By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Craig Ponder can still remember his final game as a member of the Bluefield Beavers.
So can everyone else who saw it.
However, what Ponder recalls most about scoring 56 points in an 85-83 regional contest at Wyoming East in March of 2010 is the final result.
“I think about that game every day, but I wish we could have won it,” Ponder said. “I would have rather won than score 56.
“If I had had zero and we had won I would have enjoyed it more.”
That ended Ponder’s high school career, but his playing days continue, having recently completed his redshirt freshman season at North Carolina-Wilmington, a Division I school that plays in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“It was real physical,” said Ponder, of his first season at the collegiate level. “I wasn’t expecting college basketball to be that physical, but I am learning the game and I am just trying to improve as a player.”
Ponder, who attended Hargrave Military Academy in 2011, played in four games and started three last year for the Seahawks, but his season came to an premature end due to a foot injury.
He showed potential in that short span, averaging 5.0 points, 3.0 assists and 2.5 rebounds in those four games.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Ponder returned to the court this season, starting in 24 games and playing in all 30 for the Seahawks, who struggled to an overall mark of 10-20 and a 5-13 record in the guard-focused CAA.
“They play hard, and there are a lot of big guards in the league too so you have got to be mentally ready,” said Ponder, whose Seahawks lost nine games by nine points or less, including two of their final three contests by one point each.
Ponder was third on the Seahawks in scoring with 8.5 points a game. He also contributed 2.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists, along with 20 steals and six blocked shots. He also connected on 76.7 percent of his free throw attempts, and made 37 shots from 3-point range.
He was at his best with 26 points in a loss at Marshall in December, and added 23 against Towson. He also led the Seahawks in scoring against Georgia State (17), Old Dominion (16) and Delaware (14).
There were other games where his numbers weren’t what he would have liked.
“I was inconsistent, that is the main thing I wish I could have improved on is consistency,” Ponder said. “Some games I might have like 16 and 18 and 15 and then the next game I would 4.
“In my sophomore year I have just got to improve on consistency.”
Ponder’s season came to an early end, but not through any fault of his own. North Carolina-Wilmington was one of 10 schools that was ineligible for postseason play because of their low Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, a list that also included NCAA power Connecticut.
“Next year we will be fine,” Ponder said. “We will be back in the tournament.
Coaching the Seahawks is Buzz Peterson, who played guard with Michael Jordan at North Carolina, and has since been the head coach at Tulsa, Tennessee, Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and just completed his third season at UNC-Wilmington.
“His resume is pretty strong,” Ponder said. “You have got to stay focused, you can’t let some of the things he says get to you in the heat of the moment. He wants the best out of you and you just have to take it in a positive way.”
Ponder returns to school this week after the completion of spring break, and will be busy preparing for next season.
“Just start working out,” he said. “Just try to prepare and get bigger and get stronger and improve my shot a little bit and get ready for next year.”
Ponder was joined on the front row at the Brushfork Armory on Wednesday for the Beavers’ Region III co-championship game against Wyoming East by his brother, Ansel, who played college football at Western Michigan and Concord.
Both were part of success at Bluefield, with Ansel being part of a team that lost to Ravenswood in the 2006 Class AAA finals, while Craig and the Beavers also lost to Ravenswood in the semifinals in 2009.
They were both on hand to support the Beavers as they defeated the Warriors 72-56 and will return to Charleston this week, looking for the state championship that eluded them last year in a 58-52 loss to Tug Valley in the title game.
“I love watching these guys play, they play with a lot of determination and a lot of heart,” Ponder said. “I think it is the best team we have had in a while.”
Part of that team is another Ponder — Jordan — a sophomore guard, who both brothers have said could be the best of three brothers on the court. He saw significant playing time against the Warriors, but passed up a few shots that his siblings thought he should have taken.
“I try to stay on him to build his confidence,” Craig said. “I think that is his main problem is he doesn’t have any confidence. He could play a lot better, I don’t know what is wrong with him.
“He can make it, I don’t know why he don’t shoot it.”
Not long after both Ponders rose in unison to urge Ponder to shoot an open 3, Jordan took the ball into the lane and hit a short jumper, the type of play Craig learned by simply working on his game.
Both will be doing just that in the offseason.
“He just has to keep working,” Ponder said. “After this season and this summer he has to get in the gym a lot and improve and he will be good.”
Ponder must return to school this week and won’t be able to watch his Beavers in Charleston, but does feel like this team could bring home Bluefield’s first state title on the court since claiming consecutive crowns in 1995-96.
“They got there last year,” Ponder said. “They lost some key players like K.J. (Manns) but the way these guys are playing right now and how strong they are, their confidence is high, I think they can win it all.”
While Ponder won’t be in attendance, the Beavers won’t be far from his mind ... or his phone. Perhaps Jordan will be the family member who finally attains that elusive state championship.
“I will follow them online and through the radio,” Ponder said. “I will be calling the guys and encouraging them and hopefully they will get the ring.”
—Contact Brian Woodson