When the Warlassies won it all

Fred McCormick

The proud athletic tradition at Owen High School is highlighted by names like Roy Williams, Brad Johnson, Brad Daugherty, Jager Gardner and Kenny Ford.

But before any of them stepped through the doors of the school and into Warhorse lore, there was Bill Rucker and the Owen Warlassies. A team that began winning basketball games in 1964 did not stop winning for five years.

The 90-game winning streak was just one of many accomplishments for Rucker, who was inducted into the WNC Sports Hall of Fame and the N.C. High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. Rucker won 638 games as a high school basketball head coach.

In an era before Title IX provided equal access to school programs for males and females, basketball was the default sport of choice for high school girls growing up in the Swannanoa Valley.

Carol Tyson - Carol Rozzell while at Owen - was one of three Rozzell sisters to play for the Warlassies. Their father encouraged his daughters to participate in sports, and their move to Swannanoa Valley put them in a place where they could get some quality coaching.

“Our dad moved here from Tennessee, and he was the plant engineer at Beacon Manufacturing. And at that time Beacon had fabulous summer programs,” Carol Tyson recalled. “They brought Eddie Biedenbach, the star basketball player, in for the summers, and they ran all kinds of other summer sports programs.”

Beacon’s outreach in the community helped create a pool of young, talented basketball players who played for Rucker at Owen High, named for Beacon Manufacturing’s founder, Charles Owen. His intensity on the court allowed him to mold the players into one unit, said Carl Bartlett, a longtime supporter and observer of the school’s athletic programs.

“You can’t underestimate the talent that Bill (Rucker) had on those team,” Bartlett said. “And as a coach he was ahead of his time, both on the defensive end and with offensive plays.

“When you started talking about basketball with him, his entire personality changed. He just loved girls’ basketball,” Bartlett continued. “I think he may have intimidated people because he would get so red-faced and so worked up, but he was a super, super good guy.”

Tyson’s sister, Peg Rozzell, believes that Rucker’s presence in itself was enough to motivate the young players on the team.

“The first practice I went to as a freshman I was in good shape, but I was not prepared,” Rozzell said. “We started running, and pretty soon I thought I was going to be throwing up. I ran over to Carol and said ‘I can’t,’ and she said ‘Well sit down,’ and I looked over at Coach Rucker and thought ‘I will fall over dead before I go sit down.’”

Conditioning was among many factors that played a role in the dominance of the Warlassies during a winning streak that remains the longest in the state among active high schools (now-defunct Bailey High School won 107 straight from 1957-1964).

Sarah Horne, who graduated from Owen in 1967, was also another big part of the team’s success, according to Bartlett.

“Sarah Horne is by far the best basketball player to ever come out of Western North Carolina,” he said. “She was amazing.”

Horne deflects credit for the team’s success, giving it instead to her teammates.

“We were the bomb back then,” she Horne. “Bill Rucker’s first year at Owen was my first year at Owen, and I was very naive because I thought that everybody just got to play like we did when we were in grammar school. We had enough players for three teams, and they were all good.”

Horne, whose father heading into her freshman season took on a part-time job to buy her first pair of basketball shoes, remembers Beacon’s commitment to supporting the Warlassies.

“Any girl on that team that needed anything Beacon Manufacturing provided it. It was amazing,” Horne said. “They suited us up with white blazers for home games and maroon blazers for away games. So not only were we good, we looked good.”

During the winning streak, Warlassies games at the Owen High gymnasium (now the Owen Middle School gym) were standing room-only affairs . The team’s 43rd consecutive victory was played in Asheville in front of a crowd of 3,200 people. It was commemorated with custom blankets from Beacon.

In the Swannanoa Valley, ropes were placed around the court to keep the crowd from spilling over onto the court. Cold winter nights did little to prevent fans from coming to the games.

Rozzell recalls a sense of urgency that she felt making sure, regardless of winter weather, that she made it to practice. The first time she drove in the snow, at the tender age of 16, she was headed to basketball practice. “There was no way I was going to miss it,” she said.

Following their second straight undefeated season, the Warlassies were recognized with a resolution by the State of North Carolina, commending them for their performance.

“That was a really special team,” Carol Tyson said. “And it was a team that really wanted to win.”

Sherry Osteen was Sherry Robinson when she was at Owen. Her experiences on the team during that winning stretch helped her as a teacher at Black Mountain Primary, a position she held for 34 years, she said.

“We learned a lot about teamwork and drive,” she said. “We learned to work hard and strive for the best.”

Tyson, who never lost a game as a member of the Warlassies, recalled a moment that made her particularly proud to be a part of the streak.

“Our last game my senior year we won the Buncombe County tournament and were all there in our pretty Beacon blazers,” she said. “The man who presented the trophies took a moment to praise the Owen girls’ basketball team not only for their play, but for their sportsmanship.”

Bartlett, who attended many of the Warlassies’ games during the streak, believes that the team’s impact reached well beyond the Swannanoa Valley.

“The longer the streak went on, the more excitement built up around the team,” he said. “I think that the streak in itself helped girls’ basketball throughout Western North Carolina by drawing attention to the sport.”