“The Hicks From the Sticks”

To say that Bradleyville, Mo., is a bit isolated would not be a stretch. Located at the crossroads of Highways 76 and 125, the tiny hamlet now sits in the middle of the Mark Twain National Forest. In the late 1960s, though, those state highways leading out of Bradleyville were made of gravel and there was not much happening in the town—except for a state-record 64-game winning streak compiled by the Bradleyville Eagles over a two-year stretch of the 1966-67 and 1967-68 seasons, which included a pair of Class S state championships.

The Bradleyville school had an enrollment of 105 during those years. Not just the high school, but the entire school, which included grades K-12. Prior to the 1961-62 season, Bradleyville had never won a tournament of any kind. The school did not even have a gymnasium until 1952, and played the majority of their games on the road. All home games were played outdoors on a dirt patch which was often too muddy to dribble on. 

Ray Gibson took the reins of the Eagles prior to the 1961-62 season and promptly led Bradleyville to an improbable Class S state championship that season. Gibson left following the season to coach at Waynesville, and was replaced by a wet-behind-the-ears 22-year-old named Argil Ellison, who had just graduated from Arkansas Tech and was looking for a job. 

“I didn’t know a lot about Bradleyville’s success the previous year,” said Ellison, who had grown up just across Lake Taneycomo in Lead Hill, Ark. “My priority at the time was to find a job. I pretty much got the job before I realized what I was getting myself into.”

Ellison inherited some talented players, including standout sophomore sharpshooter Darrell Paul, who many longtime Ozarks basketball fans consider to be the best pure shooter in the history of the state. Ellison, who also was responsible for coaching the younger teams, quickly noticed that he had some talented junior high players. “I had to learn on the fly,” said Ellison. “I tried to implement a system that would work for the talent coming down the line.” In addition to being talented, the Eagles also were tough and not intimidated by any situation, and also did not take themselves too seriously. Bradleyville won a lot of games, and had a lot of fun along the way. For many of the Eagles, they would just as soon to have gone ‘coon hunting or fishing as played basketball.

Larry Tidwell, who graduated from Bradleyville in 1966 and served as the team manager, recalled where Ellison developed his 1-3-1 offense, which featured a point guard, two wing players, and a high and low post. At the time, Exeter was in the midst of what would become a state-record 52-game winning streak. Tidwell recalled attending an Exeter game with Ellison, who saw something he liked in the 1-3-1 scheme. “He began writing down notes on a napkin, and then went back and began working with the boys when they were in the seventh grade,” said Tidwell, who was also the de facto assistant coach.

“You can coach them the way you want as young players,” said Ellison of his junior high team. “You can work on fundamentals, and work on other things that are going to improve their game. When you got them for six years, you can do a lot of coaching and teaching. We pretty much played on the junior high level the way we played at the high school level.” 

Bradleyville's David Combs (#50) (Photo courtesy of Leon Combs)

Ellison’s teams showed marked improvement from year-to-year. His first team posted a 17-11 record in 1962-63. Following the season, Superintendent Omar Gibson (Ray Gibson’s brother) scraped together enough money to install an actual hardwood floor in the Bradleyville gymnasium, which replaced the tile floor which had been in place since 1952. Ellison followed up that first year with seasons of 29-5 in 1963-64 and 28-3 in 1964-65, Paul’s senior year in which he was named a Coach and Athlete Prep All-American. That also marked the freshman year of the batch of seventh graders that Ellison had been coaching up since he arrived.

In the 1965-66 season, Bradleyville posted a 28-2 record, with both losses coming in disappointing fashion to Greenwood. The first occurred in the Blue & Gold Tournament, with the second ending the Eagles’ season in the Regional. Ellison had been teaching his system for four years, and that coaching was about to pay big dividends.

The 1966-67 Bradleyville Eagles featured a pair of senior starters in point guard Donald Horner and low post player Tommy Martin, as well as talented juniors David Combs at the high post position, and Lonnie Combs (David’s first cousin) and Garlin Pellham on the wings. Duane Maggard (a first cousin of both David and Lonnie Combs), Kenny Newton (a transfer from Gainesville), Tony Stafford, Wade Turner, and Howard Wilson provided the Eagles with depth.

The season started with three wins before a 68-65 loss to Sparta in the fourth game of the season. Ellison was forced to sit David Combs, the Eagles’ star player, after he had been caught ‘coon hunting the night before the game. Bradleyville would not lose again for 64-straight games, a period which included the rest of the 1966-67 season and all of the 1967-68 season.

