Talented trio of athletes to be inducted Sept. 1
There has never been a time when athletics weren't important to high schools in the Swannanoa Valley. The fierce athletic rivalry between the Swannanoa High School Warriors and the Black Mountain Dark Horses lived on in a symbol of ferociousness - the Warhorses - when the schools consolidated in 1955 to form the Valley's only high school, Owen High.
A rich athletic history is represented on a plaque in the school's cafeteria, just outside of the gymnasium door. Inscribed there are the names of 33 people who have been inducted into the Swannanoa, Black Mountain and C.D. Owen High Schools Hall of Fame.
At 5 p.m. Sept. 1 in Owen High's media center, the hall of fame will recognize a younger generation of Owen athletes by inducting a trio who had impressive careers in the Swannanoa Valley and beyond.
Steven Hensley and Corinne Groves-Neal, both 2005 graduates of Owen, will be inducted, as will Stephanie Jones, class of 2011. The trio includes some of the "most decorated athletes to every come out of the school," said Carl Bartlett, a member of the hall of fame committee for more than 20 years and chairperson for eight.
"Anyone can nominate a former Owen athlete for the hall," Bartlett said. "We have an application, and on it is listed the contributions made to the athletic program while at the school, accomplishments as an athlete or coach beyond the high school and contributions to the community."
Few who witnessed Jones, this year's youngest inductee, play softball, basketball and volleyball for the Warlassies will be surprised to hear her name called when, following the induction ceremony, the group is introduced during halftime of the Owen-Reynolds game. Jones' former softball coach, Don McGeary, who won't be able to attend the event, certainly won't be surprised.
Jones began racking up athletic accomplishments as a freshman in 2008, when she was named the school's female athlete of the year. That year she earned the first of four Western Highlands Conference Player of the Year honors as a softball player. McGeary, who coached the Warlassies from 2005-10, had long been familiar with her work.
McGeary coached at Owen Middle in 1996 when fast-pitch softball replaced slow-pitch. He worked with a group of girls who would bring state championships to Owen in 1999 and 2000, when he was an assistant coach at the high school.
"When my daughter returned from college she became acquainted with a group of kids in the neighborhood and started working with a travel (softball) team," he said. "She asked me to help out with that team around 2003. And Stephanie was on that team."
Dean McElrath, the head coach of the back-to-back Warlassies' championship teams who was himself was inducted into the hall in 2007, retired prior to the 2005 season. McGeary stepped in and was reunited with Jones.
"She was a really talented athlete," McGeary said. "I wasn't really surprised at how well she did as a freshman, I was kind of anticipating her having a big career.
Jones exceeded those expectations. She earned her first of three 2-A All-State Player of the Year award and dozens of other accolades. In 2011, her senior season at Owen, she hit .663, with 61 doubles, 12 triples and nine home runs. The Asheville Citizen-Times named her All-WNC Player of the Year that year.
"I was certainly aware that seeing someone perform at that level was rare," McGeary said. "I don't think I really appreciated that until that season was over. I was keenly aware she was capping off an amazing career."
Jones, who still holds the state's single-season record for hits (69, in 2011), continued to put up big numbers at Campbell University. The softball player earned Big South Freshman of the Year honors in 2012. She earned first-team all-conference recognition in three of her four seasons for the Camels.
Tim Raines, who coached the Owen Warlassies basketball team more than 20 years before retiring last season, will introduce Groves-Neal, one of his former players, during her induction into the hall.
"She's six-feet-three-inches tall, and that's an attribute you don't see a lot," he said. "But she had such tremendous dexterity and physical abilities. I always used to kid around with her and say 'you could be the first girl to every dunk at Owen,' and I was kind of saying that in jest but not really because she was that good of an athlete."
The forward possessed a skill set that, when combined with her size, made her unstoppable on the court for the Warlassies.
"She would pull down the rebound, throw the outlet pass and be the first one back down the floor on offense," Raines recalled.
Grove-Neal was the state's 2004, 2-A Miss Basketball runner-up and scored "around 1,900 points in her career," according to Raines. As a freshman she was one of a trio of front-court Warlassies who were 6-foot-3 or taller.
"She was such an amazing talent," Raines said. "The way she ran the floor was unbelievable."
Grove-Neal went on to play at Wake Forest University, where she helped propel the Demon Deacons to a top 25 ranking for the first time in more than two decades. She racked up more than 1,100 points and 1,400 rebounds as a collegiate player.
"She had an amazing career," Raines said. "You don't play in the (Atlantic Coast Conference) and have that kind of success if there isn't something special about you."
While Groves-Neal was dominating on the basketball court at Owen, Hensley, the third member of this year's hall of fame group, was turning heads on the baseball diamond. Anthony Lee, the athletic director at Owen who has been coaching baseball at the school for 17 seasons, vividly remembers what made Hensley stand out.
"He was a fierce competitor," Lee said. "I've never had a pitcher who wanted the ball in crucial game situations or tough games like he did. He gave us the best opportunity to win against tough competition."
Drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 44th round of the 2005 MLB amateur draft, Hensley instead chose to attend Elon University for four years. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 2008 draft by the Seattle Mariners before an eight-year career as a professional pitcher. But his arm was only one aspect of his game, Lee recalls.
"What a lot of people don't realize when they think of Steven is what a great hitter he was," Lee said. "Since I've been at Owen he has the highest batting average over a full season of any player. He hit .546 as a senior."
Hensley earned all-state honors following his junior and season seasons for the Warhorses and was a two-time team MVP and three-time All-WHC selection. He was named Southern Conference Freshman of the Year at Elon and selected to the 2006 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Team. He spent time in the Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Angels organizations.
Hensley set a Mexican Pacific League record for saves on his way to winning a championship with the Venados de Mazatlan in 2015. That performance earned him a spot on Mexico's team in the 2016 Caribbean Series, the highest club-level tournament in Latin America.