Ken Baker (far left) said his father Merv (kneeling) might have had his best season coaching this 1967-68 squad,

By Kyle Daubs

Ken Baker will be the first to tell you that kids are too worried about their own statistics. 

When looking back on one of the best basketball seasons at Charleston High School history, there was only one statistic this squad really cared about. 

“Kids today can tell you exactly what their stats are,” said Baker. “The secret to our success was that nobody was worried about personal stats. The only stat anybody was interested in was that we were 26 and 2.”

Historically speaking, Charleston is not known as a basketball town. The school record of 27 wins in 1956-1957 lasted more than six decades until 2018-19 when the Lady Trojans went 29-1. Their efforts were rewarded by the members of that old boys basketball team when players like Baker, Marty Schnorf, and Bill Hall took them out to Pizza Hut to celebrate. 

“I remember one of the girls asked us how many points we had,” said Baker. “I remember we looked at each other and none of us knew. The only stat we cared about was winning 26 ball games.”

The members of the late ’60s featured the best basketball run in school history. In a 17-year coaching career by Merv Baker that featured a record of 322-148 from 1953-1970, the 26-2 squad is recalled by Baker as “dad’s best coaching job.”

Baker recalls that the Trojans were not as talented as the team from two years back when they had two 1,000 point scorers in Rex Morgan and Paul Plathe. Morgan eventually made the NBA as a member of the Boston Celtics. The team had also lost Jim Renshaw, who at the time, was coming off the fourth-most points scored in a season. 

However, both Baker and Schnorf credit the team returning “five smart basketball guys” that would lead the team to a memorable stretch. 

Returning from the team was 6-foot-7 center Gregg Barcus and Baker, a 5-foot-8 point guard. The team also relied on 6-foot-1 senior forward David Winkleblack, and a pair of 6-footers in Schnorf and Hall. 

“Everybody understood what our role was,” Baker said. “Barcus was to score. Marty took the outside shot and played defense. Wink was a tenacious rebounder. Bill Hall could do a little bit of everything. My job was to handle the ball and read the defense. At the end of the day, we didn’t care about the points. We did what needed to be done to win.”

And, if you ever got out of line, you could probably find yourself on the bench or a recipient of a wisecrack from Coach Baker. 

“Dad once told Wink that if he had the urge to shoot a 15-footer, he could just look at the bench and he’d put it on the shot chart and save himself the embarrassment,” said Baker. 

At the time, the Trojans played in the Eastern Illinois Conference with Casey, Newton, Oblong, Paris, Palestine, Robinson, Martinsville, Cumberland, and Marshall. 

Despite Renshaw leading the conference in scoring, the Trojans were coming off a 6-3 record, good for fourth place. Decatur Herald writer Bob Fallstrom credited Paris, Charleston, and Newton as “the big three” at the top of the EI League. 

After starting the season 6-0, the lone blemish of the regular season came against Decatur St. Teresa in the championship game of the Charleston Holiday Tournament. It stopped the Trojans from winning their fourth straight holiday tourney title. 

“They had two 6-foot-5 guys in Bolm and Buford and another guy that was the cousin of a guy that played for the Philadelphia Phillies,” Baker said. “Decatur St. Teresa was pretty good. Take two six-foot guys weighing about 240 pounds each on each side of Barcus, who was probably around 160, how do you think that turned out?”

Charleston trailed by nine points at halftime and lost its star center in Barcus, averaging 29 points a game, with 4:18 left in the game. But Schnorf says being 8-1 at that point wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

“I don’t think at that point of the season any of us envisioned the success we would go on to have,” said Schnorf. “Barcus and Ken were our only returning starters. It’s not like we had a bunch of lettermen returning. I think people thought that if we won 20 games and a regional (title) it would be a tremendous success.”

The Trojans never lost again until the postseason. After the holiday tournament, the Trojans entered the Eastern Illinois Conference Tournament in which Barcus scored a game-high 31 points in a throttling of Casey, 73-44. Then Barcus, Baker and Schnorf combined for 49 points in a 66-55 win over Newton in the next round. 

The championship game featured 13-5 Paris and 14-1 Charleston. Baker cites that Paris had established itself as one of the premier basketball schools in the state. Baker credited Hall of Fame coach Ernie Eveland for establishing a tradition during his 21-year coaching stretch that ranged across the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s and included two state championships.

From that team, Baker remembers Tom Tuttle and Brad Eldredge, the cousin of country singer/songwriter Brett Eldredge, but it was the Trojans who stood out more. Charleston defeated Paris 43-34 to claim the title. Former CHS principal Gail Borton presented the trophy. 

