CARTERVILLE — The ongoing debate during the 1980s in Carterville was which boys basketball team was the best.
Was it the 1983 team (25-4 overall) that featured the likes of Brad Beasley, Steve Samuel, Greg Herrin, Bob Yack, Scott Moore and Brian Mausey, which captured a share of the Black Diamond Conference title and won the Du Quoin Regional, advancing to the sectional, but could get no further, losing to Okawville?
Or was it the 1987 team (23-6) with Jason Howell, Matt Crain, John Aird, Andy Dawson, Andy Groh and Tony Pierce that captured the BDC title outright; won the Carterville Regional; won the Eldorado Sectional; and advanced to the Super-Sectional at SIU Arena before falling again to Okawville, this time by two points?
Players from both teams, as well as area fans, can make excellent cases for either squad, but this particular story focuses on the accomplishments of the ’87 team – the first Lions team to advance as far as the Super-Sectional. Only one other CHS team – the 2015 squad – has matched the feat since.
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The ’87 team was made up of only one senior starter – Tony Pierce, the team’s undersized center; three juniors – small forward Jason Howell, power forward John Aird and point guard Andy Dawson; and one sophomore – shooting guard Matt Crain. Another junior – Andy Groh – got considerable minutes off the bench.
The ’87 team won a close race with Sesser-Valier to earn Black Diamond Conference championship bragging rights at 9-1. The Lions then won their own regional tournament, beating Galatia in the championship game. They advanced to the Eldorado Sectional, where they first knocked off Goreville and proceeded to beat Anna-Jonesboro to claim that title. The Lions moved on to the Super-Sectional, where they lost to Okawville, 36-34, despite having a 14-point lead at the half. The Rockets finished second in the state to Venice that season.
Pierce was the team’s post player at all of 6-foot-2. A hard worker, Pierce was not counted on to score bunches of points, but was a defensive specialist and always assigned the difficult chore of stopping players often bigger than him inside the paint, while outworking them to get rebounds. And somehow, finding a way to do so.
“I was definitely more of a defensive player than offensive player,” Pierce said. “It did help that I could jump. We were not a big team, but we played hard and we played well. I enjoyed all of those games, baby. That whole season was a lot of fun – winning the conference, the regional, the sectional, going to the Super-Sectional….everything.”
Pierce said more than anything else, he remembers all the running in practice.
“Because we were small, Coach (Bleyer) knew we would have to run people to death and that meant that we had to be in tip-top shape. And believe me, we were. We ran and we ran. We had a heck of a press. I had great teammates. We had great coaches. It was an awesome season – one of the best years of my life.”
Howell was the leading scorer for the Lions that season at 20.5 points per game. He was an outstanding leaper with above-average quickness, who could score both inside the paint and from the perimeter. At 6-1, he also played the point on defense when the Lions pressed, which was…almost all the time.
“When I think back to that team, my first thought is about our competitive drive,” Howell said. “We had some good talent, but more than anything else…we didn’t like to lose. Our group of guys played all different sports together since we were in grade school and we hung out together a lot after games and practices because we were such good friends. We truly enjoyed being around one another.
“And we still enjoy getting together and reminiscing about those days,” Howell continued. “We’re not reminiscing about chemistry class, I can tell you that. It’s actually cathartic for me – probably for all of us – to relive those glory days when we see one another. That Super-Sectional appearance was the first one in the school’s 54-year history of basketball. That’s what made it so special to us, and really to the entire community.”
Howell added that with five sons he has “watched a lot of basketball” from a dad’s perspective over the last few years.
“I got to see two of my boys play in a Super-Sectional down here in the Nashville, Tenn. area,” he said. “It’s not the same as playing, but it was just as enjoyable.”
Andy Dawson ran the point on offense for the Lions.
“A lot of our success was because of good coaching from Tim Bleyer and Ernie Crain,” Dawson said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they got the most out of us.”
Dawson said there were so many great things about that ’87 season.
“One of my fondest memories came in a regular season game with Sesser-Valier,” Dawson said. “We were down 12 with like five minutes to go in the game. The game was for all the marbles. Whoever won the game was going to win the conference championship. And we came back on them. Andy Groh just got red hot down the stretch, knocking down several shots in a row and we managed to pull it out.”
Dawson said the camaraderie on the team was undeniable.
“You really get to know people when you’re around them all the time,” he said. “You learn how they play, how they move with and without the basketball. We just got along really well.”
Dawson said his role was to get the ball to the scorers – Howell and Crain.
“If I ever scored 10 in a game, we were winning going away. Those other guys did it all the time.”
Dawson said he believes the team jelled the summer before the ’87 season.
“The coaches took us to a basketball camp down at the University of Tennessee-Martin and Rich Herrin ran the camp. We played something like six or seven games a day down there and we got a lot better. We ended up finishing second out of the entire camp. At that point, I knew that we could be a pretty special team – a team that could beat anybody if we played well.”
In regard to the postseason run, Dawson said winning the regional before the home crowd was “amazing,” but proceeding to win the sectional was even better.
