Squad Won Four Games in Four Days to Advance to State
By PATRICK CASEY
The 1961-62 Walton Braves boys basketball team accomplished a rare feat when they won four games in four consecutive days to claim the Northwest Florida Conference title and earn one of eight berths to the Class A state tournament in Gainesville.
The Braves, which claimed the crown over 11 other teams taking part in the event, entered the conference tournament with just a 9-15 regular season record under first-year coach Jack Akins.
Walton had four seniors that season: Andy Anderson, Bob Lindsey, Billy McDonald and Wesley Wilkerson with Wilkerson leading the way at guard while Lindsey grabbed rebounds for the squad underneath the basket. The squad also included junior Bob McMillian (sometimes spelled McMillon), who was a force in the paint and another scorer to complement Wilkerson. Sophomore James Casey also provided an offensive boost and freshman Tommy Jones was at the beginning of an outstanding athletic career for the Braves. Juniors Dick Eyestone and Tommy Kennedy provided depth along with sophomore Jack Ward.
“We had a good team but had not had a great season. We had a new coach in Jack Akins and we had to get accustomed to his style from our previous coach,” Wesley Wilkerson recalled in an interview just before the 50th anniversary of the event
Bob Lindsey, who would go on to be a circuit judge in Walton County for more than two decades recalls, “We had guys who could play. Wesley was very good with the ball at the top of the key. James Casey was deadly from the corners. McMillian could put up points in bunches. Tommy Jones was just a freshman but he was an outstanding athlete. I was the center and usually responsible for guarding the other team’s big man. I would grab rebounds and try to keep from fouling out. I remember I broke maybe three pairs of glasses in one day during that season. We had a rough regular season but things came together over that four-day stretch.”
Akins, who coached the Braves football team in 1960 and 1961, had taken over as basketball coach from Bill Joiner who went on to an outstanding high school coaching career in the state of Alabama.
The Braves opened the conference tournament with a 53-41 victory over Milton at the Thomas P. Bailey gymnasium on a Wednesday night, Feb. 28, behind 16 points from Wilkerson and 14 from Bob McMillian to go with 12 from James Casey.
Bill Lindsey, Bob’s older brother and a 1960 Walton graduate recalls, “It was such an event to host the Northwest Florida Conference tournament back then. My senior year (1959-60) we had hosted the event and came up short in the finals against Chipley. People came out to see everybody play. You didn’t have big tournaments during the regular season back then, so at the end of the year with elimination on the line and everybody in one place, it was a big opportunity to see some of the best basketball in the Panhandle.”
On March 1, Walton defeated Pensacola Tate 57-54 as Wilkerson lit up the Aggies for 24 points, including 12-of-15 free throws, as the Braves held a 38-36 advantage after three quarters of play and held on with solid free throw shooting. Wilkerson hit two free throws with 17 seconds left and Tommy Jones and James Casey combined for six free throws of their own to help Walton pull out the victory.
On March 2, Walton was able to defeat Pensacola Catholic 57-47 with a big third quarter sparked by McMillian’s nine points in the second half of play. James Casey led the team with 18 points on the night while Lindsey and Wilkerson scored 10 points apiece.
On Saturday, March 3, the Braves squared off with arch-rival Marianna for the conference title. The game was highly anticipated in both communities and had a raucous crowd of an estimated 1,000 fans in attendance.
The Braves led 26-23 at halftime but fell behind 37-34 after three quarters of play. McMillian scored five of the Braves’ nine points in the fourth quarter to help force the game into overtime and Wilkerson canned a pair of critical baskets in the extra frame as Walton held on for a 49-47 victory and the conference title.
“We had great crowds for all the games,” Wilkerson remembered. “Our facility was state-of-the art and the local support was fantastic. The Marianna game for the title was a big deal as they were our chief rival and we were big underdogs going in.”
Wesley Wilkerson, James Casey and Bob McMillian all made the All-Tournament Team as the squad exited the event as champions with an overall record of 13-15. The win over Marianna was particularly sweet as the Braves had dropped both decisions to the Bulldogs during the regular season, including a 55-53 loss in DeFuniak Springs to open the season.
According to Rob Blue, the reporter who wrote the original story in the March 8, 1962 edition of The DeFuniak Herald, it was the first time that the Braves had won the Northwest Florida Conference basketball tournament in Walton’s history.
The Braves 1938-39 boys basketball team was the first in school history to qualify for the playoffs according to the FHSAA’s records with the team losing to Jacksonville Bolles 26-18 in the quarterfinals that season….
Read the full story in the June 21, 2012 edition of Herald Breeze.