Great River Road, 2016

Venice High School Boys Basketball

August 29, 2018

Last modified: May 11, 2020

During the 1963-64 school year, the Venice school district began the process of integrating its students into one high school. Following this move, Venice High School became one of the winningest basketball programs in the state of Illinois.

In 1917, Venice established two segregated, public high schools: Venice High School for white students and Lincoln High School for African Americans students.1 Venice High School’s first recorded basketball season was 1926-1927, and Lincoln’s first recorded season came later in 1949-1950. The Venice “Red Devils” and Lincoln “Rams” became very dominant in the sport as soon as the programs began. Prior to integration, Venice High School and Lincoln High School competed separately in athletics. The two schools started to be integrated one grade at a time in the 1963-64 school year. The new basketball program at Venice High School soon became one of the best in state.2

The integration of the schools impacted the community of Venice, as it did in many places around the country at the time. However, the sustained success that would follow in basketball was partially due to the acceptance of students in the school. Former Venice High School basketball player Bryan Mathis described his experiences with basketball and school integration in an oral history interview with Lesley Thomson. The schools started integrating when Mathis was in fifth grade, and he remembers being in high school once the process was complete. He described the teachers as being very welcoming to all students, even while bigotry and prejudice existed in the community. Mathis attested to how important basketball was to the town, and the integration allowed the program to have an impact both on and off the court.3

Prior to integration, Venice High School won four district titles, while Lincoln High School won six district titles. Following integration, Venice won seven district titles, seven regional championships, five sectional championships, three super-sectionals, one third-place finish at state, and two state championships.4 This success across nearly nine decades is unparalleled for the size of school in Venice. In 1972, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) split the school classifications for basketball into two classes based on enrollment: “A” and “AA.”5 This allowed smaller schools to have more opportunity to participate in state competition, a pivotal change for Venice High School. Both state championships were in the decades following the 1972 change, as the Red Devils now competed in class A for state competition.6

The 1974-75 team (32-2 record) was coached by former standout athlete, Richard Essington. Essington followed legendary coach Bill Ohlendorf, and he took the VHS basketball team to a victory in the state championship over Timothy Christian School with a score of 65-46. Essington coached three seasons total and was replaced by Ken Perkins for the 1977-1978 season. Perkins then led the program for five successful seasons before his successor, Clinton Harris, took over for the next 19 years. This was an integral change for the community, as Harris became the first African-American head coach of the VHS program. Harris was able to continue the rich winning tradition, leading the 1986-87 Red Devils (29-3 record) to the state championship once again.7

The 1987 Illinois state championship featured two southern Illinois schools located just over 40 miles apart, Okawville High School in Washington County and VHS.8 The game was one of the closest championships to date, and it came down to the final seconds. Venice standout guard Jesse Hall made two free throws following a controversial foul call.9 Hall was one of many exceptional players for the Red Devils; he would go on to play Division I basketball for Michigan State.10 1986-87 was the final year the Venice program would qualify for competition further than the sectional tournament, but winning seasons continued until the final year of the program, 2002-03.11

As the schools integrated, coaches changed, and players moved on from decade to decade, the support of the program from the community was unchanging. Many notable athletes and coaches contributed to the success of the Venice High School basketball program, both white and African American. Overall, the Venice programs compiled a record of 1,162-792 in the 68 years of recorded teams. Due to financial problems, declining enrollment, and building issues, Venice High School permanently closed in 2004.12 Today, Venice students attend Madison High School or East St. Louis High School. Nonetheless, the Venice Red Devils created an identity for themselves on the basketball court as well as in the community, and the legacy of the program continues across the state to this day.

For more, see these Oral Histories

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. Venice High School ‘Red Devils’,” Illinois High School Glory Days, accessed August 29, 2018.
2. Venice Lincoln High School ‘Rams’,” Illinois High School Glory Days, accessed August 29, 2018.
3. Bryan Mathis, “Bryan Mathis Oral History Interview,” Madison Historical, accessed August 29, 2018.
4. Venice Lincoln High School ‘Rams’.
5. Venice Red Devils Basketball,” Venice Memories, accessed August 29, 2018.
6. Records and History,” Illinois High School Association, accessed August 29, 2018.
7. Venice High School ‘Red Devils’.
8. Okawville, IL to Venice, IL,” Google Maps.
9. Norm Sanders, “Thirty years later, Okawville hasn’t forgotten the Rockets’ last trip to state,” Belleville-News Democrat, March 9, 2017, accessed August 29, 2018.
10. Sullivan, Paul. “Senior Guard is Venice’s Guiding Light,” Chicago Tribune, February 22, 1987, accessed August 29, 2018.
11. Venice Red Devils Basketball.
12. Venice High School ‘Red Devils’.
Cite this article: Austin Johnson, "Venice High School Boys Basketball," Madison Historical: The Online Encyclopedia and Digital Archive for Madison County, Illinois, last modified May 11, 2020,
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