“I remember seeing Coach Bleyer with his head down and fists clenched in celebration. I remember everyone hugging everyone after the plaque presentation. We had such great fans supporting us, and I remember working my way through the crowd to my dad (Gale) and saying, “My God, we’re going to the Super-Sectional.”
Dawson added that the Lions drew inspiration from their predecessors.
“We really looked up to those guys on the early ’80s teams. The impact they had on us was immeasurable. We wanted to be as good as they were. That’s how much we respected and adored them. They were superstars to us. They even let us play with them some when they were playing pickup games at the junior high outdoor courts. They were always so competitive, which may have been why we were, too.”
Aird played inside at 6-foot, but had the physical strength to rebound and moves to get his shot off in traffic.
“What stands out to me was that we had a vicious press,” he said. “We didn’t have much size, but we were all pretty quick and athletic. We could shut people down defensively.”
Aird said the lone senior, Pierce, was only 6-2 and was the tallest starter.
“He did a fantastic job of rebounding despite his size,” Aird said. “We probably only averaged about 5-11. We were almost always outsized by our competition, but that didn’t seem to hurt us too much. We came into the postseason pretty hot, won the regional at home and then won the sectional. Our press made the difference. I bet we used it three-fourths of each game and our coaches were masters at teaching it to us. It didn’t hurt that we had the right attitudes. You have to know where you’re supposed to be on the press and you have to bring a lot of intensity. We made it hard on teams to get the ball across the halfcourt line and then set up their offense.”
Aird pointed out that the Lions’ success meant as much to the community as it did to them as players.
“I always thought we played in front of the greatest fans,” he said. “They meant a lot to all of us. They regularly packed the place. As for us players, we have so many great memories from that season. We played together as a group for so many years. We went to battle together. I just wish every kid in this country could have experienced what we had. I love those guys and really enjoy seeing them and talking to them. It’s a lot of fun and there’s nothing better than bringing back good memories.”
The other Andy on the team – Andy Groh – said that from a team perspective, nothing trumps winning championships, and 1987 was special because the Lions claimed three with the conference, regional and sectional.
The first would not have happened without his one standout game against Sesser-Valier.
“Everyone had their moment or moments throughout the season. I guess it was my time,” he said modestly of the Sesser-Valier conference title game. “After I stuck a few shots, we got the momentum back on our side and went on to win the game. That’s what mattered the most, not how many points I scored.”
Groh described the Lions as: “pretty much interchangeable parts. We were very tough to defend because we were all very athletic and quick. And that athleticism allowed us to play very good defense, too. And the bond we had as teammates was hard to describe. It was very critical to our success.”
Groh said Coaches Bleyer and Crain were the right people at the helm.
“They got the most out of us. I’m so glad they pushed us to be better than what we would have been otherwise. We wouldn’t have seen the success that we did without those guys pushing us every step of the way. They knew what we were capable of doing before we knew.”
Groh said the outpouring of support from the school and community should not be overlooked.
“Of course, our regional championship was packed and when we advanced to the sectional at Eldorado, we had a huge following there, too. We beat Goreville in that first game and then fell behind to Anna-Jonesboro in the championship. When we made our comeback run, that place was rockin.’ I remember Jason (Howell) had like 26 points. We came all the way back and won the game. It was a great moment for all of us – one that I will never forget. I’ve not done anything since that compared with that feeling.”
Crain was the pup on the team, the lone sophomore starter. Although a class behind, he was a huge part of the team, averaging 11 points a game and playing stout defense.
“The guys before us in the early ’80s put Carterville basketball on the map,” Crain said. “They were good and they played hard. We knew how much those games meant to them. And when they lost in the sectional, I cried. It hurt that much. We all loved how they represented the school and community. We just wanted to be a good team like them.”
Crain said he and other teammates spent countless hours gathering at Howell’s house.
“We did everything together and we had a lot of fun doing it,” he said. “Some of the fondest memories I have are with those guys. And looking back on it today, I feel so blessed to have played those games with my dad as one of the coaches. He and Coach Bleyer both demanded excellence and we strived for that every day in practice.”
Crain added that the friendships and bonds created in elementary school and high school have carried over all these decades later.
“We have a text chain set up where we talk to one another just about every day,” he said. “Even though we are spread out all over the country, we care about one another and look forward to seeing each other and our families.”
ASSISTANT COACH ERNIE CRAIN
Crain, who is now battling some health issues in his seventies, said what stands out to him about the ’87 team was its resiliency.
“I think it’s fair to say those kids were overachievers,” he said. “They weren’t the most talented team around, but they found ways to beat more talented teams through sheer hard work. They played with their hearts as much as their heads. They were in games that they never should have been in…and found ways to win those games. That’s what makes for a special team.”
Crain said head coach Tim Bleyer was the right guy at the right time to lead the Lions.
“He wanted to challenge the kids and they responded,” Crain said. “He told the kids that they would have to rely upon their quickness and pressure the opposition. And we did. We pressed people all over the floor.”
