Tough as nails
In the world of sports, numbers can be a funny thing.
Certainly, statistics can tell you a lot about teams and players and scores of games. But you can’t put a number on toughness, there isn’t a stat for heart, and you won’t find diving for loose balls in a box score. And while the 1990-91 Carroll County boys’ basketball team didn’t have any superstars or the flashiest record (18-9), a gritty group of young men earned its spot among the Cavaliers’ all-time greatest teams by grinding through a tough schedule to become just the third team in school history to reach the Group AA state tournament.
Certainly, the 1990-91 Cavaliers had all the ingredients for a successful team, returning seven seniors. Up front, Carroll County started three of the toughest big men ever to don the silver and navy blue in center Greg Bolen and forwards Dustin Harmon and Jason Stockner. At two guard was unquestionably one of the most talented all-around athletes in school history in Matt Montgomery. And at point guard was 5-10 senior Mickey Leonard, a consummate leader and floor general.
On top of that, head coach Pat Sharp’s first team at CCHS had incredible depth and size with 6-5 senior Andrew Hawks, and talented juniors coming off the bench in Jason Gallimore and Kris Richardson, who would go on to become a five-time Toughman champion. Backup guards Joey Marshall, Ben Sumner and David Johnson were all gifted players in their own right that helped give Carroll County a second five that could rival most team’s starting units.
But it was those intangibles you can’t measure with a ruler or a 40-yard dash that made the 1990-91 Cavaliers such a special team.
“Everybody on that team had enough heart to fill an auditorium up. Hard-nosed is a good way to put it. We may not have had the most skill in the district, but when the buzzer started we were ready to go,” said Harmon, a 6-4, 195 senior on that team. “We had talent, but as much talent as we had, we had that much more heart tenfold. Anybody you wanted to stick in there, it was a pretty good exchange. We had a deep bench and all those young guys off the bench, they played their heart out. It was a joy.”
It also didn’t hurt that the seven seniors on that team benefitted from a pair of old-school coaches. As sophomores and juniors, the upperclassmen on the 1991 team played under the guidance of Ron Quesenberry, long known as one of the toughest coaches in the area. Sharp, who helped lead Carroll County to its only two state tournament appearances as a player in 1979 and 1980, took over prior to the 1990-91 season. Immediately, he imposed his will and toughness on the senior-heavy Cavaliers.
“A lot of that hardnosed attitude was Sharp rubbing off on us. He reminded us of Clint Eastwood with a whistle around his neck,” Harmon said. “He was kind of quiet, but when it came time to get his point across, he got it across. And we had to play him in practice. He was a beast in there. We had nothing but respect for him. Coach Quesenberry was Bobby Knight, Jr. With Sharp and Quesenberry, we could have wrote the book Season on the Brink 2 and 3.”
And while most players on the 1990-91 team will concede superiority to the 1978-79 Cavalier team, Sharp said the ’91 squad was better in some regards.
“If anything that team had more depth than we did. They weren’t as big, but we had depth at every position on that ’91 team. We weren’t quite that deep (in 78-79),” Sharp said. “The ’91 team was very athletic, very competitive and very hard-nosed. They wouldn’t back down from anybody. Greg was 6-3 and played 6-6. Dustin was 6-4, Andrew Hawks was 6-5, and Jason Stockner was 6-1 and played 6-6 or 6-7. Matt Montgomery was an all-state baseball player. And we had talented guys coming off the bench.”
Indeed, perhaps the team’s depth can be measured by looking at the superlatives from that season. Matt Montgomery’s 23-point effort against George Wythe was the most scored by a Cavalier that season, while 12 rebounds were the most hauled in by a single Carroll player that year. Harmon led the team with a modest 12.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, while Montgomery scored 10.5 points a contest and Bolen netted 9.7 points and 6.4 rebounds.
“It was just a fun group of guys to be with and there wasn’t any individual stuff. When we got together to play ball, that’s what we got together to do, to win,” said Sumner. “We were serious, we meant business and we had fun doing it. We were tough on each other in practice and we expected to win a ball game. We didn’t expect to back down from anybody.”
Bolen and Harmon were the enforcers on that team in the low blocks. Perhaps it’s ironic both went on to pursue careers in the criminal justice field.
“Greg was so tough, especially if he could have stay in a whole game,” Sumner said. “Sometimes he would get in foul trouble because he played so violently. You didn’t want to get into his way.”
Three years before the state tournament season of 1991, several of the seniors on that team went undefeated on Carroll County Intermediate School’s 9th grade team with Sharp as the coach. Of course, back then St. Paul School still went through the 9th grade, so Cana players such as Mickey Leonard didn’t join forces with the rest of the Cavaliers until their sophomore seasons.
