With Carroll County’s boys’ basketball team off to the best start in school history, it’s only natural to wonder how this year’s squad would fare against some of the greatest teams of Cavalier past.
Unquestionably atop that list is the 1978-79 team that finished 24-2, won the regional championship and made the first of two consecutive trips to the state’s final four. Led by 6-7 junior Pat Sharp and 6-6 senior Terry Edwards, the Cavaliers not only had height that most teams simply could not match, they also outgunned opponents with perhaps the best backcourt in school history with talented guards such as Steve Dowdy, Len Conner and Terry Dalton.
Possibly the only thing more impressive than the team’s margin of victory of 18.2 points per game was the enormous afros many of the Cavaliers proudly sported back then. And while disco was king off the court, Carroll was dancing all over teams in the gym.
“To me there is no comparison,” said Gene Hawks, then a student at CCHS and now a local referee. “We talk about kids today getting bigger and stronger and playing above the rim, but the school mile and 100 (meter) records are still held by kids from 1979. Pat Sharp and Terry Edwards were first-team All-State and Players of the Year in the region. Terry was Player of the Year in his conference at UVa-Wise, and was an Academic All-American. Steve Dowdy played college ball. Pat Sharp played at Western Carolina, and Len Conner was one of the best athletes ever to come through Carroll County, going on to play college football at Wake Forest. And Tim Tolbert still has the mile and two-mile records at Carroll County.”
Indeed, Sharp would go on to grow to 6-8 and be a major force at Division I school Western Carolina. During the 1978-79 season, he averaged 19.6 points and 11.4 rebounds, while Edwards would score 20.3 points and grab a then-school record 12.6 rebounds per game. The duo went off in a 111-86 win over Narrows, with Sharp scoring 21 points and hauling in 23 rebounds and Edwards going for 33 points and 14 boards.
The team was so dominant it averaged 77.3 points per game without the benefit of the 3-point shot and shot 52 percent from the field as a team…for the entire season. Even though Sharp admits to not taking in a Carroll basketball game this year, he said it is hard to compare teams separated by 34 years.
“It’s a different style of basketball, not the same that was played in our generation. And the competition was tougher then. The New River District at that time was probably the premier district in the state,” Sharp said. “Somebody from the New River District was in the semifinals or finals several years in a row from the mid-70s to almost the mid-80s because you had George Wythe that played in a couple of state championships in the mid-80s. Blacksburg was good, Giles was competitive, Narrows, Galax, the list just goes on and on.”
Indeed, the current version of the Southwest District is a far cry from the old New River District, which featured a 16-game schedule with nine teams in 1978-79. Those teams also had the edge in fan attendance. Folks from that generation swear you had to get to the gym at the start of the JV game if you wanted a seat for the varsity contest, and the bleachers were packed to the rafters.
With a margin of victory of 22.1 points per contest after 18 games, the current Carroll team is slightly ahead of its former counterparts. And there are some common opponents to compare as well in Pulaski, Radford, George Wythe, Christiansburg and Galax. This year’s Carroll team has beaten Pulaski by an average of 23.5 points in two contests, while the 1978-79 team bounced the Cougars by an average of 11 in two games. It should be noted that Pulaski County was a AAA school at that time, however.
The 2012-13 Cavaliers also beat George Wythe by 29 points compared to an average of 20 points 34 years ago. The current Carroll squad also beat Radford by 10, Christiansburg by nine and Galax by an average of 20 points, compared to the 78-79 club’s average of 11 points in wins over Radford and 26.5 points over Christiansburg in two victories.
The 1978-79 team previously held the school record for best start with a 9-0 record before losing a 73-71 heartbreaker to Galax in which Marc Quesenberry scored 48 points. In the rematch, Carroll obliterated the Maroon Tide 88-57, holding Quesenberry to 32 points.
“I am friends with Marc Quesenberry and he was a pretty special high school player,” said Len Conner. “He only got 32 against me. His average was 33.3, so I tell everybody I shut him down.”
Granted, those old New River teams were a lot stronger back in those days, making a comparison between eras hard to do. But after the loss to Galax, Carroll County would go on to win its next 15 games, including four wins over fellow NRD-power Blacksburg to claim the first district and regional championships in school history.
The current Carroll County team has plenty of size with Lucas Holder, Tyler Lineberry and Duncan Reece all measuring in at around 6-6 and Austin Horton and Cody Keith at about 6-4. While it has much frontcourt depth, so too did its 1978-79 elders. Aside from Sharp and Edwards, that team also had talented big men in Tolbert at 6-3 and Ray Snow at 6-4, averaging 6 and 3.8 points, respectively.
Both teams could go big or small, depending on matchups, and both were able to play a fast-paced style or slow it down. The current Carroll team has great guard play with returning district player of the year Ryan Gravley, along with Gunner Beamer, Connor Lundy and Chris Smoot. Like this team, the 78-79 squad had a fantastic guard in Dowdy that averaged 14.1 points per game and would go on to score over 1,000 career points. Combined with Conner (8.4 points, 108 assists), Carroll had a great backcourt then along with an up-and-coming sophomore guard named Terry Dalton that would go on to be one of the best pure shooters to ever come through Carroll County, and Ricky Hawks.
