Remembering Mounds Meridian of the 1970s

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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."

White Sox Talk Podcast: Jose Quintana trade rumors and SoxFest preview

White Sox Talk Podcast: Jose Quintana trade rumors and SoxFest preview

When will a possible Jose Quintana trade go from a watch to a warning?

Chuck Garfien, Dan Hayes, Ryan McGuffey and Chris Kamka break down the Quintana trade talks and what it will be like for him this weekend at SoxFest after months of trade rumors.

The guys also discuss what the White Sox roster might look like on Opening Day, and Hayes reveals his 2016 Hall of Fame ballot.

[SHOP WHITE SOX: Get your White Sox gear right here]

Plus listen for a special White Sox Talk Podcast giveaway: two free passes to SoxFest and the chance to play bags with Garfien and Todd Frazier at SoxFest.

Check out the latest episode below:

For Tom Rees, coaching gig at Notre Dame always seemed like an inevitability

For Tom Rees, coaching gig at Notre Dame always seemed like an inevitability

The last time Tom Rees played a game for Notre Dame, he was still known as Tommy Rees — but his coach put forth an offer that didn't come as a surprise to anyone in the press room at Yankee Stadium. 

"I'm a Tommy Rees fan for life," Kelly said after Notre Dame's 2013 Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers. "… He'll keep trying to play the game as long as he can. But I told him, he's got a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly anytime."

Rees is joining Notre Dame as a full-time quarterbacks coach, not just as a coach-in-training graduate assistant role. The 24-year-old — whose father, Bill, has held a number of scouting roles in the NFL — only has two coaching stops on his resume, a graduate assistant role at Northwestern in 2015 and an offensive assistant job with the San Diego Chargers last year. But his lack of experience is more than made up for by the simple fact that, while at Notre Dame from 2010-2013, there was a well-established belief held by coaches and teammates that one day the Lake Bluff, Ill. native one day would coach in some capacity. 

"I'm very excited to have Tom join our staff," Kelly said in a statement Tuesday. "He possesses an understanding of the game, and most importantly the quarterback position, that's unique. He's a true student of the game and great communicator that will offer immediate dividends toward guiding our quarterback room.

"As a former quarterback at Notre Dame, Tom also has a rare ability to truly relate with the quarterbacks on our roster. He's literally sat in their seat, dealt with the ups and downs, faced the criticism, deflected the praise, and all that comes with playing the position at Notre Dame. He can genuinely mentor them — not only on the football field, but in the classroom and the community as well."

Rees effectively became a player/coach in 2012, when a July arrest for resisting law enforcement and illegal consumption of alcohol by a minor led to a one-game suspension that knocked him out of what was a four-person competition to be the team's starting quarterback. Everett Golson ultimately emerged from that fray, but Rees was a fixture as both a mentor to and a replacement for the redshirt freshman as the Irish rolled to the BCS Championship with an undefeated regular season record. 

Consider what Rees said about his relationship with Golson prior to the 2013 BCS Championship:

"There'd be a couple late night discussions," Rees said. "He'd ask me what I thought he needed to improve on, you know, don't hold anything back. And I told him the truth sometimes -- I told him the truth all the time, sometimes it wasn't what he wanted to hear. But any way I could help, and I've had a lot of fun working with him."

Rees' playing time that year was important, yet sporadic. So during the week and from the sidelines, he took more of a coach's point of view with the Irish offense, which teammates said was beneficial when he took over the starting job again in 2013 follow Golson's academic suspension. 

"Not being a stating quarterback, it's sort of pushed him to become more of a leader and more of a coach," former offensive lineman Chris Watt said before the 2013 season. "I think that helped him see the game a little bit differently than before." 

Rees will be primarily tasked with grooming redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush, a guy who some around the program thought was the most talented quarterback on Notre Dame's roster the last few years. Of course, Wimbush's offensive knowledge wasn't near the level possessed by Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer, but his throwing and running ability are both mouth-watering traits that Rees will have a chance to mold.

That Rees is getting his coaching start in his mid-20's isn't particularly surprising. In many ways, has always been on track for this role, and maybe more (think offensive coordinator).

"When I finished my playing career and graduated from Notre Dame, I wanted to do two things," Rees said Tuesday. "First, I wanted to coach, and second, at some point in my career I hoped to get an opportunity to return and do it at my alma mater. I didn't know when or if this opportunity might present itself, but I'm so grateful and honored that it did. I'm ready to get things rolling with this great staff and group of student-athletes."