When two former Tri-County League members, Eastern and South Webster, played each other this past season on the basketball court, former News Watchman Sports Editor Randy Heath thought it was the perfect time to talk to two former EHS coaches during his radio broadcast that night.
Those two Eastern coaches were none other than Gene Brushart and Don Cantrell, who were both very successful during their time leading the Eagles. Brushart coached from 1963-1969 and compiled a record of 89-41. Cantrell coached 1974-1984, amassing a record of 189-49.
Heath has compiled the entire basketball history of the Tri-County League and was kind enough to share all of that information with the two coaches and the News Watchman. See the accompanying article for a detailed history.
According to Heath’s history, the Tri-County League was formed in the spring of 1959 to address a changing basketball landscape in southern Ohio with school consolidation on the rise. The league ended 25 years later. But those 25 years included numerous great teams and competitive games.
Some of the many highlights included back-to-back trips to the state tournament by league teams. Western, coached by the late Heckie Thompson, went in 1968. Clay followed the next year in 1969. The 1980-81 season featured six league teams having a combined win-loss record of 93-19.
Heath’s history explains that there were two distinct classes at that time: Class AA for the large schools and Class A for the small schools. Most of the smaller schools were part of county school systems. Rural schools usually had enough teams, so they were able to form their own county leagues; but those were starting to dissolve. Area schools with football were flocking to the Southern Ohio Conference. That left a void for the smaller schools to fill.
The Tri-County League was formed with teams from three counties: Adams (Locust Grove and Peebles), Pike (Stockdale, Western and soon after Beaver), and three from Scioto County. Beaver had joined the Southern Valley Athletic Conference for the 1958-59 school year, so it did not join the Tri-County League until after the 1959-60 season.
During his interview with Heath on the radio, Gene Brushart expanded on the league history, saying Beaver was not at the original Tri-County League meeting.
“When I came to Beaver, Jim Karr had been the coach there. He was from that area over east, and the conference over there was called the Southern Valley Athletic Conference (SVAC). It consisted of teams from Jackson, Gallia and Lawrence counties. I was thinking there was one from the southern end of Meigs County as well,” said Brushart.
“Beaver was already committed to that (SVAC) league. We won that conference that year. We played Waterloo, and they had a very good team that year. We won it in overtime. I will never forget it. I preferred to go into the other league, which had just been formed because of the other Pike schools like Western, Stockdale, and the Adams County teams like Seaman, Locust Grove and Manchester. It actually consisted of non-football schools in those areas.”
Heath talked with Brushart about the competitiveness of the league in the early years with Bob Horton at Peebles, Arch Justice at Clay, Bob Waddell at Green Township, and Heckie Thompson at Western.
“When I came to Beaver and they were in the other league (the SVAC), I wanted to compete against the teams in our county, Scioto County and Adams County. I believed the competition was a little bit better,” said Brushart. “Keep in mind the tournaments and the end of the season; I feel like you get better by playing better teams. What strikes me tonight as I look around, I see some of the old faces. There are a lot of memories.”
Through various changes with consolidation and other leagues emerging or absorbing the teams, the Tri-County League ended after the 1983-84 school year.
Some other interesting historical league tidbits shared by Heath highlight the league’s coaching and championships. Clay’s Arch Justus, who led way for the formation of the league, coached for the duration of 24 years covering the entire span of the TCL. Heckie Thompson coached 21 of those years. Both men served as superintendents of their district while coaching. Gene Brushart, Don Cantrell and Don Trainer served as coaches for Beaver/Eastern during that time. Bob Horton, Jerry Copley and Art Myers served as coaches at Peebles.
Eastern, South Webster, and Clay all had 13 league championships, followed by Western with nine, Peebles with six, Green with four and Beaver with two. Eastern had the most basketball titles with eight.
Paul Bakenhaster, a Pike County native, was the basketball coach at Locust Grove. According to Heath’s Tri-County League history, he won more than 300 games and had a very successful career.
“Paul was a dear friend of mine. The Reader’s Digest had a ‘Most Unforgettable Character’ feature series. Paul would have qualified,” said Brushart. “He never married. He loved the game. Today, some of the things that Paul did, you probably wouldn’t do today. He was a memorable guy and a great coach. He would beat you any way he could.”
Brushart recalled, “At Beaver, we hadn’t lost a home game in two or three years. We came down to this new gym, and the first game was Locust Grove.”
The game became quite rowdy, and Eastern ultimately lost the contest.
“I don’t know whether he (Bakenhaster) taught them (his players) this way, or if they picked it up themselves. They would spit on you, stomp on your feet, and elbow you. My kids were getting upset. We lost,” said Brushart.
“It was the only game I’ve ever seen, much less played in, where they stopped the game with 25 seconds to go. The referees came over and said, ‘Do you think we ought to call the game?’”
Brushart said his Eagles were pressing hard when the Locust Grove tried to throw the ball inbounds. One of the Locust Grove players spit in the Eastern player’s face. That resulted in the Eastern player slapping the Locust Grove player and caused the crowd to roar. It was at that point that the game was called.