According to the JG-TC, this was a special moment. Going into the meeting with the Tigers, Charleston had only beaten Paris in the EI Conference tournament once in its previous 17 tries, including four losses in the title match. 

“Ken is my cousin, and Coach Baker was my uncle,” said Schnorf. “I grew up watching CHS and Paris many times. I would say they were our archrival. Charleston always lost when I was little. Beating them was a big deal.”

Standing 15-1, the Trojans had the following task of playing a very talented Arcola team, which had just won the Okaw Valley Conference. Despite the outstanding play from Barcus all season, he wasn’t even leading the area in scoring. Junior Don Portugel led an Arcola offense averaging 78.8 points per game, while the CHS defense was allowing 44.2 points. 

Leading up to the game, bad blood was boiling. The JG-TC recalls that the Charleston squad was ready for this game for two reasons: Arcola had turned down a bid to play in the holiday tournament, and, despite CHS having the better record, Arcola was getting more media coverage. 

At one point, Jim Kimball wrote: “It seems like Charleston would rather beat the Riders than beat Paris and win their own conference tournament.”

Boy, would it have been a fun game to watch. In the game dubbed by Kimball “Battle of Champions,” Charleston came out on top, 69-67. Schnorff led the scoring with 24 points. The battle of the centers didn’t disappoint as Barcus had 21 points to Portugel’s 22; however, it was Portugel who made 10 of 18 free throws. 

Said Ken Baker: “We would have lost that game without Marty.” Portugel’s sister lives just four houses down from him today and is married to none other than EIU’s former president Lou Hencken. 

The even bigger storyline might have been that Coach Baker missed the game due to a serious illness of his wife Becky, who had a blockage in her intestine and had to get surgery.

“Ken’s sister called Coach at halftime while he was at the hospital,” Schnorf said. “She said he didn’t want to know what the score was. He only wanted to know if we were playing well. She asked, ‘Do you want to know the score if we were up 10 at halftime?”

Both teams were called for 21 fouls each in a back-and-forth contest. Charleston led 66-57 at one point in the fourth, but Arcola cut its deficit to 66-62 with 1:32 left and 68-65 with 45 seconds remaining. Arcola couldn’t score on its final two possessions and missed a half-court desperation shot. 

Assistant coach Jim Kimball, who guided the team, said: “Actually, the kids knew what they had to do … they called all the shots.”

“I remember when I left mom and dad and he told me to do whatever the coach tells us even if it’s wrong,” Baker said. “But we all knew what to do because he had drilled it into all of us. Dad never stood during games. He would just hold up a set of fingers and we’d run it. We weren’t physically gifted basketball players. We were just five smart guys.”

After beating Arcola, teams realized the team had real potential. Before this season, the CHS team with the best winning percentage had been the 1924-1925 squad that finished 22-2. 

The Trojans clinched their 20th win of the season in a revenge win over St. Teresa, 41-36, in which the defense limited the Bulldogs to 26 percent shooting. Charleston clinched the regular season Eastern Illinois League crown with a 51-49 win over Paris. 

Charleston later faced a scare against Newman. Trailing 20-19 at halftime and tied 40-40 with 1:28 to play, Charleston took the lead. Baker made two free throws, Barcus converted a three-point play and Schnorf sank two free throws to secure the victory. Charleston improved to 24-1 and headed into the Regional. 

A victory over Oakland, 55-41, in the opener set up a third meeting with Paris in the Regional Championship. When the Trojans defeated Paris just 51-49 to claim the regular season conference championship, Baker recalls members of the team feeling a little discouraged going into the regional. 

“We thought they had us,” said Baker. “To only beat them by two points on our home court, we figured they would beat us when we had to go to their place.”

It was a bitter rivalry. According to Kimball, Charleston had only beaten Paris 30 times in 101 meetings dating back to 1919. However, with a large amount of fan support, the Trojans were a monster in the making. 

“There were fourteen fan buses that left Charleston,” said Baker. “They left before we did. We saw them all head out for Paris before we ever got onto the bus. By the time we got there, the gym was already packed an hour before tip-off. It was quite a setting. I have never seen anything like that sense.”

Ken Baker says Paris packed in on Barcus so Coach Baker flipped the strategy. He sent his son to the post and brought Barcus out where Barcus nailed three quick shots to give CHS a 6-0 lead, and Charleston then ran away with it. 

With fans chanting, “Plaster Paris,” Charleston rolled to a 66-44 victory. 

The starting five scored all 66 points: Barcus (24), Schnorf (15), Baker (13), Winkleblack (nine points and Hall (five). Charleston shot 57 percent from the field and held Paris to a paltry 26 percent.

