Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

February 24, 2014

Column: Memories rekindled on Tazewell Co. hoops circuit

— None of the Graham G-Men basketball players has the impressive physique of, say, Grayson County’s Max Rodgers or Virginia High’s Noah Walker. Even their coach says “they are kind of looked at funny when they walk in the gym.”

But what the G-Men lack in appearance, they make up for with a combination of technical competence, desire and tenacity.

As the first Southern Empire Conference boys basketball champions, they will get to showcase those qualities again, back at home, this Wednesday evening against Walker and the rest of the Virginia High Bearcats from Bristol in the region quarterfinals.

One other note about the G-Men: Graham won its last three regular-season games by the same score, 77-62. On Friday, the victory margin was 79-63, and on Saturday, 73-62.

Hmm. Pretty consistent.

Richlands, which gave Graham quite a battle in Saturday’s conference championship game, is still alive in the playoffs, and will travel to Conference 40 champ Gate City on Wednesday.

I watched the cool of the Blue Tornado pay off on Friday night after Grayson County jumped to an 11-0 lead.

In the second half, only once did either team lead by more than four points, and in the final minute the Richlands quintet was 8 for 10 from the free throw line to keep the Blue Devils at bay and take a 74-71 win, clinching an appearance in the regional tourney.

Senior Ben Brown said, “It was a huge game, knowing that it could possibly be my last. We knew we had to step up the intensity. Our fans did an excellent job keeping it loud in here (at Richlands Middle School). It really gave us the edge.”

“Tonight was probably the best chemistry we’ve had all year. We’re starting to peak here at the right time. I’m excited for what’s coming up.”

“Everybody was putting us off at the end of the year after a poor season last year, and it was great to come out here and surprise everybody.”

Teamwork was also the watchword for the Richlands girls, who won the inaugural Southern Empire Conference crown by forcing 18 turnovers to beat Grayson County 52-32 in Saturday’s conference championship.

“I thought we all pitched in and helped each other,” senior Brittany Allen told Daily Telegraph sports editor Brian Woodson after Saturday’s win.

• • •

It was refreshing to cover games last week in the gym at Tazewell and Richlands middle schools. Not only did I get to see some very good basketball, but I got to see some true sports fans and some coaches and administrators who greeted me once again with smiles.

At Tazewell, in addition to our devoted man at the county seat, Larry Hypes, I talked briefly with Vera Austin, who I first met in bygone days at Pocahontas High School. Debbie Glover was busy concentrating on her photography.

Richlands basketball coach Dennis Palmer, and what looked like the entire Lady Blues team, were watching intently to scout out the opposition they would probably be facing.

And I got to meet Tazewell coach Jason Southworth, who I’d talked to more than a dozen times on the phone but never had met face to face.

I sat beside a colleague from the Richlands newspaper, and as the action unfolded we were trading observations and helping each other out with stats. “Steal by 20!” one of us would shout. “Turnover by 14!” the other responded.

That night, teamwork of a sort did not stop at the edge of the playing floor.

On my last previous visit to the Tazewell Middle School gym, one of my postgame interviews was with the Lady Bulldogs’ sincere and dedicated coach, Bill Mitchell, who recently passed away. It had been that long ago.

On Friday night, I got to the Richlands gym doors during a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem in harmony, and I picked my way to a seat in near-total darkness as the Richlands starters trotted through a spotlight on the court.

Before the night was over, I traded jokes with local radio broadcaster Ron Brown, went over logistics with Richlands athletics director Ricky Ven-cill, and saw coaches Greg Mance and Brad Strong. I also had the unexpected treat of hanging out for a couple of minutes with Concord College (now University) alumnus Robert Majors, a mighty good football player in his time.

• • •

Speaking of Concord, it was a treat on Saturday to see familiar faces from the past of the women’s basketball program, who had played in a “maroon vs. gray” alumni game earlier in the day.

In all, 17 women returned to the floor for the game, including the Mountain Lions’ current assistant coach (and ex-point guard) Jamie Cluesman. Jolysa Brown got 22 points and five rebounds to lead the gray team to a 54-52 win. Shari Helvey scored 24 for the maroon team.

The alumni got to see current CU player Andrea Bertrand score her 1,000th point on a layup early in the game, becoming the 15th woman in Concord history to reach that point-scoring plateau.

She also cleared her 500th rebound. She is one of only six Concord women to grab at least 500 rebounds and score 1,000 points or more.

*****

Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist. Contact him at tbone @ bdtonline.com and follow on Twitter @BDTBone.

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