The Wonder Team

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Musing with Cecil Buffington

The Wonder Team

As I noticed a post on Face Book from Imogene Turner Roncodori about a Jackson County basketball player reunion coming up on December 18 at the Jackson County Pit ( the high school gym ), the last sentence about old Braselton High School players also being welcome was particularly interesting. My Jackson County Panthers memories were unleased in a flurry.

It is well documented I am a Jefferson High School graduate. I still follow the Dragons regularly and will always continue to do so. Despite our sports success over the years we Jefferson people should remain humble to the fact that Jackson County had tremendous early success on the basketball court. They will always be the king of Jackson County basketball, primarily due to their tremendous record and achievement from 1960 - 65. You ask, “What in the world happened way back in 1960 - 65?”

(Note:  Braselton won state championships in boys basketball in 1930 and again in 1951 when they were known as Braselton High School, not Jackson County High School. )

In 1960 - 61 the Panthers had put together a state tournament team that finished the season with a round one loss to Richmond Hills, 63 - 60 in double overtime at the Macon Coliseum. They finished the season 23 - 3.  Jimmy Hill was the leading scorer on that team.

The 1961 - 62 Panthers were expected to be in a rebuilding year after losing four starters from the previous season. I’d say Coach D. L. Hitchcock was successful with that rebuilding effort.

With four sophomores and a senior, the Panthers scratched and clawed their way to a 24 - 4 record. They had a big opening round state tourney win over Crawford County 61 - 51 in the opening round on March 7, 1961. On the following two days they defeated Pitts 56 - 54 and Hepzibah 49 - 46, hitting 13 of 14 foul shots in the latter in the fourth period to seal the deal. In the finals of the State C Tournament the Panthers ran into a Brownie Benson led Marion County team that blasted the Jackson County youngsters 78 - 51. Benson of Marion County went on to start at Georgia Tech for three years. Another member of that Marion County team was Michael Rankin, a former classmate of mine at Jefferson and the nephew of Ms. Irene Rankin. He would return the following season, lead the team in scoring and accept an appointment to West Point.

Four sophomores; Victor Stewart, Ronnie Hill, Jerry Edison, Larry Beck and senior Sidney Tanner were the Panthers starters during the season. Bobby Boyd and Larry McNeal saw plenty of action off the bench throughout the season.

The 1961 - 62 season opened with tremendous expectations for the now junior laden Panthers. Freshman Jimmy Waters joined the starting five for the Panthers.The team didn’t let down their supporters. At least, early on they didn’t. A shocking, blow-out 78 - 56 Panther win over the number one ranked Class AAA team in the state, Hart County, opened the states eyes to the kind of ability these youngsters from Braselton possessed. Hart County featured a 6’7” center, Sherrill Whittaker, who went on to start at Wake Forest and a 5’11” guard, Terrell Ayers that started two years for the Tennessee Vols. Coach Bill Ensley of Hart County made the statement after the game that he had rather see his team defeat the strong Jackson County team than win the  Class AAA state tourney.

A 30 consecutive game winning streak and a district/region championship accompanied the Panthers to the state tournament in Macon. The Panthers drew Macon County in that first game. Not many fans or sportswriters expected Macon County to give the Panthers much opposition. Macon County entered the game with a 13 - 11 record and did not win their own region.  Jackson County had won their regular season games by an average score of 23 points per game.  Only a strong North Gwinnett team could play them below double figures, losing by 7 and 9 points.

After the Jackson County squad roared out to a 24 - 14 first quarter lead, it looked like money in the bank for the Panther team. It was not to be on this cruel night in middle Georgia. Ronnie Hill went out on fouls with a full quarter to play. Stewart followed him early in the fourth period and Edison suffered the same fate with a minute left in the game. When Macon County scored a basket to tie the game with less than a minute left in the game it gave a sickly feeling to the Jackson backers scattered around the old Coliseum.

Macon County shocked the Panthers 63 - 60 in over-time to deprive what many felt was the best team in the state, regardless of classification, of a state championship.