Heath mentioned that Gene Brushart (Piketon) and Don Cantrell (Stockdale) both played in the Pike County League.
“It was very competitive,” said Cantrell. “We had some very good teams at that time.”
Heath talked about the competitiveness of the Tri-County League in the 1980-81 season. Six teams combined to have a non-conference record of 93-19. That year featured a classic double overtime win for Eastern over Peebles in the district finals, resulting in the first of six district championships for the Eagles.
“That was one of the best games we ever had played. It was a game I will never forget. It went right down to the wire,” said Cantrell. “Art Myers (Peebles Coach) was there for several years. He did a good job.”
Heath followed by mentioning that Peebles had the Justice twins to power their offense. The Justice family name has continued through basketball success with younger generations at Peebles even to this day.
“Like most of the coaches in the Tri-County League, if you weren’t on your toes, you were going to get beat,” said Cantrell. “They were all good — Heckie Thompson, of course was at Western, Arch Justice at Clay and Mike Hughes at Green. They were all good coaches and were well prepared for every game. We won most of our games against South Webster, but they always were good games. Paul White, Dale Estepp (former South Webster coaches) and I have remained friends for many years.”
Heath asked Cantrell about his playing days with Heckie Thompson as his teammate at Stockdale High School.
“Heckie was two years ahead of me. He graduated in 1957, and I graduated in 1959,” said Cantrell, before discussing coaching against his former teammate Heckie Thompson.
“I remember that many times the reserve team would not be that great, but by the time that Heckie got through with them, they were top notch players. So you couldn’t count on beating them, because Heckie was going to develop his players.”
Heath asked Brushart about his memories of coaching in the league in 1968 and 1969 when Western and Clay went to the state tournament.
“Let me add to that, Randy. We had the holiday tournament here. For four straight years somebody from that holiday tournament went to the state tournament. Southeastern went two years. Western went one year. We invited Maytown, Kentucky up here, and they lost in the semifinals of the Kentucky state tournament. They were related to the Salisbury family,” said Brushart.
“The thing I remember the most is not a very happy thought. The worst beating I ever took was the last game I ever coached against Zane Trace, which was the number one team in the state, with Reisinger and Jim Maxwell and that group.”
Brushart shared more details leading up to that final loss.
“Going into that game, two players broke training, and they were actually dropped from the team. Then during the finals against Western, it was a close ball game. Frankie Howard ran into another player from Western and cut his head. It took eight stitches after the game. I didn’t think he should play. But his dad wanted him to play. He wanted to play. Steve Crace from Piketon wrapped his head to play,” said Brushart.
“Then Randy Adams went down with a terrible sprained ankle. Then we went into the district finals against Zane Trace, the number one team in the state. We were ahead of them in the first quarter. Randy was my number two scorer on a sprained ankle, and Frankie, my point guard, was playing with eight stitches in his head. I would like to have said my last game was a win, but that’s not the way it worked out. It was my last game. But it was a great season overall.”
The adoption of the three-point line has also changed the game of basketball. Heath asked the coaches if they ever thought about what it would have been like to coach during that era.
“It could have been a different story. We had some real good shooters,” said Cantrell, speaking of several players specifically, including Mark Cochenour, Arnold King and Denny Southworth. “We had several others who were great shooters.
“The three pointer has changed the game tremendously,” added Brushart. “The way players can come from other school districts is another big change. The name of the game is to put it in the hole, and that part doesn’t change.”
Another change is the size of the sectional tournament and the amount of wins needed to advance to the district tournament.
“Normally, we had to win three games to win a sectional,” said Cantrell. “Sometimes we played schools that were in the next division like Minford, Lucasville Valley, Southeastern and another one or two there that were a division higher than us.”
Heath and Cantrell recalled some very competitive contests between Eastern and Oak Hill.
“I remember some of those games very well,” said Cantrell. “It was a battle in 1977 and 1978 against Oak Hill.”
Heath wrapped up the interview by asking about their biggest rivals as coaches. Brushart replied that his were Western and Clay. He also shared some additional memories.
“Of course, the game I will never forget is the game in the finals for the regional. We were one of the final eight. We lost to Dresden 55-53. Don Trainer was in foul trouble all night. Dresden went on to win the state championship. They came back the next year and beat Southeastern 55-53 and won the state championship,” said Brushart.
“One other thing I want to mention that I am so proud of. We had eight kids from this team who played college ball at one level or another. I attended Don Trainer’s induction into the Hall of Fame at Rio Grande. It was such an honor. Mike Harris was a great player at Rio Grande. Others played at junior colleges, branches, or even at Rio Grande. I’m so proud of that.”
Heath finished the interview by addressing the two coaches, saying, “I’ve been broadcasting longer than I hate to admit, but probably about 40 years. This is one of the greatest nights I’ve had to be able to be here with two men that I respect as much as anybody I’ve ever watched coach. To cover Don Cantrell was truly one of the great honors of my life. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to this time and how much it has meant to me to have both of you up here. Thank you.”