BLOOMINGTON — For more than a century the McLean County Basketball Tournament has given its champion well-earned braggin’ rights as the best small school team in the area.
The winter classic goes all the way back to 1911 (a 38-29 Lexington triumph over LeRoy) and before successive waves of school consolidation beginning in the late 1940s, nearly every small town in the county had a high school boys’ basketball team. Communities such as Bellflower would empty out on game night as fans packed venues such as the old YMCA in downtown Bloomington and Memorial Gymnasium at Illinois Wesleyan University.
In 1944 and 1945, there were an astounding 20 McLean County high schools located outside of the Twin Cities playing in the tournament.
By 1950 there were 15 schools left, with Octavia, a consolidation of Colfax, Cooksville and Anchor (the district today is Ridgeview), making its first appearance. That year the tournament ran seven straight days beginning Sunday, Jan. 13. Top seeded Lexington received the only first-round bye, though three other teams, the Chenoa Red Birds, Octavia Rockets and McLean Colts, were expected to “make some noise” at Illinois State Normal University’s McCormick Gym (tourney host for 28 straight years —1936 to 1963).
Going into the 1950 tournament, 10-win Lexington had suffered only one loss, to “intercity” Normal Community. The previous year, the Minute Men (the nickname was spelled as two words back then) upset top-seeded Chenoa in the semifinals before falling to the Saybrook Comanches in the title game.
Before adoption of the two-class system in 1972 (there are four classes now) the smaller schools in McLean County had little hope of realistically competing with their big-city counterparts for a regional title, to say nothing of reaching the state finals. Such circumstances made winning the county tournament a season-worthy goal for these small town schools.
Back in 1950, the Cropsey Bulldogs, Heyworth Hornets, Downs Demons, Danvers Dragons, Arrowsmith Indians, Gridley Indians and Bellflower Dragons (yes, there were two McLean County schools with that nickname) were “one-and-done” after the tournament’s opening three days of first-round matchups. In the following two nights of quarterfinal action, the Ellsworth Eagles, McLean Colts, Leroy Maroons and Stanford Indians likewise bowed out, leaving the top four seeds to battle for the championship trophy.
Overflowing crowds for the Jan. 27 semifinal matches forced organizers to turn away many disappointed fans. Those who got inside McCormick Gym watched Lexington dispatch Octavia 54-39 and Chenoa pull away from stubborn Saybrook 72-56.
In the championship tilt, Lexington’s Bill Myers led the way in the Minute Men’s 59-39 victory. The wiry sharpshooter went 12 of 17 from the field and 5 of 7 from the free throw line to score a game-high 29 points. On the other hand, Chenoa’s “long-shot artist” Bill Sarver was “cold as a cucumber” and ended up the night with a disappointing 13 points. His teammates shot the ball no better as the Red Birds finished a dismal 15 of 60 from the field.
Pantagraph sports editor Fred Young also credited Lexington’s success to hauling down rebounds. “You have to get that ball off the boards to win in modern basketball,” he observed, “and the bigger, more aggressive team triumphed.”
Several stars from the 1950 tournament went on to enjoy considerable success at the collegiate level. Sarver had a fantastic career at ISNU, earning four letters each in basketball and baseball and setting what was then the Redbirds’ career hoops scoring record (1,798 points). Saybrook's Babe Hawthorne would lead the state in scoring in 1951-52 with a 23.8 average before becoming a three-year varsity letterman for the University of Iowa (He also played baseball for the Hawkeyes, earning all-Big Ten honors in 1956).
Tournament MVP Bill Myers played baseball and basketball for IWU before the Korean War interrupted his schooling. He returned to the area to complete his degree and was living in Lexington when he was killed in a June 20, 1975 automobile accident.
School consolidation continued in the latter half of the 20th century, and by 1978 there were but nine schools remaining in the tourney. Fortunately, the inaugural girls’ tournament in 1981 helped breathe new life into “the County” (as some old-timers still call the annual event).
Yet consolidation continues to gobble up small schools, and in the recent past the tournament lost two storied basketball programs, as Gridley merged with the El Paso in Woodford County, and Chenoa with Prairie Central in Fairbury in Livingston County.
Today, the McLean County Basketball Tournament is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, doubling as the mid-season boys’ and girls’ tournaments for the 13-member Heart of Illinois Conference, though only five schools (Heyworth, LeRoy, Lexington, Ridgeview and Tri-Valley) are located in McLean County.
The action gets underway Jan. 17 at Ridgeview High School in Colfax and concludes Jan. 24 at IWU’s Shirk Center. It will be the 104th annual county tournament for the boys and the 35th for the girls.