By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
ROCKY GAP, Va. —
It has been two seasons since Bland County completed a three-run of state tournament appearances.
The current crop of Lady Bears understand the shoes they’re trying to fill.
“We have a big name to hold up because some of the other girls that have graduated already, but we will work hard and try our best and hold that name,” Bland County senior Alyssa Harris said.
It’s been a slow start to the season for Bland County, but that 1-4 record is a bit deceiving. After all, the Bears have lost twice to Division 4 Christiansburg and once each against Division 3 Richlands and Tazewell.
Bland County’s lone contest against Division 1 competition was a 56-40 win over Eastern Montgomery. The Bears played Chilhowie in a tournament at George Wythe on Tuesday night.
“We just have to work each day to get better and try to make ourselves better,” Julia Davis said. “Get a little bit better each day.”
Harris, Davis and Amber Eaton will be expected to guide the Bears through adversity and prepare them for the Mountain Empire District slate begins on Jan. 4 against archrival Narrows.
“I think we will be pretty good in our district,” said Davis, who plans to eventually attend Virginia Intermont and major in equine studies and learn to train horses. “The district is wide open, it really is, but I think we will be pretty successful.
That trio is also serving as captains, something the 5-foot-7 Davis also did for the Bland County volleyball team.
“It is a very nice privilege to have,” Davis said. “I have to lead my team and make sure everything is going correctly.”
Eaton feels much the same. The 5-5 junior point guard will be expected to lead the Bears offense, and help find open looks for a team that sometimes struggles to score.
“I have got to come in and work my hardest and push the girls and everybody has just got to push each other to do their best,” Eaton said. “I hope we can do better, but as long as we come in and we try our best we will have to go with what we can get.”
Teamwork is the benchmark that all three seniors feel will be key to any success the Lady Bears might have.
“I think we could have a very big success rate, but teamwork has to be a very big priority,” Davis said. “We are really close as a team, we know everybody. We need lots of teamwork, getting to know each other and how each other plays.”
Bland County finished 14-11 last season, losing to Covington in the regional semifinals, one step away from a return trip to the state tournament. That, despite what Lady Bears’ head coach Jason Lambert called the ‘worst shooting team I have ever had.’
Lambert will be looking for Davis to help alleviate that issue.
“Davis is, by far, my best shooter. When she is on fire, she is as good as anybody I have ever had shooting the ball and I have had some good shooters,” said Lambert, whose top pupil was Laurel Hankins, who is now playing at Roanoke College. “She has got a pretty stroke, when she is on she is hard to beat.”
Getting the ball to the right person will be up to Eaton, who is also a standout volleyball player. Eaton spent the summer working on her game, attending camps at Wake Forest and the University of Tennessee, and competing in a tournament in Hampton, Va.
“The previous point guards have shown me how to be a leader and help the team do their best and get the best shot,” Eaton said. “You always want to take the best shot and even if you have a 3-pointer there could be a post posting up with an even closer shot like 15 feet.
“You always want to be able to see all the court and know their defense so you can get the best play.”
Lambert expects Eaton to do just that, as long as the excitable junior can stay under control.
“The biggest thing with her being a point guard is she is very, very athletic, very quick, but we try to pull her back because as a point guard you have got to be a little bit more calmer,” Lambert said. “A lot of our season is going to depend on her...
“She has a lot of experience from this summer. At times if she keeps her cool you will see she can really play...”
Another player who goes all out is Harris, the Bland High School homecoming queen, who does a little bit of everything for the Bears.
“Now that he has me playing on the wing I like shooting and I am getting better at it,” Harris said. “I am not the best shooter, but I am trying to get better, and I like to rebound so post is all right with me.”
Lambert just wants the 5-10 Harris on the floor. She is one of five Lady Bears who stand at least as tall as Harris. Lindsey Dean is the tallest at 5-11.
“The Harris girl is fun to watch because she has one speed, wide open,” Lambert said. “Defensively, offensively, and it doesn’t matter, practice scrimmage, it is the same way and you don’t see that much in girls like that.
“She is special, she doesn’t realize it, but she plays hard. She is a kid I think you could throw out on the football field and she would be the same way.”
Bland County is the rare school that brings in students from two schools — Bland and Rocky Gap — to field a 13-player team. Trying to get all of them together every day for practice or games could easily be a distraction, but it’s simply normal for the Lady Bears.
“We have learned each other,” Harris said. “I have known the people from Rocky Gap since I was little because I went to school (there) and then moved to Bland, but we have played sports together since we were freshmen and seventh grade...
“I think we know each other really well and how we play because we are so close and such a small school.”
While still the smallest school(s) in the MED, the Lady Bears expect to compete in a league that could be wide open for anyone to win.
Even Bland County.
“I think if we work together and we all have the same goal to come in and get better each day I think we will do pretty well,” Eaton said.
And, the community will be there to watch. Bland County sports are the only game in town, and they draw better than many larger schools in the area.
Harris knows what must happen to keep them coming, either to Bland or Rocky Gap.
“It feels pretty good to have a bunch of people cheering for you, but you have got to show up and do the work in order to keep the fans,” Harris said.
—Contact Brian Woodson