By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
Locked in a tie game with Perry in 1973, the Pymatuning Valley Lakers went to their ace in the hole in the second half.
Connecting on 18 of 27 field-goal attempts and 14 of 17 free-throw tries, 6-foot-4 forward Carl McIlwain notched 50 points in a 91-75 victory, one of few such performances in Ashtabula County basketball history.
It set a school record that still stands. He added 16 rebounds in that contest.
“Someone yelled at me, some football guy, that I had 26 points right after the half,” McIlwain remembers. “In the fourth quarter, the guy guarding me didn’t box me out. I’d put one up and if it fell short, I’d grab the rebound and put it back in.”
“That was one night when he was really shooting well,” his coach, Bob Hitchcock said of McIlwain, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on April 7. “They left him open and our unselfish guards and Jeff Brown kept getting him the ball. I took him out with three or four minutes left or he could have had more.”
“I couldn’t have done 50 without the help of my teammates,” McIlwain said. “One guy who was put into the game was told not to shoot, just to pass it to me.”
McIlwain wasn’t always that prolific, but he was one of the best players in the county that year. He was named to the Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County and Coaches’ All-Grand River Conference first teams after the season, averaging 24 points in league games and 22.7 overall, following a junior year in which he averaged 15 points a game.
Actually, McIlwain had been the Lakers’ brightest star since late in his sophomore year. That season, he led Pymatuning Valley to an 88-75 victory over fourth-ranked in the state Newton Falls in the tournament with 16 points and 16 rebounds.
“I started him in that game and we were fortunate enough to win,” Hitchcock said. “I knew he was going to be a pretty good player.”
McIlwain’s success was a result of hard work, beginning in the fourth grade, when Ross Boggs would open the gym for area players on Saturday.
“We just did dribbling and shooting, drills and layups,” McIlwain said. “We didn’t play games.”
His future coach, Hitchcock, remembers meeting McIlwain for the first time.
“I had an appointment on West Main Street (in Andover) around 1970 and I heard this ball bouncing down the sidewalk,” Hitchcock said. “He was bouncing it left-handed; he had a cast on the other hand.”
The first time McIlwain recalls playing organized ball was in the eighth grade.
“It was a tossup between football and basketball,” McIlwain says of his priorities. “I broke my arm in my freshman year. After that, basketball looked better. I think we only had two games in the eighth grade, one against Harbor and one against Kingsville.”
By the end of his sophomore season, McIlwain’s skills had improved enough that Hitchcock started him. But McIlwain remembers it might not have been just a tribute to his talents.
“One of the varsity players missed practice and got kicked off the team,” he said. “I played about three games.”
By his senior year, PV had a tall and talented team. In addition to the 6-foot-4 McIlwain, the Lakers could also boast 6-9 Rex Burlingham and his 6-4 brother, Randy. Other teammates included Jeff Brown, Gary French, Terry Mason, Randy Spencer and Paul Hinebaugh. The Lakers played in the GRC then, competing against Ledgemont, Perry and Grand Valley.
During his senior year, the Lakers posted eight wins in a row and went 14-6 overall. Pictures of the team in the newspaper showed McIlwain and Rex Burlingham both wearing glasses.
“In my pictures, I always had athletic tape on my glasses,” McIlwain said. “I went through a lot of tape. They had hard contacts at the time, but I was never interested in contacts. I only know of one kid I played against that had contact lenses.”
McIlwain doesn’t recall too many of his games, but recalls one shot in particular.
“I can remember one shot against Grand Valley,” he said. “I got in foul trouble and stayed out in the middle of the floor. I made a left-handed hook shot from the foul line. I remember the team razzing me about that. I don’t know where it came from, but I remember Lenny Lattimer doing that in our old gym. I thought it was kind of neat.”
He remembers shooting about 85 percent from the foul line.
“Like all those other guys back in the ’70s, there wasn’t much to do,” he said. “(Shooting basketballs) was something I could do by myself. We had an outside court and I would go shoot when I was bored.”
McIlwain probably could have played basketball at a higher level, but he didn’t care to.
“I wasn’t interested in college,” he said. “I just wanted to work.”
He got a job as a truck driver at Andover Crop Service and spent 19 years there. Then he moved on to a lumberyard in Meadville, Pa. named Meadvillle Agway after being recommended for that job by one of its dealers.
McIlwain moved on to work for the Ashtabula County Highway Department, where he has spent the last 11 years.
“We fix potholes, pave, chip-seal,” he said. “There’s a lot of variety. My roads are out by the vo-ed school.”
McIlwain met his wife, Donna, at Greensville, while both were playing in singles volleyball at Thiel College. The couple has been married 21 years and has a son, Brett, 16, a junior at Pymatuning Valley High School who is currently attending vocational school.
McIlwain’s favorite sport is deer hunting. He usually bags one a year. He used to fish a lot, but hasn’t done that in recent years.
“There’s no fish in Pymatuning (Lake) any more,” he said.
“I had a lot of fun playing basketball,” he concludes. “Like a lot of other guys, I didn’t have much to do. We didn’t have video games. Basketball was something I could do on my own.”
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.