By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLAND, Va. —
Rich Hankins was the coach the last time Bland boys basketball team reached the state tournament, back when the Bland Rockets and Rocky Gap Eagles were separate programs.
It is now more than 22 years later and those schools’ athletic programs have been combined into one, with the Bland County Bears participating today in the Group A, Division 1 state quarterfinals.
No one has enjoyed the ride more than Hankins, who is still the coach of the Bears. His daughter, Laurel, led the Lady Bears to three consecutive state tournament appearances, including a finals appearance in 2009.
Now his son, Chase, is a senior on the Bears (14-10), who will play John I. Burton (13-14) in the state quarterfinals today at Salem Civic Center. Tip-off is slated for 10 a.m.
The winner will play either Altavista or Surry County in the Division 1 state semifinals on Thursday at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in Richmond.
“I can’t put it into the words,” Hankins said. “We have truly been blessed, me and my family in particular to have Laurel and such a fine career that she had and now Chase is kind of following that up.
“It is truly a blessing.”
It was Hankins who put four freshman on the floor as starters four years ago, and the Bears finished 1-19. He had a plan, with an eye toward a memorable senior season for 1,000-point scorers, Asher Dillow, Chase Hankins and Darryl Clark, along with inside presence John Miller.
Bland County followed with records of 8-16 and 13-13 before reaching their state tournament goal this season.
“These kids have been fantastic over the last four years,” Hankins said. “I haven’t had a minute of problems out of any of them so they have deserved this, they earned it the right to finish the season in the state tournament and the final eight.”
Bland County had to work to get to this point. After a 7-1 start to the season, the Bears were hampered by injuries, illness and being outmanned by larger schools with more players.
Yet, the Bears rallied from a pair of double-digit deficits to beat Auburn and Parry McCluer to capture the Region C championship.
“It has not been easy. This team, I wouldn’t necessarily say struggled from day one, but in one sense they have kind of struggled to finish games,” Hankins said. “Here in the last couple of weeks they have had a couple of miraculous comebacks and I am just excited for them going down the stretch here toward the state championship.”
Falling behind by double digits isn’t the preferred method for the Bears, who trailed by 17 at the break against Auburn and nine in the regional finals win over Parry McCluer played in Galax.
“Our tendency is if we get down 6 or 8 we have a little tendency to go 1 on 5 and force some shots offensively that normally results in a deeper hole than what we were in before we started,” Hankins said. “These kids have taken the attitude that they are not going to get beat, these last two games in particular.”
Both wins were led by a furious defensive effort, with the Bears outscoring the Eagles 43-24 and the Blues 42-24 on their way to the Region C title.
“Defensively they have just been outstanding,” Hankins said. “More than anything else, it is that attitude that says, ‘If you are going to beat us, we are going to give everything that we can possibly give out there on the floor.’
“They have fortunate the last two games in particular. I don’t see many teams coming back from 19-point second half deficits or 16-point deficits and winning going away so to speak.”
Dillow, who was the Mountain Empire District player of the year, Hankins and Clark are the primary scorers for the Bears, and they’ll be facing a team that likes to run the floor, led by Ervin Beaty and McKenzie Blair.
“We have looked at a couple of tapes the last couple of days,” Hankins said. “They are very athletic, they love to get out and run, it is going to be quite a challenge on our part to slow them down defensively and play in the halfcourt set...
“(Beaty) looks like he has a nice outside jump shot and (Blair) is very strong on the interior so those are the two kids we are going to have to key on.”
While the Bears are coming in having won twice in the Region C tourney, the Raiders defeated Haysi 66-55 and then lost to Castlewood 40-28 in the Region D finals in Bristol last Saturday.
“I think our biggest thing is we have to make them play a halfcourt game defensively, and we have struggled all year in keeping teams off the boards,” Hankins said. “There have been times when we have held our own and I think they will do that this weekend.
“The key for us is we have got to gain some confidence by shooting the basketball and shooting it well and I think they are ready to do that.”
That includes Dillow, who averages nearly 25 points a game, but was held to eight in the Region C finals by Parry McCluer.
Chase Hankins and Clark did their part with 23 points apiece.
“He is a tremendous shooter, all he needs is one shot to go in to get that confidence back so I think these kids are up to the challenge,” Hankins said. “I really do.”
No matter whether it is at Bland or Rocky Gap, the Bears play in a small gymnasium, and the Salem Civic Center facility is large and imposing. The Bears were able to practice at Bluefield College on Thursday and had a shootaround on Friday at Roanoke College, which is where Laurel is now playing for the Maroons.
Hankins knows his team will begin the journey to Salem alone, but the Bears will be joined by many residents of Bland County when the ball is tipped early this morning.
No wonder Hankins was so glad the Bears won the Region C title and earned a state quarterfinal game close to home.
“I know that every person is Bland County is going to be behind this basketball team and that is going to give us a tremendous lift going into Saturday’s ball game,” Hankins said.
“Bland County has always been behind the basketball program and it is a big plus for us to be playing in Salem.”
—Contact Brian Woodson