Historians of Illinois high school basketball almost certainly remember Jim Byassee and Mounds Meridian. Byassee won 635 games in a brilliant 30-year career and guided the tiny Pulaski County school to a 30-2 record and second place in the first Class A tournament in 1972.
But Byassee's biggest achievement was beating Thornridge in the 1970 Carbondale Holiday Tournament. Thornridge, led by Quinn Buckner, Boyd Batts, Mike Bonczyk and Greg Rose, went on to win the 1971 state championship and the 1972 Class AA title and won 58 games in a row.
Now Mounds Meridian is back. Coach Jeff Mandrell's Bobcats are ranked No. 1 in Class 1A and are enjoying the most success since the Byassee era in the 1970s. They are 176-34 over the last seven years, including 25-2 this season. Last year's 28-5 team lost to Woodlawn in the supersectional.
But Mandrell thinks his 2011-12 squad could be the best he has produced, better than any of his last six teams that all won 20 or more games. Why? He has four returnees from last year, an effective 1-2-2 ball-press defense and a balanced offense with three starters averaging over 14 points per game.
"I think we're good enough to rank No. 1 in Class 1A, based on what we have done in the past few years," the coach said as he prepared his team for Friday night's regional final against Cairo at Mounds.
Mandrell, in his 14th year, has rebuilt a program at one of the state's smallest schools (160 students) that once was a power in a one-class system. But the program slipped after Byassee retired. Mandrell was the fourth coach in four years. The Bobcats had won only six games in the two seasons before Mandrell arrived.
"It is hard to explain," Mandrell said. "Byassee had won a lot of games. Basketball was a big deal. There was no football. Before I was hired, they had only two good teams in 10 years.
"There are a lot of single-parent homes in our community. A coach needs to be here for a while to know the kids and develop trust and a working relationship. It is easier for me now than it was in my first few years."
Mandrell, a 1986 graduate of Oakland High School near Paris, had coached at Crescent Iroquois, Trenton-Wesclin and Oakland before being hired at Mounds Meridian, which is as close to the Ohio River as you can get before crossing the bridge at Cairo.
"I had heard about the 1972 team and Jim Byassee," Mandrell said. "I knew it was a place where they had some athletes. The program had been down but I felt if I had time to sell my philosophy, we could be successful again. Of course, we have a better chance to advance in a four-class system than we used to."
How does Mandrell explain his string of successes over the past seven years? "We have been fortunate to have good talent. Success breeds success," he said.
Mandrell picked the brains of some of the most brilliant coaches in state history to develop his version of the ball-press defense, which Collinsville coach Vergil Fletcher had invented in the 1950s. While a student at Eastern Illinois University, Mandrell met with Fletcher. He also met with former Lincoln and Quincy coach Loren Wallace and Nokomis coach Steve Kimbro. And he obtained some information from Lincoln coach Neil Alexander.
"I will always remember my experience of going to coach Fletcher's house in Collinsville. I was just some guy who wanted to be a coach and (Fletcher) treated me like a guy who had coached for years," Mandrell said. "We like to pressure and run and create turnovers. We don't run (the ball-press) like Fletcher did. But it has been an effective tool for us."
Mandrell also makes sure his players haven't forgotten the history of the program. There is a big picture of the 1972 team at the school. And Chico Vaughn, the most prolific scorer in state history, works at the school. His record of 3,358 points set at nearby Tamms in 1955-58 still stands.
"Now the kids know of the history. I think they had lost touch with it. They had heard some stories," Mandrell said. "Now there is a big buzz in the school. Junior high school kids come to watch practice. They want to be part of the program someday. The crowds have gotten bigger. People take pride in what our kids are doing."
Mounds Meridian averages 78 points per game while allowing only 49. The Bobcats are technically sound on defense and explosive on offense. They scored 36 points in the second quarter of a recent game.
The key contributors are 6-foot-5 senior center Jerry Johnson (14.3 ppg), 5-foot-11 senior guard Cameron Ballard (14.8 ppg), 6-foot-4 junior Josh Jones (14.9 ppg) and 5-foot-8 senior point guard Damarko Ransom (11.4 ppg).
"We have a lot of scoring balance so opponents can key on anyone. Our point guard (Ransom) has played well and runs the show for us," Mandrell said. "The key for us is to stay consistent. We're not trying to change much. Our kids don't panic. If we continue to play the way we have been playing, we can go a long way."