By the next season, Bolen, Harmon and Leonard were all starting on the varsity team at CCHS. Much like Ryan Gravley and Austin Horton, who suffered through a two-win season as freshmen, Bolen, Harmon and Leonard were part of a two-win team as 10th graders.
“You have to take your lumps to be successful,” said Bolen, now the Chief of the Hillsville Police Department. “You really do have to learn how to win, but you have to learn how to lose first.”
As juniors, the team finished 8-14, with perhaps its most memorable moment having nothing to do with basketball. Late in a New River District road game at George Wythe, tensions exploded into a benches-clearing brawl after Bolen took a hard and blatant foul after coming up with a steal.
“Somebody fouled Greg Bolen and it was a pretty blatant foul. Nobody liked it, especially Greg. And when Greg showed his displeasure with the foul, the George Wythe bench didn’t like it and we jumped in,” Harmon said. “It escalated from there. I remember looking up, Allen Green hit me under my chin and he was about 6-4, 230 pounds. He laid me dizzy for a minute and I staggered back to my bench. It was something.”
The game was eventually called with 39 seconds left and the Cavaliers had to have a police escort out of town as even the Maroons’ fans entered into the melee.
“I got pulled down from behind after I got a steal and he swung at me as we were falling. And so in my normal fashion, I retaliated” Bolen recalled. “The benches cleared, a fan came out of the stands and tackled me and things got crazy. Fans were throwing plastic bottles and trash at us in the parking lot, anything they could find. But that was just the type of loyalty we had, we took care of each other even in something like that. It was something that should have never happened in the first place, but it’s competitive sports. There was no team I saw or played against that was as physical as our team my senior year. We weren’t dirty, but we were the most physical team anybody was going to play.”
Even though that team finished 8-14, expectations were high going into the 1990-91 campaign with seven seniors returning. And despite an early loss to George Wythe, Carroll County proved its worth early in the season in the Marion Holiday Classic with wins over Northwood, Marion and Radford. In the semifinal, the Cavaliers proved they were going to be a force to reckon with as they dismantled a Marion team by 19 points that had almost its entire squad back from the Region IV championship club of 1989-90. Carroll would go on to beat Radford 68-56 in the championship game of the Holiday Classic.
“Winning the tournament was a huge deal. Behind the scenes, three of us were playing with the flu - me, Dustin and Mickey,” Bolen said. “Each game we had a different high scorer. It was because of matchups. Sharp and (assistant coach Howard) Mayo were master technicians as far as matching up players.”
The Cavaliers then matched the best start to a season in school history with a 75-56 victory over Salem, earning Carroll ranks of 6th in the Timesland and 9th in the Group AA poll. In the next game against Christiansburg, Montgomery would go 0-for-7 from the floor until swishing a 40-foot bomb at the buzzer for a 50-49 victory, causing the student section to rush the floor.
“Pat and I had a very good working relationship and I said, ‘Coach, I think I have something that can work.’ He said, ‘Take it and show it to them,’” said Mayo, who would go on to build a powerhouse girls’ basketball program at CCHS before taking girls’ head coaching jobs at Starmount and now Mount Airy. “We talked about a couple of people setting down screens, sending Matt and Mickey long. Matt caught it, took a dribble and let it fly, hit nothing but the bottom of net. It was a great moment for a high school game because the student section just rushed the floor and the whole team celebrated with the student section. That is what high school basketball is all about.”
The Cavaliers would hammer Rural Retreat in the next game 105-61 before hitting a rough spell, losing three of their next four contests. Carroll would bounce back by winning its next three games, including a 116-40 victory over Rural Retreat in which the Cavs set school records that still stand for most points in a game and largest margin of victory in school history for a boys’ or girls’ game.
Carroll lost its next two games to finish second in the regular season New River District standings. The Cavs earned a Region IV berth after beating Christiansburg 60-54 in the district tournament semifinal before falling to Blacksburg in the championship. The team then advanced to the state by beating Lee High 72-60 and Tazewell 55-53 in the Region IV Tournament, but lost to Marion in the regional final in a rematch from the Holiday Classic.
Carroll drew probably the toughest possible opponent in the state tournament in defending state champion Robert E. Lee. The Cavs would keep it close, trailing by just two points at the half, before losing 75-60.
“I think Pat did a great job of having practices organized and going out and having specific goals we wanted to reach each day in practice,” Mayo said. “It was a very deep team. They did a good job of pushing each other in practice. We may not have had a superstar, but you put that team together and they played well together. They were very hard to beat.”
“That whole team beat off of one heartbeat. You kind of knew what everybody was going to do. Coach Sharp and Mayo had us like factory workers,” Bolen said. “We knew our role. Everybody had a specific job. And our bench was so deep, we really didn’t lose a step. Our next five could have started for any team in the district that year.”