“I did a lot of ‘coon hunting, almost every night,” said David Combs. “Coach Ellison told me, ‘You’re gonna have to make a choice: you either ‘coon hunt or you play basketball.’ I told him, ‘I have 15 dogs. I don’t have a choice. I’m going to ‘coon hunt.’ He told me, “Well, let me rephrase that. Will you at least not ‘coon hunt before a game?’ I agreed and I never went ‘coon hunting the night before a game again.”

Bradleyville reeled off eight straight victories, including an 89-66 victory in the championship game of the Forsyth Tournament. Next up would be the Blue & Gold Tournament, and Bradleyville continued its winning streak with an easy opening round win over Fordland and a quarterfinal victory over Hillcrest. The Eagles would face perennial Springfield powerhouse Parkview in the Blue Division semifinals. The Vikings were nearing the end of their Jolly Green Giant heyday, and had been to the Class L state finals the past three seasons, winning the 1965 state championship.

On paper, it was the ultimate mismatch, as the Class S school of 105 students would be facing the undefeated Class L powerhouse with an enrollment of 1,900. Parkview fans certainly were confident, and said as much on radio call-in shows prior to the game. In his book Bradleyville Basketball: The Hicks From the Sticks, author Leon Combs (a first cousin of David and Lonnie) chronicled the exchange: “Parkview will beat Bradleyville by 20 points or more. Bradleyville may be pretty good as long as they play the little schools in the boondocks, but the hicks from the sticks meet their match tonight.”

Ellison made sure his players knew about the comment. “Coach Ellison read the comment to us on the bus on the way to the game,” said David Combs. “That just fired us up. We weren’t intimidated. They might beat us, but they hadn’t yet. They were going to have to prove it to us.”

The game did not start well for Bradleyville, as Parkview quickly jumped out to 7-0 and 9-1 leads, which forced Ellison to call a couple of early timeouts. On his way to the bench after the second timeout had been called, David Combs asked Ellison, “Coach, how come you’re callin’ so many timeouts? Me ‘n Rex Maggard’s goin’ ‘coon huntin’ after the game. If you keep callin’ timeouts, we’ll never get out of here.” Ellison proceeded to tell a joke in the huddle, causing the players to laugh hysterically. The exchange was symbolic of the laidback manner of the Bradleyville Eagles.

Bradleyville, behind David Combs’ 32 points, proceeded to beat the three-time defending Blue & Gold champions by a 63-51 count, as the Eagles shot 50 percent from the field. In his book, Leon Combs recounted a humorous moment in the game’s final seconds. While a teammate shot free throws in the waning moments, with the outcome no longer in doubt, the Eagles’ Duane Maggard pulled a comb out of his sock and proceeded to comb his dark, wavy hair in front of the Parkview bench. A Parkview player asked him if he always primped during games. “Only when I know we’re goin’ to win and get our pictures took,” responded Maggard. Bradleyville defeated Houston 62-51 the following night for the Blue Division crown.

“As a coach, I got as much of a thrill out of winning that game as winning either of the state championships,” said Ellison. “Very few people gave us any chance at all of winning that ballgame. When a team’s got desire, you can do a lot of things, though. It was one of my biggest thrills as a coach, in the last two to three minutes of that game, realizing that we were about to beat Parkview.”

The Eagles also were awarded the J.H. “Speedy” Collins Sportsmanship Award. In fact, Bradleyville won the sportsmanship award at nearly every tournament it entered during that time period. “Those meant a lot to us,” said David Combs of the sportsmanship awards. “Coach really got on to us about acting right, doing right, and being respectful to the officials and our opponent. Winning those was about as good as winning first place.”

Bradleyville rolled through the rest of the regular season undefeated, including Ava Tournament and White River League titles, and entered the Regional Tournament at Mansfield riding a 23-game winning streak. The Eagles dispatched Nixa and Plato with easy wins, and then avenged their only loss of the season with a 72-47 victory over Sparta in the semifinals. A 63-48 victory over Fair Grove in the Regional Championship sent the Eagles to the Sweet Sixteen.

