By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Four wide-eyed freshmen started for Bland County boys basketball four years ago, and the results were predictable.
Bland County finished 1-19.
It is now three years later and the Bears are one of eight Division 1 teams left playing in Virginia.
Needless to say, John Miller is enjoying the finish to his career.
“It is a lot better than when we started,” Miller said. “We started off bad in our first year and now we are a lot further than I would have ever imagined we come.”
That doesn’t mean that Miller and fellow seniors — all of whom are 1,000 point scorers — Asher Dillow, Chase Hankins and Darryl Clark, didn’t yearn for this type of success.
“We talked about it every year,” Miller said. “We have been wanting it since we were sophomores.”
That one-win season was followed by 8-16 and 13-13, with this year’s 14-10 mark leading to a Region C championship and a Group A Division 1 state quarterfinal contest on Saturday against John I. Burton (13-14) at Salem Civic Center. Tip-off is at 10 a.m.
The winner will face either Altavista or Surry County in the state semifinals next Thursday at Virginia Commonwealth’s Siegel Center in Richmond.
“These kids have been fantastic over the last four years,” Bland County head coach Rich Hankins said. “I haven’t had a minute of problems out 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.”
It was with this game in mind that the Bears refused to fold in the Region C tournament at Galax, rallying from large deficits to defeat Auburn (60-58) and Parry McCluer (58-49) to secure the team’s first boys region title.
“We don’t want to go home now,” Miller said. “We have come way too far now to go home. We have got to keep it going.”
They won’t be alone. Bland County has long supported its basketball program, and the Bears expect to have a large following when the Bears play the Raiders on Saturday morning.
“We have some great fans,” said John’s younger brother, Jonah, who is a sophomore for the Bears. “Over at Galax we had a bunch of people come and that really helps you when you have a lot of fans behind you.”
While the high-scoring seniors get plenty of much-deserved attention for their exploits, a basketball team is made up of many parts, and the Miller brothers have been key to Bland County success, which started the season at 7-1, struggled with injuries, illness and a difficult Mountain Empire District slate, but picked the right time to start playing their best ball.
“These kids are undersized playing against some of the kids that they have to play against inside in particular and they have battled,” Hankins said. “They have done it all year, John, in particular, for four years now and they have been invaluable to this basketball team.”
John contributes around six points and six rebounds a game for the Bears, who are usually smaller than the opposition, and the 6-1 senior knows he will have to pick up his efforts on the boards as the season continues.
While Miller doesn’t score the points his senior mates do, he just enjoys doing what he can to help bring them all success.
“It has been great playing with them,” John said. “I like that I have been there to help them get here and be there with them and watch them do it.
“I just do what I can and play as hard as I can to help them win. We have to play hard defense and I definitely have to start rebounding a lot more.”
Jonah, who is a 5-9 sophomore, is one of the first Bears off the bench, usually taking the place of his older brother. He didn’t expect to reach this point in the season so soon in his young career.
“I just come out and play my heart out off the bench,” Jonah said. “I just play defense, rebound and every now and then I will get a bucket. Not much is really expected out of me scoring-wise, next year will be different...
“I never really thought this would come around until my senior year.”
Next year can wait. Much like John, Hankins appreciates what Jonah does for the Bears.
“When he comes in he brings a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of toughness,” said Hankins, who last led the Bland (High School) Rockets to the state tournament 22 year ago. “He had really picked this team up when he has come off the bench.”
The Miller brothers, who also play baseball for Bland County, have a close relationship, but also a competitive one.
“It has been great,” John said. “We have our own little competition to see who outscores the other and see who outrebounds each other.”
“I was working with him when I was in seventh grade,” Jonah said. “I came to open gym because he was there so I have been working with him and it has been great playing with him.”
He added, with a smile. “I don’t listen to him much. I go off on my own ways. John tells me he is a better shooter, but I haven’t seen it.”
Bland County has had recent success at the state level, only it was the girls. The Lady Bears made three straight visits to the Division 1 state tourney, playing for the championship in 2009.
“I followed them to every game,” John said. “They played at Salem the last year we watched them and it really helped because I still remember the court and how it was set up and that definitely helps.”
What the Bears would like to do against J.I. Burton, which is led by Ervin Beaty and McKenzie Blair, is get a lead and actually play ahead for a change.
“We need to come out and play as hard as we can and hopefully get up at least by 10,” Jonah said. “We don’t want to get too big of a lead. We have to play hard defense and play together.”
It hasn’t been an easy trip to the state quarterfinals for the Bears, but the season may have received a spark when Bland County avenged an earlier 22-point loss to Graham on its home court with a 62-58 win over the G-Men a few weeks later.
“That was definitely a turning point for the season for us,” John said. “It really was. We had a lot of confidence coming into that game and we really wanted to beat them bad.”
That was followed by three losses by a combined 12 points, including a one-point defeat to Galax in the MED semifinals, which may have been a blessing in disguise.
“What I think helped us is we lost to Galax because we got a week off our feet preparing for Auburn,” Jonah said.
It worked. Bland County trailed by 17 at the break, but fought back for the two-point win against the Eagles, and the first boys state tournament appearance since 1991. That was followed by rallying from another double-digit deficit to beat top-seed Parry McCluer and claim the Region C crown.
No matter whether they are way behind or way ahead, the Bears plan to play with the same attitude against the Raiders.
“We played real hard defense,” John said, “and we just had the mindset that we were not going to lose.”
—Contact Brian Woodson