The 1963 - 64 season started much like the previous season as the Panthers rolled easily over all competition. Coach Hitchcock had left the school to become principle at Central Gwinnett in Lawrenceville. Coach Bob Cooper was brought in from Union Point to continue the quest for a Panther State Championship.  He had played the Panthers close the previous year in the district tournament.

The Panthers won 26 consecutive games before tripping up against a hot shooting Dawson County team that hit 78% from the field to give them a 79 - 73 whacking in Dawsonville.

Included in those first 26 wins was another blow-out of Hart County. In 1963 - 64, the Hart County girls and boys both won the State AAA basketball titles. Jackson County beat their boys 73 - 47 in Braselton. Most claim this as the most significant victory in the history of the historical old Braselton Gym.

After the loss to Dawson County, the Panthers roared through the district and region tournaments with easy wins, including a 91 - 63 revenge win over Dawson County in the region finals.

Now it was on to Macon for some unfinished business!

In the first game of the 1963 - 64 state Class C tournament the Panthers defeated West Haralson 54 - 47. No one wanted to run with the Panthers. They were devastating on the fast break. It was decided by most teams on their schedule that a slow down game was the only plausible means of success against the quick, little team that played the funny looking 1 - 3 - 1 tight zone defense that they could spread to a full court zone press  at the blink of an eye.  During this amazing season opposing teams didn't play Jackson County expecting to win.  They just wanted to keep the score respectable.

Jones County carried the Panthers into an over-time before falling 57 - 54 in over-time in round two. The round three game was for all practical purposes the state title game. The defending champion Calhoun County Eagles had easily won their first two games of the tournament and Jackson County was just not playing up to their tremendous potential. Jackson County fans expected it to be a tough battle.

Perhaps the best player in the tournament was a 6 ‘6” center from Calhoun. Bobby Peake would attend Georgia Southern and become a small college all-America. He scored 29 points on this night and blocked eight shots.

The game was nip and tuck throughout. With 7 seconds left in the game Panther guard Victor Stewart put up a jump shot from the right angle marker. The ball rimmed out. Panther center Jerry Edison literally out-fought Peake for the ball and banked it in at the buzzer to give Jackson County a stunning 57 - 56 win.

Now the Panthers were one win away from taking it all. They stood at 32 - 1 for the season. They would meet Adrian for the State Class C title.

Adrian was a good basketball team. They shot the ball well. Jackson County never trailed. Only a couple of baskets at the end of the game brought the final margin under double digits to 68 - 62, Jackson County.

The goal was finally achieved. Jackson County had finished with a 33 - 1 won/loss record. They were the State Class C Champions and many believed they were the best team in Georgia, regardless of classification.

Victor Stewart went on to play for Huntingdon in Alabama, then went into coaching and education at his Jackson County High School  alma mater. Jerry Edison went to Columbus College and had a successful career in industrial management with several major companies. Larry Beck attended the University of Georgia and played on their freshman basketball team.  He is  still actively  affiliated with Jackson County/Braselton real-estate sales.  Ronnie Hill played at several junior colleges before finishing his education at the University of Georgia. He then went into education. Coach Hill led Dacula High school to the State Class A State championship in 1979 at Alexander-Memorial Coliseum in Altanta.

Were they the best all-white team ever to play in Georgia. I think so! I chased that crowd for four years over at Jefferson. We never really played them close. Not many teams did.

Jackson County again made the state tourney during the senior year of Bobby  Boyd. They won one game in the 1964 - 65 tourney before being eliminated. The era was over.

At this point I plan on attending that Saturday alumni day at Jackson County. I'll take along a camera.  That little state championship flag from 1964 still hangs below the clock. I might take a picture of it.  It’s a scraggily little thing. It almost looks out of place.

It isn’t.  It's right where it needs to be.

Now if you are a Jackson County fan and didn't know the story behind that state Championship banner,  you will know why it's there and what went into it’s being there.

Anyone that ever saw the Jackson County Panthers of 1961 - 64 will never forget what they brought to their school.  Especially the 1963 - 64 WONDER TEAM.

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BELOW:

Victor Stewart , former Jackson County Panther and Most Valuable Player of the 1964 State Class C Tournament is introduced at the December 18 Oconee County-Jackson County game on Alumni Night.