Bradleyville faced Wheaton in the opener, and the Bulldogs brought a 23-game winning streak and a significant height advantage into the match-up. Wheaton led Bradleyville 38-37 with six minutes to play, but did not score another point, as Bradleyville scored the last five points in a 42-38 victory to advance to the state quarterfinals against Skyline and David Cooke, the Tigers’ 6-6 junior center. In a seesaw game that featured 11 ties, Bradleyville once again found itself trailing late, as Skyline led the Eagles 39-37 with 5:02 to play. Bradleyville closed the game on an 8-3 run to win a 45-42 nail biter, and a trip to the Final Four at Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo.

Bradleyville faced perennial Class S power New Haven in the semifinals. The Shamrocks sported a 31-2 record and had won four straight state titles from 1956-59. New Haven also boasted a tall and talented frontline and speed in the backcourt. Bradleyville jumped out to an early lead, and never looked back, as New Haven never got closer than six points in the second half. The 60-55 victory was marred, though, after David Combs twisted his right knee midway through the fourth quarter. The Eagles had advanced to the state championship game to face Archie, but did not know whether their star player would be able to play or not.

  “I didn’t think there was any way he would be able to play, but that was the character of that team, and David in particular,” said Ellison. “The whole bunch was determined to win, and David was bound and determined that he was going to play. Even at 50 percent, he was better than a lot of players at 100 percent.”

Archie entered the 1967 state championship game undefeated at 33-0, and boasted an average margin of victory of 26 points. The Whirlwinds featured a devastating fast break offense, and all five starters averaged double figures in scoring. It would be a major test for the Eagles with David Combs at full strength, let alone battling a twisted knee. But Combs, after receiving several whirlpool treatments, did play, and put on one of the more gritty performances in state championship history.

David Combs, limping noticeably and wearing a knee brace, scored nine points in the first six minutes of the game, and Bradleyville led the high-octane Whirlwinds 17-5 after the first quarter of play. Bradleyville, which went with a 1-3-1 zone on defense instead of its usual 2-1-2, controlled the tempo throughout, as Archie was never able to get into its fast-paced attack. The Eagles cruised to a 60-47 victory and the Class S state championship.

Despite playing on a twisted knee, David Combs scored 21 points and Garlin Pellham added 15 as the Eagles finished the season with a 34-1 record and 31-game winning streak. David Combs was named to the All-State team after averaging 22.2 points per game for the season. The team also won the Eddie Matthews Sportsmanship Award.

The Eagles returned a senior nucleus of first cousins in 1967-68 in seniors David Combs, Lonnie Combs, and Duane Maggard, as well as fellow classmate and key contributor Garlin Pellham. Kenny Newton was the lone junior in the starting line-up, and Bradleyville had a wealth of depth off the bench in Jimmy Day, Roger Hodges, Buddy Roberts, Craig Southards, Wade Turner, and Howard Wilson. By then, the group was fine-tuned in Ellison’s system.

“I had some coaches back then who would say that Bradleyville doesn’t play any defense, they just try to outscore you, and maybe they were right,” said Ellison of his coaching philosophy. “My philosophy was that we have to score more points than our opponent. Whether that’s wrong or not, I don’t know. We just played to win.

“We had a basic offense we ran against man-to-man defense,” added Ellison. “It was a shuffle-type offense. We also had a basic zone offense. It was nothing too complicated, but it was very effective. The difference between playing defense and not playing defense is the number of points difference in the final score. If the final is 85-75, that’s a good victory. If it’s 45-35, both are ten-point victories.”

The Eagles were ranked #1 in the preseason media poll, the only Class S school to be ranked, and opened the season with nine-straight victories, including winning the Forsyth Tournament for the fifth consecutive year. The winning streak stood at 40 games heading into a trip to undefeated Republic.

With the host Tigers leading by 12 points with about three minutes to play, the winning streak was in doubt. “Then David Combs just went crazy,” said Tidwell. “We tied it up, went into overtime, and then went off and left them.” David Combs, who scored 33 points in the game, stole the ball and drove to the basket with 12 seconds to play. He missed the shot, but put in a rebound bucket to tie the score and send it into overtime. Lonnie Combs added 19 points, as the Eagles cruised to an 84-73 overtime victory.

“I had pretty much resigned myself that we were going to lose that game, but we pulled it out,” said Ellison. “Once again, those kids had a determination that they were not going to lose. It was one of the biggest comebacks I’ve ever been associated with in my coaching career.”

Bradleyville carried an 11-0 record and 42-game winning streak into the Blue & Gold Tournament, where the Eagles were awarded the top seed in the Blue Division. Bradleyville won its second-consecutive Blue & Gold crown by defeating Lebanon 70-59 in the championship game, and once again earned the sportsmanship award. Bradleyville has never played for another Blue & Gold title since the 1967 championship.

