rick Huff with 13, Ed Donoho with 12, and Lanny Donoho with 11 points for the Trojans.

Bluford’s Ed Case, 32, and Ed Donoho, 24, watch a Thompsonville player grab a rebound. The Trojans, however, picked up the win.

Four days later, Bluford played Tamaroa for the fourth time, their second scheduled match in regular season play. The contest was at the Trojans’ gym and Bluford players, coaches, and fans were primed for revenge against the upstart Indians. Bluford was up by ten at half-time and 49-46 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Then the roof caved in. Tamaroa outscored Bluford twenty-six points to twelve in the fourth stanza, winning 72-61. Again, the Rusiewski brothers led their team’s effort. Bluford’s Rick Huff was the Trojan’s leading scorer with 23.

The Tamaroa Indians had now beaten Bluford three times out of four in a single season. 

At least the regular season ended on a happy note. In the next to the last game, Bluford faced arch rival Wayne City again. Coach Yates had learned his lesson from the earlier loss, remembering how Wayne City had hounded Ed Case. This time Yates had Rick Huff primed to take more shots, and the junior came through, leading his team with 24 points and helping the Trojans to an easy win, 66-46.   

Bluford ended the regular season by thrashing Dahlgren. The Trojans seemed to be back in the groove, winning by thirty points, the two Eds leading the way, Case with 25 points and Donoho with 24. Bluford ended up with a solid 19-4 record, including a sterling 13-1 record in conference play.

Some pundits now argued that the Trojans probably should not have lost to Wayne City in their first meeting and that Bluford probably should have split with Tamaroa. That would have left the Bluford team at 21-2. Fans had little time, however, to be disappointed. They would be playing the Waltonville district champs in the first game of Regional play. That team turned out to be Tamaroa who now carried a 20-5 record. By a strange twist of fate, the two teams would be meeting for the fifth time, with Tamaroa having won three out of four games. The final game would be one of those iconic battles whose specifics were debated and talked about for years to come.

The next day after the contest, sportswriter Ted Mannen called the game “stunning, a back-and-forth tug of war. Bluford used a sticky press to keep the tension on the Indians in a game that was tied 13 times.”  

Looking back, Bluford had concentrated too much on the Rusiewski brothers for much of the heated contest. It was Tamaroa’s Steve Anderson who did the greatest damage. The sports reporter noted Anderson “was near unstoppable from the outside as he banged away 28 points worth.” But the Trojans hung in there, leading by three after the first quarter and Tamaroa coming back to tie the game by the half.  

In the third quarter, Tamaroa opened up a four to ten point lead and led by eight going into the final quarter. With two and a half minutes left in the contest, and Bluford down by eight, “Catron, Huff, and Ed Donoho connected in that order for the Trojans to make the count 58-56.” Then came the hectic finish in regulation time. “Ed Donoho made a steal, and it was tied with 1:45 on the clock. Huff traded a basket with two Bob Rusiewski free throws, and the score at the end of regulation time was 60-60.”

The two teams would now play a nerve-racking overtime.

Bluford built up a three-point edge in the extra session before a costly inbound error allowed Tamaroa to come back and take a one point lead with twenty seconds on the clock. Then came the final unbelievable seconds of the game. With six seconds left in the contest and Bluford down by one, there was a jump ball at the Tamaroa end of the court. When the jump ball was in the air, Rick Huff sprinted toward the Bluford basket. Somehow, Ed Case recovered the ball and “smoked a Sandy Koufax deluxe to Huff who was fouled as he tried a last second shot.” With one second left, Rick Huff made both free throws and the Trojans had finally broken the Tamaroa jinx, winning 67-66. It was truly a team effort. Huff ended up with 21 points in the victory. Case had 18, Ed Donoho 16, and Catron and Lanny Donoho 6 each.

Bluford’s great ride ended the next game, big school West Frankfort soundly beating the Trojans. Still, the year had been a solid one, a 20-5 season with plenty of highs and more than a few lows, the team being the final bookend to the Trojan’s three year run in the late 1960s. It would be a decade before Bluford had back-to-back 18 game winning seasons and over two decades before Bluford would see another such run of 20 plus wins for consecutive teams.