Remembering Mounds Meridian of the 1970s


Remembering Mounds Meridian of the 1970s

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."

Do you realize just how many things have to break right for a Bears 2018 rebound?


Do you realize just how many things have to break right for a Bears 2018 rebound?

Not all that long ago, back in the seemingly promising Dave Wannstedt days, something of an annual narrative began around the Bears. All too frequently since then it has been the refrain of more offseasons than not, including last year’s. And if there is a cause for very, very sobering realism in the wake of the heady wave of free-agency signings in the first days of the new league year, it lies in what has so often transpired to put the lie to that optimism.

The mantra then, and now, has been various iterations of, “If these three (or four, or six, or 12) things work out, the Bears are gonna be good this year.” Because the reality is that all those what-ifs seldom, if ever, all come to pass, whether because of injury, mis-evaluated abilities or whatever.

Look no further than this time last offseason, just considering the offense:

If Kevin White can come back from (another) injury, if Markus Wheaton flashes his Pittsburgh speed, if Dion Sims takes that next step from a promising Miami stint, if Kyle Long is back from his lower-body issues, if Cameron Meredith comes close to those 66 catches again, if Mike Glennon has the upside that led the GM to guarantee him $18.5 million, and hey, Victor Cruz, too, if… and so on.

And exactly zero of those “if’s” came to pass, with the result that John Fox and Dowell Loggains became idiots.

The point is not to a picker of nit or sayer of nay. But the fact is that a lot of the offseason moves and player development ALL need to come down in the plus-column for the Bears to be even as good as they were back in, say, 2015, when the offense had Martellus Bennett at tight end, Alshon Jeffery at wide receiver, Eddie Royal coming in at slot receiver (with 37 catches in an injury-shortened season), Kyle Long at his Pro-Bowl best, and Jay Cutler about to have the best full season of his career. And a new (proven) head coach and defensive coordinator, and an offensive coordinator with head-coaching talent.

All those things “worked” for a team that would wobble to a 6-10 year.

Now consider 2018:

The current top two wide receivers are both – both – coming off season-ending ACL injuries;

The incoming slot receiver has never had a season as reception-productive as the one (Kendall Wright) he is replacing (59) or as many as Royal had in just nine 2015 games (37);

The new tight end has never been a starter and has fewer career catches (63) than Bennett averaged (69) in three supremely disappointing Bears seasons;

The best offensive lineman (Long) is coming off missing essentially half of each of the past two seasons with injuries, and the co-best (Sitton) is gone from an offensive line that was middle of the pack last year and has high hopes for two linemen (Hroniss Grasu, Eric Kush) who’ve been largely backups, and a third (Jordan Morgan) who missed his rookie season with an injury;

And the quarterback (Trubisky) upon whom the franchise rests, who needs to overcome any so-called sophomore jinx and improve from a rookie level (77.8 passer rating) that was barely better than Cutler’s worst NFL season (76.8).

All of which sounds negative, but it really isn’t, just a perspective. Offseasons are about hope, but realism isn’t all bad, either.

The pros and cons of reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on Blackhawks top line


The pros and cons of reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on Blackhawks top line

Jonathan Toews' offense usually comes in spurts. We're seeing it again right now.

But it's no coincidence his numbers have spiked since Patrick Kane joined him on the top line.

After recording another two points in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, the Blackhawks captain has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in his past eight games; he had 11 points in his previous 23 games total.

Toews also reached the 20-goal mark for the 11th straight season, joining Kane and Alex Ovechkin as the only three active players to accomplish that feat to open their NHL careers.

Kane has seen his offensive production pick up, too. He has 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in his past 13 games after going five straight without one, which was his longest point drought of the season.

When the two of them are on the ice together at even strength, they control 57.9 percent of the shot attempts. It hasn't quite translated on the scoresheet (14 goals for and 17 goals against) maybe the way it should, but they are certainly spending far more time in the offensive zone than the defensive end and are generating a high volume of shots.

So yes, reuniting the dynamic duo has worked stats-wise.

But it comes at a cost:

— Vinnie Hinostroza and Nick Schmaltz haven't scored in six straight contests.

— Alex DeBrincat's season-long goal drought is up to 13 games.

— Artem Anisimov's last even-strength goal came nine games ago.

When you put Kane and Toews together, you risk losing some balance across the lineup and that's why Joel Quenneville has always been reluctant to go to that nuclear option. He prefers when opposing teams are forced to play 'Pick Your Poison.'

Ideally, you'd like to spread out the scoring, but one thing is for certain: The Blackhawks are better when Kane and Toews are each producing offensively, whether they're apart or together. 

When the wins start to dry up though — and they have — that's normally when it's time to try something different.

Perhaps more importantly, the last thing you want are those scoring droughts mentioned above to stretch even further and get inside the younger skaters' heads, then carrying it with them into the offseason.