Bradleyville's Lonnie Combs (#34) drives against a Salem defender in the 1967 Blue & Gold semifinals. (Photo courtesy of Leon Combs)

Bradleyville continued to post victory after victory, and broke Exeter’s state record 52-game winning streak with an 85-53 win over Gainesville. In the last home game for the senior class, Ellison gave in to his players’ wishes to play the whole game, instead of his usual custom of substituting from the bench when the game was in hand. The result was a 112-33 victory over Blue Eye, which sent the Eagles into the Regionals with a 25-0 record and riding a state record 56-game winning streak. The Eagles won the Regional by beating Fair Grove 76-57 behind 30 points from David Combs and 20 from Pellham. 

In the first round of the state tournament at McDonald Arena, Bradleyville knocked off Lockwood by a 68-49 count, setting up a match-up with Wheaton for a trip to the Final Four. Despite Wheaton’s 6-7 center Marv Lemons—and a Wheaton fan’s sign which read, “61-0, The Hicks Go Down Tonight”—Bradleyville rolled to a 68-50 victory and earned a trip to the Final Four at Brewer Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Missouri.

In the state semifinals, the unbeaten Eagles (31-0) faced Glasgow, which entered game with an unbeaten record of 33-0. The Yellowjackets had won 31 of their games by more than 10 points, and Glasgow coach Jim Phillips had scouted the Eagles at the Mansfield Regional. Ellison, ever the tactician, had noticed the Glasgow coaches in the stands, though. In addition to instructing Pellham to serve as a decoy for the Regional game, Ellison also had another plan in store for Glasgow. Rather than start the state semifinal game in the Eagles’ traditional 2-1-2 zone—which the Glasgow coaches had seen in the Regional—Bradleyville started the game in a man-to-man defense. The Eagles jumped out to an early 10-2 lead, led 33-26 at halftime, and went on to a 64-57 victory. David Combs led the Eagles with 27 points, while Pellham (the decoy in the earlier game) scored 19.

The 1968 Class S state championship game featured the unbeaten Bradleyville Eagles and the 18-6 Howardville Eagles, the only all-black school to play for a state championship during integration. Howardville featured a pair of twin towers in 6-6 offensive force Lewis Little and 6-6 Reuben Marsh, the Hawks’ defensive stopper in the paint. Howardville also had speedy point guard Nathaniel Thomas, who sparked the Hawks’ deadly fast break attack.

Attendance for the game was estimated at 6,500, even though capacity for Brewer Fieldhouse was only 5,000. Those in attendance witnessed 44 minutes of basketball that have been called by many as the greatest championship game in Missouri state history, and by others simply as the greatest game they have ever seen.

In a game that saw numerous lead changes and sways in momentum, neither team could gain an advantage. Howardville led after one quarter 14-13, but David Combs drew the fourth foul on Howardville’s Little in the second quarter, as the Eagles led 29-27 at halftime. Little started the second half, but fouled out just 20 seconds into the third quarter. The Eagles gained some breathing room and led 43-35 with 2:30 left to play in the third. However, the Hawks’ speedy guards swarmed Bradleyville, and the Hawks closed the quarter on an 8-0 run, tying the game at the third quarter buzzer at 43-43.

Bradleyville led 55-50 with just over three minutes remaining in regulation, but the scrappy Hawks rallied once again, and took a 59-57 lead on a breakaway lay-up with just 14 seconds left. David Combs banked in a jumper with four seconds left to send the game into overtime tied at 59. The first overtime saw the same back-and-forth game as regulation, with Howardville tying the score at 63 with seven seconds left.

In the second overtime, Bradleyville had a two-point lead and the ball with 14 seconds left on the clock. However, Howardville’s William Gray stole the ball and drove for the tying lay-up. The teams would enter a third overtime tied at 69. In the third overtime, the Hawks’ other twin tower, Reuben Marsh, fouled out with the score tied at 71. After a missed free throw, though, Howardville hit a jumper for a 73-71 lead. David Combs responded with his patented fall away jumper to knot the score once again at 73. Both teams missed shots in the final seconds, and the teams headed to a fourth overtime with the score tied 73-73.

