When the Mason boys’ basketball team bowed out in the state quarterfinals in 1962, members of the community knew they had witnessed something special. Now, 55 years later, that special squad will get its final celebration with induction into the Mason High School Athletic Hall of Fame 2017 class on September 22.
Fans of Mason basketball had plenty to be excited about in the early 1960s. Jerry Willis, 2016 hall of fame inductee, set career and individual game scoring records in 1960—records that still stand—while helping his team to a district championship finish.
In the background however, sophomores Dave Arnold, Tom Coss, Vern Elliott, and Larry Wright were gaining valuable experience. The following season, the first in Mason’s new gymnasium, these players led the Bulldogs to an 18–4 record, a Capital Circuit co-championship and district and regional titles.
By their final season in 1962, the now experienced Bulldogs utilized an up-tempo pressing style, and the team raced through an undefeated regular season and a 21-game win streak, accomplishments that have yet to be repeated. “We pressed and ran the whole game,” said Coss with a smile. “The minute the other team got off the bus we were in our press.”
Front Row (left to right): Jim Phillips, Dave Arnold, Tom Coss, Larry Wright, Vern Elliott. Back Row: Coach Fred Driver, Roger Harkness, Danny Ayers, Jim Bullen, Charlie Smith, Roger Hill, Bill Birney, Dean Dudley, Don Wright, and Bill Gaboury.
Without a true star, Mason succeeded with balanced scoring, each starter contributing 20 points or more in at least one game during the season. Arnold led the team with 16.5 points per game. Just behind him were Wright with 14, Elliott with 12, and junior Jim Phillips with 11 points per game. Coss, the floor leader and playmaker, dished out four assists per contest while chipping in 7.5 points per game. In most games, the starters saw no more than three quarters of action before the strong reserves sealed the victories.
Arnold, the team captain, was voted most valuable player by his teammates, but he insisted that the award should have been shared by the entire starting lineup. “We were blessed,” he recalled fondly. “We had a good group of guys with a wonderful coach.”
That coach was Fred Driver, a young biology teacher, who doubled as the football coach in the fall. “He inspired us, but disciplined us too. He got 100 percent of our effort out of us,” said Arnold. “Everyone loved playing for Fred.”
And the admiration was mutual. “Really great desire—they’d live in the gym if we’d let ’em,” Driver told the Lansing State Journal at the time. He wasn’t joking either, as the players often snuck in to the old Jefferson High School building to play in the gym after hours.
Driver gathered his team in November to plan for the 1962 season, and he set an undefeated regular season as the first of the team’s goals. When the Associated Press released its first prep basketball poll, Driver’s Bulldogs stood at No. 2 in Class B, one spot behind defending state champ River Rouge. They were 7–0 and nearly half way to their goal of an undefeated regular season.
Team Captain Dave Arnold scores over a Resurrection defender.
The No. 2 ranking in Class B was well deserved, considering that the Bulldogs beat their opponents by an average margin of 23 points per game through the season. All season long, the Bulldogs made their case as state title contenders.
It wasn’t until the second to last game of the regular season that the Bulldogs had their first scare. With the Capital Circuit league championship already wrapped up, Mason faced neighbor and rival Okemos, runner-up in the Capital Circuit. The Bulldogs withstood a second-half surge by Okemos and escaped with a four-point victory. A week later, they faced the Chiefs again in the first game of districts, this time winning by seven.
Perhaps the close calls against Okemos refocused the team. From there on, the Bulldogs charged through district and regional play, winning five straight tournament games by at least 15 points and by as many as 40 points.
In the quarterfinals, the Bulldogs faced East Grand Rapids in front of 3,200 fans at Portage High. The matchup was one of contrasting styles. Mason, the smaller team, favored a high-speed play while East Grand Rapids with its size preferred a slower, deliberate game.
A back-and-forth first half ended with Mason trailing 28–27. But uncharacteristic Bulldog turnovers resulted in a 22–9 third quarter. Mason tried to rally, but East Grand Rapids made all eight of its shot attempts in the final quarter, snuffing out Mason’s hopes at a title shot. The team won together, and in the end faltered together. East Grand Rapids advanced to the finals but fell to River Rouge.
Players carry Coach Fred Driver off the court after a victory.
Perhaps the greatest achievement for the Bulldogs that year was how they brought together the whole town of roughly 4,500 residents. Local businesses filled their windows in the downtown with supportive signs, and virtually the whole community shut down on home game nights.
In one amusing story, Ingham County Sheriff Ken Preadmore told the Lansing State Journal that while combing the town after a jail break, deputies found numerous homes empty but with lights on and food still warm on the table. “People had just up and taken off for the basketball game in such a hurry they didn’t take time to put it away,” he said.
In the end, the 1962 senior class players were part of two Capital Circuit championships, three district championships, and two regional championships. In their final two seasons, they combined for a 39–5 overall record, never losing a single home contest. It was only fitting that their final season be their best, finishing 21–1 and winning league, district, and regional championships.
“When we were all done, my dad told me, ‘As long as you’re alive, there’ll never be another team like that here at Mason,’” Coss recalled.