“That was somewhat of a shocker,” Schnorf said. “I don’t think any of us remotely thought we would beat them by 10, yet alone 22 points.”

Charleston faced the tough task of traveling to the Bridgeport Sectional to face the IHSA’s No. 1 ranked Effingham Hearts. Baker told Kimball, “I try not to think about Effingham. I just hope it’s worth the fans’ while to go and watch us. I’m tickled to death to be this far. Sure, it’s improbable that we can beat Effingham, but it’s not impossible. We’re surely as good as a lot of the teams we’ve played. We’ve beaten the other two teams in the sectional in Arcola and Newton.”

Effingham averaged 83.6 points, nearly twice as many as Charleston’s defense allowed: 44.5. Effingham had Roger Arnold (19.1 ppg), and Gale Lister (15.1 ppg) – among only 11 players to score more than 1,000 points in the school’s history career. Arnold finished with 1,220, and Lister had 1,012. 

“They had two guys at 6-foot-8 and another at 6-foot-6,” Baker said. “They pressed us. How would you like to throw over those guys? They were huge and talented. It was a back-and-forth game the whole time. Arnold was the Player of the Year and I held him to 11 points.”

Before the game, Barcus was named Honorable Mention All-State and first-team in the Eastern Illinois League along with Baker. Winkleblack was named to the second team. 

At the game, so many fans arrived that Effingham had to add chairs to the floor that eventually were removed because they blocked the exits.

“Dad told us before the game that the chances of winning the game were 1 to 100, but we were going to do the 100 little things,” said Baker. “Still, someone has to explain to me how they would ever pair up a 30-0 team and a 26-1 team in the first round of a Sectional.”

The matchup certainly didn’t disappoint. Charleston lost to Effingham in a closer than expected 59-50 contest. Charleston trailed 35-22 at one point, but Charleston battled back to within 39-35. Arnold and Lister were both held out with four fouls, but that was as close as it would get. 

Merv Baker told Kimball, “I would have given the next 15 years of my coaching career for four points there late in the third quarter.” 

“We would have made those big guys come out and guard on the floor,” Schnorf said. “I want to say six of those guys went on to play college ball. They were good. If we had a three-point line, that certainly would have helped because those big guys weren’t shooting 3s. I could make them back then.”

The second quarter doomed CHS: a 23-10 drubbing.

Effingham advanced to the state tournament, where it lost to finish 30-1.

Schnorf and Baker say that if the Trojans could have gotten a few more points closer entering the final minutes, they might have pulled off the win.

“Effingham was used to blowing teams out by 20 or 30 points,” Schnorf said. “I think if we had the ball with two to three minutes left with a tie or the lead, it would have been a different situation for them.”

Effingham coach James Maxedon, who accumulated a 458-193 record over 24 seasons at Effingham, had high praise for Charleston after the game. He told Kimball: “It was pretty evident that Baker is Charleston’s chief assistant Baker. Baker, Barcus, and Schnorf rate with the best players in the Mid-State Conference.”

Barcus finished his career as the all-time scoring leader with 1,380 points (since broken by Derrick Landrus) and was invited by Adolph Rupp to play at Kentucky. Barcus instead played sparingly at Iowa State for three seasons, getting into 17 games. 

To this day, Baker credits how well the team played as a unit. 

“When we came back, we didn’t have any big-named guys,” he said. “Barcus could get what the defense gave him, but he couldn’t dominate a game. We had an offense that could get him shots. We could still run that offense today and we’re almost 70 years old. We could run it in our sleep. We weren’t fun to watch, but we just beat teams because we had all the parts that made up a team.”

Baker added that there’s a reason that Charleston has only won four Regional titles since their 1967-1868 season. “I think teams over the years have had comparable talent individually,” Schnorf said. “We didn’t have great all-around talent, but the coach did an awful good job with us knowing what our role was. I’ve seen a lot of people want to play individually. They want to showboat. Make a fancy play. Do things they aren’t capable of doing. I remember we finished a game with three turnovers. I can go watch a game where there are 10 turnovers in the first quarter.”

It also helped that the Trojans had its best coach in history. Baker’s 322 career victories are nearly twice as many as Steve Simons’ 171 wins, which ranks second. 

“In recent years, you don’t see too often a coach like Coach Baker who had continuity,” continued Schnorf. “He was there a very long time. He built the program. He got to know families and the kids who were younger at the time.”

Schnorf is optimistic that Charleston can one day see a great team in the future. 

“We saw the girls team do it,” said Schnorf. “Our team was like 50 years ago. I think it could eventually happen, but I may not be around to see it.”

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