While the 2012-13 Cavs punish most opponents with a devastating press, the guard play and height of the team from 34 years ago would have rendered the press moot, most believe.
“People tried to press us and we didn’t have any trouble with it,” Sharp said. “We were a matchup problem for everybody. But the biggest thing is it was just a different style of basketball then. We didn’t have the 3-point line in those days.”
Added Tolbert, “The times we were pressed they weren’t very effective. We had a pretty effective press breaker and could pass over it because of our size. We played Pulaski and they pressed the entire game with two squads of people, running in five and then five more, but they didn’t give us too much trouble.”
Tolbert, now an attorney in Hillsville, said Carroll was fortunate to have Sharp and Edwards on the same team, who he called two of leading players ever to play at CCHS, along with one of the best point guards in school history in Dowdy.
“Then we kind of filled out the starting lineup with Len Conner, myself and Ray Snow. There was just a lot of size and a lot of talent on that team,” said Tolbert, a senior on that team. “We weren’t the fastest team in the world, but we were certainly the tallest in the New River District at that time. And it was a lot of very good rivalries with Blacksburg and Radford, which were always really good back then, as well as Galax with Marc Quesenberry. He was the leading scorer in the state his senior year. He scored more points per game than Ralph Sampson.”
Perhaps one little lesser known aspect to Carroll’s success in those days was its work ethic. Believing the statute of limitations to be up on VHSL violations, Tolbert let The Carroll News in on head coach Dave Bentley’s grueling practice schedule.
“We had an athletic study hall starting at about 2:30. It wasn’t uncommon to practice from 2:30 until 7. Then in the preseason we practiced all day,” Tolbert said. “They put paper on the windows. I don’t know if that was because of rules or not. The summer before we probably played 30 basketball games against other teams like John Battle, Tennessee High and William Byrd. We played them multiple times and we would play eight or 12 quarters. It was a full-time job.”
Conner jokingly says Tolbert must have left early for some practices because he remembers many going longer.
“Some of the things they did back then, I don’t think it would pass under VHSL rules anymore. The most I have practiced for anything was for basketball in those days,” Conner said. “But I think we were a pretty good team. We put a lot of hard work into that team.”
After graduating in 1979, Edwards followed Bentley to play college basketball at Clinch Valley. Ironically, he said college practices at the Wise school were less grueling than those old CCHS practices under Bentley.
“It was pretty brutal. I never appreciated a drink of water so much as I did playing for Coach Bentley,” Edwards said. “I always told people our practices in college were easier than they were in high school. I told Coach Bentley that and he said in college a lot of players come with the basics already there, and you don’t spend as much time on basics.”
Perhaps Bentley’s coaching style came from his first season at West Point, where he played on the freshman basketball team for Bobby Knight, long regarded as one of the toughest coaches in the profession.
“I don’t know if that is the case or not,” Bentley said when asked if Knight influenced his coaching style. “I will let others judge that.”
Conner said having two players at 6-7 and 6-6 in the low post was unheard of for a team from this area in those days. Aside from the long practices, he said Bentley gave the team advantages over other squads because of his own work ethic.
“I guess the biggest thing was our coach used to scout the other team. I’ve always had coaches do that in football, but I had never heard of scouting the other team in basketball. That was a big advantage,” said Conner. “Bentley used to have a plan for every team that we played that year. One of the biggest things I remember was our defensive goal for a particular game. For Blacksburg we wanted to keep them to 52 points, but Narrows, our defensive goal that year was to try to keep them at 80 points. We could play fast or we could play slow. He pretty much had every game lined up for us that year.”
A press would have been fruitless against that team, Conner said, remembering the time the Cavs hung 111 on Narrows when it employed the pressure.
“The biggest difference in my era and their era has got to be the 3-point shot. I don’t know if we could have competed in this era as well as we did in that era because of the 3-point shot. It is a great equalizer, but I think I would like to have tried it,” said Conner. “Terry Dalton didn’t play that much that year, but he would have benefitted in his time from the 3-pointer.”
Connor called himself a small cog in the wheel that was the 1978-79 Carroll basketball team. But it is a time he will always cherish, especially for the values Bentley instilled in that group.
“A lot of that shaped the way I look at things in life by the way we practiced and played and were coached. Bentley was a pretty good mentor about discipline,” Conner said. “I took all that with me in life. It helped me when I went on to play football in college.”
A coach’s perspective
Under Bentley’s tutelage, Jeff Reynolds began a long and illustrious career with his very first coaching job as an assistant with the 1978-79 CCHS team. After two years as an assistant, he became the head coach for one season at Carroll. From there, he went on to become a graduate assistant coach at James Madison University, beginning what is currently a 31-year college coaching career that has led him to be the head coach at Wingate University for three seasons, and most recently as the head coach at the Air Force Academy for five seasons. Currently, he is the Director of Basketball Operations at Marquette University.
