By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
There is little doubt Richlands has one of the better athletic programs in the area.
The football and softball teams have won state championships, the girls basketball team has played at the Final Four two years in a row, and baseball team is a regular participant at the regional level on the diamond.
Even the golf and volleyball teams have made an impact in the postseason.
There is one glaring piece that has been missing.
Richlands boys basketball coach Jody Fuller knows all about it.
The next time the Blue Tornado wins a regional basketball game will be the first time.
“From what they are telling me we haven’t (won a regional game),” said Fuller, in his third season with the Blues. “Of course, that is the goal. I feel like all that will just take care of itself if we do what we are supposed to do...
“I am real excited about the future.”
Richlands has had plenty of talented basketball players over the years, including Timmy Brown, Ben Mulkey and Gunner McGee, just to name a few, but none of them have been able to bring Richlands a regional win.
Could the current Blue Tornado put an end to that run?
Fuller is hopeful. He has just nine players — one of whom has been injured since suffering a shin injury while warming up for football in August — and six of those are freshmen.
“We are playing five (freshmen), we still have one injured, we are starting three right now,” Fuller said. “Whenever he gets healthy we will be playing six.”
The other three are seniors.
It’s all about the future at Richlands, and it has looked good so far through 11 games, with the Blue Tornado currently at 6-5, with a real shot of being at least 8-3.
It doesn’t get any easier. Up next is a five-game gauntlet with Martinsville, Graham, Lebanon, Abingdon and Virginia High, perhaps five of the best teams in this part of the state.
Don’t expect these youngsters to panic.
“This young bunch has loved it,” Fuller said. “They have played a lot of ball, I have been looking forward to having these kids.”
While Richlands was struggling to a 3-18 record last season, those six freshmen were busy winning the Southwest District junior varsity championship with a 19-2 mark.
Fuller wasted no time putting them on the floor.
“I am confident in their skill level, but their physical maturity, some of them don’t look like varsity basketball players when you look at them in street clothes or even in uniform,” said Fuller, with a smile.
One of those freshmen is his son, Cody Fuller, who is averaging 11.0 points a game. He has been joined in the starting lineup by classmates 6-foot-3 Luke Phillips, who is scoring more than 13 points and ‘lot of rebounds’ a night and 6-2 point guard Ethan Ratliff, who is providing 8.5 points and nearly 7.0 assists a contest.
Scottie Ball and Grant Herndon are also talented freshmen, as is 6-3 Landon Lowe, a talented scorer around the basket, who Fuller hopes to have back soon.
All of those freshmen have had shining moments for the Blue Tornado, who are 6-5 on the season, having won three games in a row.
Phillips has scored as many as 30 points in a game, while Ratliff had 17 points in a win over Tazewell. Cody Fuller had 17 against Grundy. Ball has had games of 21, 20 and 17 points, while Herndon had 12 points, including four 3s against the Golden Wave.
“Their skill level, they are even or ahead at some point,” Fuller said. “They are giving up height and strength and size and quickness, everything you get with maturity so they are going to get better as they go.”
Keeping them together will be the key. Look what can happen when a group of kids hang together, work through the hard times, and strive for the top.
The Blues don’t have to look far for inspiration.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Richlands girls basketball team won six game in three years, including an 0-23 mark in 2009. Yet, help was on the way. Players like current seniors Brittany Allen and Sarah Compton, and recently departed Cassidy Richardson, Rachel Alley and MaKenley Davis, believed in themselves and achieved beyond possibly even their wildest dreams.
Following that path to success would be fine with Fuller, but don’t count on those wins just yet. These are kids with lots of distractions along the way.
“I hope to be, the only thing that worries me looking forward is grades, girls, cars, injuries...,” he said. “If we can avoid the pitfalls, it can be a special time.”
Keeping those freshmen focused on basketball has been helped by a trio of seniors, including Ben Brown, Zach Johnson and Anthony Austin, who didn’t follow the trend in recent seasons of players choosing to leave the program for various reasons.
Brown, who stars in three sports at Richlands, is the undisputed leader of the Blues — no matter what the sport — averaging 15 points and 13 rebounds a game. He is a double-double machine for the Blue Tornado, and nearly added a second triple-double in last Saturday’s win over Twin Valley, finishing with nine steals against the Panthers.
Looking for a role model? Brown is it.
“Ben Brown is just unbelievable,” Fuller said. “He just plays so hard. He is not a real vocal leader, but you watch him and if you are not giving it everything you have got, you are ashamed of yourself real quick when you are playing beside him because you would stick out like a sore thumb.”
Johnson, who had 10 points and six rebounds in Tuesday’s win over Tazewell, has also improved in the post for the Blues. Austin, who plays with half a right arm, has also provided points in recent games.
“Zach played a good game,” Fuller said. “He is starting to finish real good around the goal right now.”
It has been a building process for Fuller, who took over the program from Jimmy McGee three years ago. Two-sport star and current Marshall football player Devon Johnson led the Blues to a 10-win season two years ago, and the Blues were 3-18 mark in 2013.
“By the end of the (first) year we were pretty respectable,” Fuller said. “Last year we struggled, we really struggled last year so I knew that early on it was going to be tough.
“We were young, but I am just excited about the future, brighter days are ahead.”
Regional play still exists in Virginia despite all the changes in the VHSL postseason format. Richlands will host the Conference 39 tournament in February, with the top two teams moving on to regional play.
Conference 39 looks a lot like the old Southwest District, with Richlands, Tazewell, Graham, Grundy and Marion joined by Grayson County.
It could be anyone’s tournament? Why not the Blues?
“I hear we are hosting the conference tournament so we will roll with it,” Fuller said.
No matter what happens as this season progresses, Richlands boys basketball will go as far as the youngsters take them.
Experience now will pay off later. Just ask the Lady Blues, who are a serious threat to play in another state tournament in March.
“I am excited about it,” Fuller said. “I like the momentum of the program right now and I am excited about the future.”
He should be.
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org