With their two best players having fouled out, Howardville won the tip and went into a stall on offense. Despite a couple of turnovers and a missed shot by the Hawks, Bradleyville could not gain the lead until David Combs’ rebound put back with 58 seconds left. Duane Maggard hit one free throw with five seconds to play to give Bradleyville a 76-73 lead and the game that would not end mercifully came to a conclusion with the Bradleyville Eagles state champions for the second year in a row. It was also the Eagles’ 64th-straight victory.

“I didn’t think it would ever end,” said Ellison of the marathon four-overtime title game. “That was a classic! You’re drained at the end of it. It appeared at different times that we were going to lose and at other times that we were going to win. It was just an emotionally-draining game.”

“We didn’t have a real good game, but part of that was due to the competition we were playing,” said David Combs. “We hadn’t played a team that fast and athletic that could jump like that. Their guards were lightning fast, and we didn’t have any guards that fast. They had ‘pick-your-pocket’ guards. I made some crucial baskets in that game, but I didn’t really have a good game. My team won that game. When you have that much adrenaline flowing, you don’t realize how tired you really are. Afterwards, we were just sapped physically and mentally.” 

The 1968 Class S state championship game, which took four overtimes to determine a winner, is still the longest state championship game in history. Charlie Spoonhour, who coached Salem at the time and later coached at Southwest Missouri State and St. Louis University, has said that the game was the best he has ever seen.

David Combs, who only had two personal fouls while fouling out the Hawks’ twin towers, scored 31 points and pulled down 20 rebounds to end his high school career with a dominating performance. Combs’ 106 points in four state tourney games also set a state record which has since been broken. Garlin Pellham added 20 points, while Lonnie Combs poured in 18. David Combs and Lonnie Combs were both named All-State, while Garlin Pellham garnered honorable mention honors. David Combs was also named a Coach and Athlete Prep All-American after averaging 25.2 points and 14 rebounds per game, while shooting 53 percent from the field for the season.

Ellison left Bradleyville for a coaching job at Bowling Green following the 1968 championship, and Bradleyville’s state record 64-game winning streak came to an end with a loss to Fair Grove in the 1968-69 season opener. Bradleyville has not won another Regional title since the 1967-68 season. 

Bradleyville’s undefeated 1968 state champions were inducted in 1988 into the inaugural class of the Missouri Basketball Hall of Fame. Both the 1967 and 1968 state champions that compiled the state record 64-game winning streak were inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2001. In 1995, area coaches and sportswriters named the top 10 players in Blue & Gold Tournament history in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the tourney’s inception. Out of over 25,000 players who had played in the tournament at that time, two of the top 10 were Bradleyville Eagles: Darrell Paul and David Combs.

As with any team’s success in a different era, questions abound as to how the Bradleyville Eagles would fare in today’s game. “We would do all right,” said David Combs. “We’d played so long together that we knew what everyone was going to do before they did it. It was just a team concept.” Ellison recognizes that the game itself has changed. “If those Bradleyville teams had to play in today’s game, they weren’t going to win,” he said, “but if today’s teams had to play in that era, they would not be successful. They would have all fouled out, for one. The game has changed. It’s just a different game today.” Tidwell also has been asked the question. “Basketball has changed,” he said. “It’s just a different kind of basketball today. I will say this, you might outcoach Ellison in a game, but you’ll never have a team more prepared for a game than his teams.” 

The near-decade of success on the hardwood put Bradleyville on the map, and also united the community. “Basketball was our identity,” said David Combs. “The Bradleyville community really pulled together and got behind us. Seeing how much it meant to them made it more important to us. The support we received meant the world to us.”

“The whole town and community got behind the team,” said Tidwell. “The team just brought the whole community together. It was just like a family.” Leon Combs, the author, echoed these sentiments. “People followed Bradleyville all over the place,” he said. “And the ones that couldn’t go to the games listened on the radio. I had a Branson state trooper tell me once that he knew Bradleyville was headed to the state finals when he saw all of those pick-ups with rifles in the back window headed north toward Columbia.”

“That was probably the most pleasant coaching experience a coach could ask for,” said Ellison of his years in Bradleyville. “It was a combination of ability and desire. It was just a group of kids dedicated to winning. I’d like to say that I was the determining force in winning two state championships, but that was not the case. It was one of the most enjoyable times of my life. I certainly will cherish it. It was a once in a lifetime experience.”

Bradleyville v. Parkview, 1966 Blue & Gold semifinals (Photo courtesy of Leon Combs)

Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.

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