“I was very fortunate to be able to have been mentored by a guy that was so intelligent, so well-read, such a good basketball mind. He was probably ahead of his time and had a knack for getting the guys to play together,” Reynolds said. “We had so much talent, but yet they played so well together and I think that is a compliment to Coach Bentley.”
Reynolds said Carroll was extremely fortunate to have a unique combination of size with Sharp and Edwards, and great perimeter play with Dowdy and Connor, with Tolbert complimenting them.
“And then we had Terry Dalton, who might have been the most talented player of them all. He was a young man that was obviously a little younger than that group, but coming off the bench he could really score the basketball,” Reynolds said. “Coach Bentley did an incredible job. Those guys were very talented offensively, but even better defensively.”
After the Cavaliers won the first district title in school history, the team followed it up with a New River District Tournament championship before easily dispatching Grundy 69-54 and Blacksburg 71-52 in the regionals. Unlike today, there was just one state champion in each classification, and teams had to win their regional just to qualify for the state tournament. In the final four, the Cavaliers drew an incredibly athletic Suffolk team led by eventual University of District of Columbia star Michael Britt, who would go on to be drafted by the Washington Bullets of the NBA. Carroll led with three minutes to play, but eventually lost 62-59.
“Michael Britt was unbelievable. He led the Urban Coalition, which at that time was one of the best summer leagues in the country. All the NBA guys were in it and he led that league in scoring,” Reynolds said. “The following year we played Martinsville in the final four. We weren’t successful in that game either, but making it to two final fours was quite an experience.”
If the Cavaliers would have beaten Suffolk, they would have faced Harrisonburg in the state championship game, led by future University of Virginia All-American and 7-4 center Ralph Sampson.
“There is a little bit of disappointment we didn’t make it to the championship game to play against Ralph Sampson’s team. That’s not to say we would have won, but I felt we were good enough to get there,” Edwards said. “That season had some ups and downs but we were pretty consistent. I remember the guys and I enjoyed the guys we played with. We got along good, and Coach Bentley and Reynolds pushed us awful hard even though we had some good talent. To get to 24-2 achieved most of our goals. It was pretty much everything I could have asked for.”
After Edwards graduated, the Cavaliers went 18-7 the following year, again winning the regional with a 67-48 win over Blacksburg. That season Carroll County lost two games to nearby roundball powerhouse Oak Hill by a combined nine points (58-52 and 54-51).
Several more talented players graduated after that season, and Coach Bentley left to take over the basketball program at Clinch Valley, leaving preseason pundits to pick the Cavaliers to finish last in the New River District. Although it’s comical now, Reynolds said he will never forget the conversation he had with then-CCHS Principal A.L. Noblett prior to his first and only season as Carroll’s head coach.
“We had a group with Terry Dalton being the most talented, and also Kenny Meredith and John Weber. We were picked last in the New River District poll that year and we ended up winning it, but I will never forget the first day of practice,” Reynolds said. “A.L. Noblett walked into the gym. We had graduated four or five really good players, been to back-to-back final fours, and Coach Bentley leaves. He walks in, balls are going everywhere, he looks at me and he said, ‘Coach Reynolds, how is practice going?’ I said it is going pretty well. I said, ‘Let me ask you something Mr. Noblett. What would you say if I told you we probably wouldn’t win a district game?’ He looked at me as serious as he could be and he said, ‘That would be okay coach, but I sure as heck would miss having you around.’ And he was serious.”
Now retired from coaching, Bentley said he thought we he lucky to have great assistants at Carroll in Jeff Reynolds and Hal Clary. As far as the talent on the team, opposing coaches answered that question in voting for the All-New River District team.
“I think we had an exceptional bunch of young men,” Bentley said. “We had six different players get votes for all-district. I think that illustrates the quality of the young men we had. We had a bunch of hard working youngsters”
Another thing that helped that 1978-79 team go so far was the unprecedented amount of far support it received.
“The night before the regional championship, which was played at Virginia Tech, we stayed in a motel in Blacksburg and a big crowd of supporters showed up,” Bentley said. “We had cheerleaders and fans, basically had a big pep rally in the parking lot of motel. We were blessed with a lot of support from people at Carroll County.”
Editor’s Note: Next week we will take a look at the 1990-91 CCHS team that reached the state tournament. What do you think? Vote in our current online poll at www.thecarrollnews.com: Who do you think is the greatest Carroll County boys’ basketball team in school history?
1978-79 Carroll County Cavaliers
W 57-41 over Independence
W 81-68 over Pulaski
W 99-64 over Giles
W 77-67 over Blacksburg
W 74-61 over Radford
W 77-60 over Narrows
W 76-41 over Floyd
W 71-62 over Pulaski
W 98-67 over Independence
L 73-71 to Galax
W 74-57 over George Wythe
W 78-59 over Giles
W 111-86 over Narrows
W 84-75 over Radford
W 74-57 over Christiansburg
W 88-57 over Galax
W 75-48 over George Wythe
W 94-58 over Christiansburg
W 79-64 over Blacksburg
W 60-46 over Giles
W 63-48 over George Wythe
W 65-56 over Blacksburg
W 69-54 over Grundy
W 71-52 over Blacksburg
L 62-59 to Suffolk