Then and Now
Although the Cavaliers also went to the state in 1979-80 and followed it up with an NRD title in 1981, most would consider the 1978-79 squad the best of that trio. Twelve years later, Carroll County made the state tourney again in ‘91. Fast forward 22 more years to 2013 and the Cavaliers are again contenders to make a deep postseason run with a 20-1 record.
Bridging that 34-year gap is Joey Marshall, an assistant on this year’s varsity team. Marshall was a stellar point guard in his own right as a junior on the ‘91 club, coached by Sharp, giving him a unique perspective on all three eras.
“Our team was big, we were athletic and deep. You look at this year’s team and it’s sort of a mirror image because they are big, they are quick and athletic, and extremely deep. You look back at the history and you don’t find that but about every 10 to 15 years,” Marshall said. “I am around the AAU program and I don’t see any team in the foreseeable future that is going to compare with the talent that is there now. It could easily be 15 to 20 more years.”
Perhaps it’s only natural that the current players ask Marshall constantly if he thinks the ’91 team could beat the 2013 Cavs.
“As a player your pride says, ‘Well, yeah.’ But as a coach wanting them to succeed at the highest level, I hope we can go further than they did,” Marshall said. “If you compare records, our record was not as good. But five of our losses were five points or less. But you also have to look at the teams we were losing to. Just like Pat’s team, we played in a tough New River District and then our nondistrict schedule was just phenomenal. When we got beat by Robert E. Lee, they had a player named Marcus Reed, a division I player at VCU.”
Everybody knows about the talents of senior guard Ryan Gravley, the returning SWD Player of the Year. But junior point guard Gunnar Beamer is also an incredibly talented player that probably doesn’t get near the recognition he deserves.
“He is probably the quickest guard that I have ever seen,” Marshall said. “That is why when we go to the four-wide series at the end when we are winning, it’s almost impossible to beat us because of our ball-handling with Gunnar. He is just phenomenal. Me and Gunnar were mirror images. I didn’t put up big numbers, but my job was to control the ball and have no turnovers. I am partial to that position because I know what kind of pressure is on Gunnar. Mickey Leonard was the same way. Without a good point guard you won’t be successful.”
Marshall also sees a lot of similarities in the depth of both teams. With Cody Keith, Duncan Reece, Winston Giles, Tyler Lineberry and other talented subs coming off the bench, the current team can continue to apply pressure to opponents like the ’91 group did.
“When we came in and got our chance, you knew if you didn’t play well you were coming out of the game. It’s the same thing this year,” Marshall said. “When Brad puts someone in, if they don’t perform at their highest level, they go back to the bench. If you notice a lot of times the starting five is in a close game, then when the other team subs and Brad subs, the score goes to double digits.”
It’s hard to compare those two teams though because the 2013 team likes to press teams into submission and score in transition. Under Sharp, the Cavaliers would walk the ball up the floor and take time to set up the offense to take advantage of its size.
“We played a different style,” Marshall said. “We played a Princeton-style offense compared to a UNLV style. You just can’t compare those.”
Bolen is a huge fan of this year’s Carroll team. But idolizing and having worn the number 40 of notorious Detroit Pistons’ badboy Bill Laimbeer, Bolen said he will still relish that role in comparing the teams.
“I love these guys. They are so fun to watch. I know them all personally, and watching them play I have tremendous respect for them. But we are talking about competitive pride here and history, so I definitely feel if somebody is going to be the bad guy, why not continue the tradition? Our inside game was so tough and so strong, I would give us an advantage over this year’s team’s inside game. We were just so physical,” Bolen said. “Ryan would have definitely been hard to handle and Gunnar is an amazing ball-handler, so we would have probably had a little bit of trouble keeping them in check. I do think this year’s team will go farther than we did. They play so unselfishly, they play great team ball and they have great coaching. They can only beat themselves.”
And what about the 1978-79 team?
“I don’t think any of the three teams would run each other out of the building, but I would have to give the advantage to the 78-79 team,” Bolen said. “I would have to give a major edge to the 78-79 team, not trying to take anything away from either squad. Everybody will have pride in their own squad, but it sure would be fun to jump in the time machine.”
Right now, Marshall is focused on the present. He’s heard for years about the great crowds that used to pack the gym at CCHS in the late 70s/early 80s. He remembers a huge home crowd for a regional game in 1991. With Carroll County set to host the Region IV Tournament from Feb. 18-22, he hopes the community will come out to support the team in droves like it used to in the old glory days.
“The community really needs to come out and support these guys. They don’t have to travel to see this talented team,” Marshall said. “I want to see that gym like that. I just want to make sure the community realizes these teams come around once every 15 to 20 years and the regional tournament is at home. They need to come out and see it.”
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