Written by Bob Kelley, retired Sports Information Director
INA, Ill. (March 31, 2017) – Members of the 1983-84 Rend Lake College Warriors Basketball team should all be decked out in white lab coats when assembled en masse for their induction into the RLC Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, April 22.
Chemistry was their “thing” back in the day.
Before we go on, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: these players did not lack for talent. In fact, all nine sophomores who grew close together for two years on the Ina campus, plus one late addition, accepted offers to continue their playing careers following their departure from the Juco (Junior College) ranks, the most from one class in 50 seasons of Warrior basketball.
And to be honest, we are not really sure how many, if any, of the guys ever wore a white lab coat… or even took a Chemistry class.
What we can tell you: all had to go to class often enough to graduate before moving on, even though they could be observed spending every minute of their free time, or so it seemed, in the gymnasium. They liked playing the game. And it appeared as if they liked each other as much as any athletic group could.
Maybe the closeness started with something as simple as the offer of a fried bologna sandwich to anyone who took Travis Helm up on his offer to visit his tiny hometown of Orchardville in the northeast sector of the district. Or maybe it was the opposites-attract bond that quickly grew between teammates Tim Wills, the homegrown local kid, and city-slicker Robby Jones, one of the many transplanted Hoosiers, and spread throughout.
Perhaps it could be attributed to one of the individuals, who shall remain anonymous, willing to be harassed by his classmates more than the rest, for the good of the team.
Truth be told, they liked each other. They spent a lot of time together. They devoted long hours mastering their trade, challenging one another to get better. They accepted coaching. They took care of business by doing their jobs and sharing the ball.
Team Chemistry. It worked like a charm.
Nine team records were theirs when they left town. A 10th belonged to nine of those same players as freshmen.
No individual records. Enough said?
Mitch Haskins coached a team-record 22 wins out of this close-knit group their first campaign and a 25-7 mark the next, his third at the helm. Eight of their 20 losses in two seasons were to teams which advanced to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Finals in Hutchinson, Kan. Their three conference setbacks in 1983-84 were by a total of five points.
In addition to the standard for wins and winning percentage (.781), the 1983-84 Hall-of-Fame Gang established new marks for consecutive wins (nine); free throws made (587), attempted (790) and percentage (.743); greatest average point differential per game (16.0); greatest margin of victory (74 vs. Earle C. Clements Job Corps Center, 108-34), and greatest margin of victory over community college opponent (57 vs. Oakton, 97-40).
An equally impressive average defensive yield of 63.3 points per game was just 1.0 higher than the record set by their 1982-83 predecessors.
Perhaps the most amazing feats to the credit of Haskins & Co. were 83-81 and 84-82 losses, both in overtime, to a dominating Wabash Valley College (WVC) squad which boasted eventual NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division I signees in 6-foot-9, 230-pound Dan Bingenheimer (Missouri), 6’ 9” Brian Helm (Cincinnati) and even seldom-used 6’ 7” Quinn Wirth (Wyoming), plus 6’ 2” Andre Jackson (Southern Indiana).
Warrior strongman Jim Price (Cloverdale, Ind.), a 6’ 4 ½” forward, was the lone player to average double-figures at 16.3 points per game (ppg) and also led with 6.5 rebounds per game (rpg). He was rewarded with his selection to the eight-man All-Region XXIX Team (second-leading vote-getter behind Bingenheimer), First-Team All-Great Rivers Athletic Conference (GRAC) and Warrior Most Valuable Player as voted by his playing partners. He was joined the next two seasons at D-II Indiana Central University by another RLC insider, 6’ 5” Jamie Raley (Leitchfield, Ky.), named “Most Improved” after posting 8.8 ppg and 4.8 rpg.
Heady 6-foot playmaker Wills started all 67 games during his Juco career, a feat made even more noteworthy by his ridiculous average of 32:30 per game. Think Coach Haskins wanted Wills on the floor directing his team?
Wills was rewarded with All-GRAC First Team status, a berth in the All-Region XXIV All-Star Game and “Most Dedicated” nod by his peers. He doled out 263 assists (8.2 per game), nearly five times more than his closest rivals, averaged 6.4 points and made 82.5 percent of his free throws (80-97), which ranked No. 2 to Jeff Cochren and his .849 accuracy (79-93). Wills scored at a 9.8 ppg clip (second) as a freshman but concentrated on making everyone around him better as a sophomore, when his turnover rate was just under three per game.
