Is there a basketball renaissance in the Valley?
There is a lot to look forward to as spring approaches and brings with it the urge to get outside and enjoy the warmth and sunshine. Some of my favorite days are when temperatures get up to about 70 degrees and shorts rejoin the wardrobe
The sports calendar flips to activities like baseball, softball, soccer and track & field. As eager as I - and everyone, probably - am to enjoy outdoor sports and more daylight, let’s look back at the phenomenal basketball season that just took place in the Swannanoa Valley.
On any given night the entire winter, you could walk into the gyms at Owen, Montreat or Warren Wilson and feel the energy you can feel only during basketball season.
Support for the sport, which has provided the Valley with many memorable moments and players, made me think of stories about standing-room-only games during the Owen Warlassies 90-0 run in the 1960s. This season also evoked visions of a time when large crowds would gather to watch Warren Wilson take on Montreat in the old Own High School gymnasium.
With impressive, young rosters, the Owen boys and girls teams made solid runs this year.
The Warlassies girls team was led by freshman Chesney Gardner, an all-conference selection along with sophomores Dee Graves and Ashley Valencia. A wealth of athletic guards allowed them to pressure opponents and create turnovers all season.
At the beginning of the season, head coach Tim Raines said the team one of the most athletic Owen teams he had coached in more than two decades. He said he thought the team was capable of winning 20 games. Finishing 19-10, the Warlassies advanced to the second round of the state playoffs after losing in the conference championship by only 8 points. They could potentially return with the entire roster intact, minus only two seniors.
The Warhorses boys team was 12-4 in its last 16 games, but the record over that span doesn’t tell the complete story. Owen lost its conference championship to Polk, a team it was facing for the fourth time this season. The Warhorses were 3-0 against the Wolverines up to that point.
The boys team also witnessed the emergence of a young trio of all-conference players - juniors Mathew Brown and Brian Bartlett and sophomore Ben Craig. Bartlett and Craig split the scoring almost evenly. Brown was less than a rebound per game shy of averaging a double-double. Craig averaged 5.5 assists per game, while Bartlett pulled down around eight rebounds per contest.
They took the Warhorses into round two of the state playoffs. The team produced more victories than any other team in coach Chuck Robinson’s time with the program.
The men’s team at Montreat struggled this year, but freshman from Alonzo Mobley, from Lincolnton, led the team in scoring with more than 15 points per game. He was named freshman of the year in the Appalachian Athletic Conference.
The Montreat women’s team improved by 10 games from the 2014-15 season, but the players saved their best work for the postseason. The Cavaliers entered the conference tournament as a number 9 seed and upset top-seeded Milligan, ranked number 23 in the country. They won their third game by defeating Bluefield, advancing to the championship game.
WWC had a special basketball season. Leading the team to a 17-12 record, freshman Danasia Dumas became the women’s team first ever all-American. The Owls finished the season with a six-game winning streak. All but three seniors should return next year.
Enjoying one of its best seasons, the men’s team was rewarded with a number 4 seed in the USCAA Div-II National Championship tournament (the selection was the highest in school’s history).
Attending many of the Owls’ home games were members of the Owen basketball team. They were supporting the team that had worked with them prior to the start of the high school season. In fact, it was not at all uncommon to see the Warren Wilson men’s team in the stands supporting the Warhorses when they played at Owen.
The basketball community in the Valley emanated a constant buzz throughout the normally quiet winter months. With so many talented players on the area’s collegiate and Owen teams, it feels like the beginning of a basketball renaissance.