As for coaching his son, Matt, Crain said he did so with enormous pride.
“He was a pleasure to coach and watch play from my vantage point on the bench,” the elder Crain said. “He matured into a fine player, and as a team, we matured as the season progressed. We had a lot of interchangeable parts and Tim knew how to work those parts. He got so much out of those kids.”
COACH TIM BLEYER
Bleyer said that while he always enjoys talking about basketball, especially his early years as a head coach in Carterville, he can’t help but blame himself for how the ’87 season ended – a 36-34 loss to Okawville in the Super-Sectional.
“We led most of the game. In fact, we were up 14 at the half,” Bleyer said. “I thought we had the game under control. We had them (Rockets) on the ropes, but the game of basketball changes on momentum, and Okawville got the momentum back on their side in the second half.”
Bleyer described a Carterville possession.
“We had the ball working for a shot, running our Western offense,” he said. “We kept working the ball, but eventually one of our passes was deflected off of us and out of bounds. They came down and scored and things just kind of snowballed from there. Part of that Okawville comeback I credit to their coach. Dave Luechtefeld was a very good coach. His son, Jeff, would go on to play at St. Louis University. His experience in the postseason really came into play in that second half and my lack of experience probably hurt us. But Okawville was a good team, a deserving team. They went on to finish second at state.”
Bleyer then broke down his group of players.
“Jason Howell was that one guy that we could count on to score for us when we needed it. Every good team needs someone like that and Jason was certainly the one for us. He was our best athlete – the most talented. John Aird wasn’t very big at 6-0 or 6-1, but he could score inside. He had all the head fakes. Andy Dawson had great leadership on the floor as our point guard. Matt Crain could fill it up in a hurry if other teams overplayed on Jason. Andy Groh was simply a hard worker. He didn’t mind staying late after practice and working on his shot. He was probably harder on himself than anyone else.”
Bleyer said Pierce always played bigger than his size.
“Tony had those long arms and had great hands. He was very good at screening out his man and positioning himself near the basket. He was also a very good free-throw shooter. He wasn’t the most verbal guy out there on the floor, but he led by example. And he never complained about anything – a very hard worker.”
Bleyer added that if he made any kind of positive impact on his players, he feels honored.
“These men have grown up to be great husbands and fathers and have all done extremely well in the workplace. I couldn’t be more proud of them and all that they have accomplished.”
Bleyer also offered effuse praise for his assistant, Ernie Crain.
“Ernie was a very special part of our success,” Bleyer said. “He was almost like a mentor to me at times because of his experience. You have to remember I was just 23 when I was named the head coach. Ernie was very good to me. I always thought of us as two head coaches. We shared the same philosophies and how we wanted to treat the kids and execute our game plan. I thought we were a good combination.”
• Tony Pierce is a retired union carpenter, working 20-plus years in the field. He worked for Pepsi prior to that. He and his wife of 34 years, Angela, have three grown children: Garrett, Jonathon and Melanie. They also have eight grandchildren. The Pierces have resided in Creal Springs for the better part of 30 years.
• Matt Crain teaches Driver’s Education and Physical Education at Carterville High School and is the assistant women’s basketball coach at John A. Logan College after having led the CHS girls team to a third-place finish at the state tournament a couple of years ago. He and his wife, Julie, have a daughter, Abbey, playing softball at Logan; and son, Zachary, who resides in Colorado.
• John Aird is a property claims supervisor in Northern Georgia and resides with his girlfriend, Jasmine.
• Jason Howell works at State Farm as a sales leader in Nashville, Tenn. He and his wife, Kim, have five sons.
• Andy Groh has lived in the Boston, Mass. area for the last 20 years and works in healthcare technology with Athena Health. He and his wife, Patti, have two sons, Hayden-18 and August-15.
• Andy Dawson is the Midwest Region Head of Commercial Lending for CIBC Bank USA in St. Louis. He has been in commercial lending with the same group for the last 30 years. He and his wife, Melissa, have been married for 26 years. The couple has three children: Abby, a 2021 graduate of Ole Miss; Tyler, who is scheduled to graduate Ole Miss in 2023; and Jack, a high school student, who would project to graduate Ole Miss in 2027
• Ernie Crain is a retired educator and resides in Carterville with his wife, Sherry. A native of Carterville, where he still holds the single-game scoring record of 61 points, Crain earned a degree in education and became a teacher/coach at his alma mater. He taught at the school over 30 years and coached over 20. In addition to Matt, he had a younger son, Jason, and daughter, Kelly.
• Tim Bleyer is a retired educator and administrator and resides in Carterville with his wife, Sheryl. After graduating college and eventually earning his master’s degree in education, Bleyer started his career at Harrisburg. He was there just one year as a teacher and assistant coach under Gene Haile and Ken Joggerst before getting the opportunity to teach and coach in his hometown of Carterville. He also coached at Carbondale High School for several years. He credits former Carbondale head basketball coach Doug Woolard for taking him under his wing as a student teacher at Carbondale and shaping his career and life – giving him direction and making him into the person he is today.