Helm was the outside sniper; no telling what his total might have been had the 3-point arc been introduced four years earlier. The 6’ 2 ½” Helm (Wayne City legend with 2,003 points playing as a senior for RLC Sports HOF Inductee Jerry Wilson) and the 6’ 3” Cochren (Huntingburg, Ind.) each produced 9.8 ppg. Little known fact: the Warriors were 30-5 in games in which the unflappable Helm was in the starting lineup (7-1 late as a freshman).
Orchardville’s own capped his Juco career as the second-leading scorer for the winning East quintet in the Region XXIV All-Star Game prior to the repeat Region Tournament championship title claimed by WVC. Helm had 12 while playing alongside Price and Wills one last time.
Cochren put up 22 in the second loss to WVC; in year one, he led the team in scoring eight times and had a six-game stretch in which he averaged 16.3 ppg and hit 50-77 field goals (9-10 vs. Kaskaskia). Both he and Wills were All-Tournament in the Lincoln Land Holiday Classic as freshmen.
“Frog” Jones (Evansville, Ind.), a gifted, 6’ 2” all-around threat who earned his moniker thanks to his leaping ability, was Second Team All-GRAC as a freshman, made the six-man All-Region Tournament Team and was voted MVP by his teammates. He averaged 9.8 ppg then, scoring one less point than Wills, a team-high 6.1 rebounds and second-best 2.1 assists; he was the RLC leader 18 games in rebounding, half that many in scoring. But he played only the final 19 games as a sophomore for academic reasons. His minutes and individual stats suffered after rejoining a team that adjusted to playing without him the first 11 games.
The late-season development of 6’ 8” center Barry Wright (Newburgh, Ind.) the previous season had a great deal to do with the Warriors setting the school record for most wins at 22, capturing a first Sectional crown and placing third in the Region XXIV Tournament. Wright had 17 points and 10 rebounds in the second WVC game as a first-year collegian and had 11 rebounds in both wins over Belleville Area, including the Sectional Championship triumph. He led the team both seasons in blocked shots, with a total of 47, and pulled down 14 rebounds in the record rout of Oakton.
Point guard Dean Merder (Jasper, Ind.), 6’ 3”, was a steadying influence off the bench for 63 games during his career, never more so than when he hit six three throws in the final 2:06 and had 10 points overall in a 60-51 win over Southern Baptist (Ark.) five games into his Juco career.
One of the four tallest players to play for RLC at 6’ 9”, Jeff Wilkinson (Princeton, Ind.), played sparingly but enjoyed one shining moment in a 14-rebound, 13-point effort in the record romp versus the Kentucky Job Corps Center.
Sophomore transfers Todd Stoermer (Rockport, Ind.) and Mark Kerley (Benton), both 6’ 5”, added much more than just depth. Stoermer was one of three players who started all 32 games, averaging 8.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg and 1.6 apg. Kerley led the team in scoring twice, with 18 and 16, and on the boards twice.
And the freshman class was headed by 6’ 5” swingman Kevin Riggan (Mt. Vernon) and 6’ 1” guard Fred Taylor (East St. Louis), as well as 6’ 4” Derrick Leonard (St. Louis, Mo.), 5’ 10” William Watts (Madison) and 6’ 4” redshirt Garrett Miller (NewBern, N.C.). Riggan led RLC with 14 against the Job Corps.
Price, with 20 points or more in seven games and 10 or more rebounds in seven, was the Warrior leader in 19 and 18 games, respectively. Helm, who hit .580 from the field with the majority coming from outside, was the top scorer in five contests; Cochren and Raley were No. 1 in three each, Kerley twice, Wills and Riggan once. Other rebound pacesetters were Raley (five games, including 13 vs. the St. Louis Boys Club), Wright and Stoermer (four each), Jones and Kerley (twice) and Cochren and Wilkinson (once).
How good were these Warriors offensively? As a team, they connected on 50 percent or more of their field-goal attempts in 21 games, with three others at 49 percent. The Warriors topped the century mark five times and had 90 or more in four other games.
From the charity stripe, they were even better. Cochren and Wills ranked 1-2 in Region XXIV, and Helm was not far behind at 81.0 percent. Price, battling inside, had far more chances than anyone else and made 75.9 percent, with 26 in succession over a five-game stretch, seven shy of the team record.
