Two Decades of Football in Willow Part 1
Thu, 09/10/2020 - 12:36pm admin
The current news concerning whether football will be played in colleges this fall got me to thinking about football in Willow Springs back in my day—the Fifties and Sixties. During those decades, I knew all the coaches, and either played for them or had them as teachers.
The boys who suited up will remember those hot days of August, a couple weeks before school started, when two-a-day football practices began. In the mornings, before the heat became stifling, players assembled on the dusty practice field behind what is now Munford Gym. The second round happened in the evenings under the lights at Palenske Field. And each year practice commenced with high hopes for a better season than the last.
Back then, coaches had this misguided idea if players drank water during practice, they might get upset stomachs. All I remember is being parched and gulping water like a horse when practice was over. During practice, my mind would nearly hallucinate with visions of ice-cold watermelons or frosty mugs of root beer from the A&W. Now, in the age of enlightenment and Gatorade, withholding water would be considered cruel and usual punishment and the basis for litigation.
When I moved to Willow in 1959, the quality of Willow football teams was dismal. Folks reminisced about the good ol’ days when Coach Harold “Speedo” Harmon’s teams won South Central Association (SCA) conference championships in 1950, 1951 and 1952.
Speedo’s teams won 33 straight games and notched two consecutive victories in the post-season Ozark Bowl played in the Southwest Missouri State College (SMS) stadium in Springfield. The Bears beat Lockwood (12-6) and Eldorado Springs (19-9) in 1950 and 1951.
Dean Belshe (WSHS, ‘56) who attended each Ozark Bowl game, says, “Many of us took the train to Springfield. It seemed like most of the town at the time.” According to the 1951 Willamizzou, “Businesses closed down in Willow Springs; the Bear Boosters charted a special train; and the marching band and drum corps gave their instruments an extra polish.” Personally, I recall admiring the large Ozark Bowl trophy enshrined in the trophy case of the old high school building.
The Bears also beat Springfield Central in a postseason game in 1952 after their third sweep of the SCA. Cheerleader Helen Benton (Birdsong) (WSHS, ‘53) wore her cheerleading sweater into a local drive-in after the Springfield game and says, “There was complete silence when they saw my cheerleading sweater—we didn’t stay long.”
Ace running back Sonny Stringer garnered all-state honorable mention in 1951. In 1952, he received first-team all-state recognition, and that same year, passed for a record-setting 353 yards against Springfield Central and rushed for four touchdowns against Rolla. After graduation, his legend as a running back continued at the University of Missouri. I met Sonny a few years ago at a Memorial Day reunion, and he looked like he could still run pretty fast.
By the end of the fifties, however, the glory days of football in Willow had faded, but hope arose with the arrival of Ben Koeneman in 1959. Coach Koeneman, a Mount Vernon, Missouri, native was an all-league lineman from SMS, and a man with a soft-spoken, serious demeanor.
Although he had spent two years in the service before returning for his senior year at SMS, his solemn bearing apparently came naturally. Retired Mount Vernon judge, Sam Jones, told me that while in grade school he and a buddy were hitchhiking when then high school star Ben Koeneman picked them up to caution them about the dangers of hitchhiking. Once, during my eighth-grade year, he admonished me about eating pastries on game day when he saw me eating a donut—and he wasn’t even my coach. When he signed my yearbook, he checked a dictionary to make sure he spelled athlete correctly. The word still bears the corrective smudge.
After 34 years of the single-wing offense in Willow, Coach Koeneman introduced the modern split-T formation. John Tandy, a senior that year, says, “We had to work hard to switch from the single-wing to the T.” John also recalls another transition he had to make. “I had to take off my football gear and switch to a band uniform for the halftime music show.”
With the new offensive scheme, on October 23, 1959, the Bears won their first game in two years beating the Houston Tigers 21-7—the only win for the season. Coach Koeneman left after two years to coach at Salem.
For the 1961 season, junior high coach, Buddy Bennett, received a promotion to head high school football coach. I remember watching another poor season from the bench my freshman year. Plagued by injuries, the team only managed a record of one win, three ties, and six losses. Apparently, his three-a-day preseason practices didn’t help. Coach Bennett transferred to coach at Buffalo the next year.
Coach Robert E. Lee arrived in 1962, with an impressive resume. After a distinguished career at Mizzou, he played professionally with the New England Patriots and the Calgary Stampeders. Here’s a bit of trivia I couldn’t resist including. In high school, he won the Missouri state shot put championship in 1954, 40 years after his dad won the same title in 1914.
Unfortunately, Willow lost every game in 1962, except the last of the season, when we managed to beat Mountain View 20-13. I remember that game well because Coach Lee taped my injured knee so thoroughly, I practically hobbled around on the field. Coach Lee left after one year to coach at Kemper Military School in Booneville.