Defensively, the HOF-bound crew held 11 opponents under 60 points. Only four times did teams score as many as 80 points against RLC, and the two overtime setbacks to Wabash Valley accounted for half of those; Haskins & Friends won the other two such games. The Warriors held 17 foes to 45 percent shooting or under from the field, four others under 50 percent
Included in the record-nine-game winning streak was an unprecedented third Land of Lincoln Holiday Classic Championship in Springfield, at which Price shared “Most Valuable Big Man” honors following his career-high 31-point effort in the finale and Cochren was a member of the seven-member All-Tourney Team for the second year in a row.
A 102-60 rout of Concordia Seminary at home to end the month of January also produced Haskins’ 400th career coaching win in the high school and college ranks.
RLC was runner-up to undefeated WVC in the second year of the GRAC thanks to two-game sweeps of John A. Logan, 80-57 and 73-57, and Southeastern Illinois, 82-69 and 79-70, and a split with Kaskaskia.
In addition to being a valued part of this season of accomplishments, Assistant Coach Chuck Doty could boast of his distinction for helping Warrior quintets claim two conference championships. He was a freshman reserve when the 1976-77 quintet shared the Southern Illinois College Conference title under HOF Coach Jim Waugh. (He was 18-for-19 as a sophomore from the charity stripe.) In 1981-82, the first season with Haskins in charge and Doty at his side, the Warriors tied the school record with 21 wins and captured a share of the final SICC championship before it gave way to the GRAC.
There were very few “downers” during the record-setting campaign. Even though the veteran cast, coming off a 22-13 freshman showing, was not expecting to get off to a 2-3 start, it is not difficult to explain. Two losses were to perennial powerhouse Three Rivers (Mo.), the 1979 NJCAA National Champion at 37-3; the Raiders also finished third in 1978, fifth in 1980 and seventh in 1981 despite a 39-2 slate. The two-time conquerors would go on to finish 38-3 (seventh) in 1983-84.
The record was a less-than-impressive 6-4 after the Warriors went on the road and lost at Kaskaskia, 65-64, but even then it took an incredible performance to beat them. The Blue Devils literally shot the lights out the first half, sinking 18 of 24 attempts (75 percent), for a 41-27 advantage. A real power outage extended halftime to one hour and 40 minutes, before the hosts escaped with the win thanks to 70 percent sniping overall (28-40).
Wabash Valley would be the only other regular-season foe to defeat Rend Lake College. And this was half of a two-year WVC dynamo which would advance both seasons to the NJCAA Finals in Hutchinson, Kan., run roughshod over the fledgling GRAC and finish 32-6 and 31-7; five wins over RLC stretched a winning streak to 13 games in head-to-head competition.
Unfortunately, the Hall of Fame inductees may have been looking forward too much to a third encounter with their nemesis. A 25-6 season ended in a thud: a shocking 59-51 loss to Southeastern Illinois in the Section IV Tournament opener, with the losers finding the range at a paltry 40 percent clip. The upset victims went 6:30 without scoring midway through the second half, then made just one field goal in the final 2:49.
No individual records, granted. Individual recognition, yes. All nine two-year contributors, along with Stoermer, were signed or played at the four-year level, a single-class record for Warrior cagers before and since.
Price and Raley put their Hoosier-Kentucky rivalry backgrounds behind them for two more seasons as teammates at Indiana Central University. Merder and Cochren returned to their Southern Indiana roots to play for Haskins’ alma mater, Oakland City (Ind.) College. Wright accepted an athletic grant-in-aid to play for University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Wilkinson did likewise at Union College (Ky.). Jones originally stuck with Cochren and Merder at Olney Central before finishing his career at Indiana State-Evansville. Wills and Helm both accepted offers from Freed-Hardeman College but their stay in Tennessee was very brief, with Wills finishing his career as a two-year starter and Academic All-America for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Stoermer used his unique Juco career as a combo WVC/RLC Warrior as a springboard to University of Indiana Southeast. The next season after their graduation from RLC, Riggan was a starter at guard for defending NCAA Division II National Champion Jacksonville (Ala.) State University and Taylor was one of the leading 3-point shooters in the country as a junior for NAIA contender McKendree College and an All-America candidate as a senior.