When David Willson took over the Emory & Henry basketball program four years ago, the Wasps were coming off an abysmal 4-win campaign. Now, four years later, E&H just completed its most successful season in 24 years in large part to a Carroll County native who helped spark a similar turnaround in the Cavalier basketball program.
Carroll County won just two games during Ryan Gravley’s freshman season. But by the time he was a senior, the Cavaliers tied a school record for wins in a season (24) and captured the program’s first Region IV basketball title in more than 30 years.
Just as he did at CCHS, Gravley helped turn around an Emory & Henry program that won a total of 13 games from 2013-2015. The Wasps’ starting point guard in 81 of the team’s 82 games the last three years, Gravley’s leadership helped E&H steadily improve from four wins as a freshman and five wins as a sophomore to a 16-win campaign in 2016. This year as a senior captain, Gravley helped take the Wasps to new heights. Emory & Henry (20-8) just completed an incredible 2017 season in which it won 20 games for the first time since 1993, finished with a No. 5 ranking in the NCAA Division III South Region, and advanced to the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Tournament Championship for the first time since 1994.
“It’s not an accident that he has been a part of two turnarounds in a row. Ryan Gravley is one of the best leaders I have ever coached, and one of the things that make him such a great leader is the fact that he is selfless and all he wants to do is win,” Willson said. “And if that means he needs to sacrifice certain things that gives him more glory, then that is what he is going to do. He is a team guy through and through and the guys on the team know that and appreciate that and it gives him good rapport from a leadership standpoint. The other thing that makes him a good leader is he is really smart and he understands the game really well. I was able to delegate a lot of on-the-court coaching to him. And the other guys respected him enough to listen.”
While his scoring average dipped for the first time in his career (going from 9.6 points per game as a junior to 7.1 points as a senior), there was no mistaking Gravley’s importance to this year’s team. The senior finished second in the ODAC in assists with 4.6 per game as the Wasps asked him to take on more of a role as a floor leader and distributor as Emory’s talent level has continued to increase. Gravley also finished sixth in the ODAC in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.8) and eighth in free throw shooting percentage (77.9 percent), while making good on 42.9 percent of his 3-point attempts (21-of-49). It was a role Gravley was more than willing to take on for the sake of team – and a special season.
“I didn’t mind at all. I enjoy creating shots for my teammates and getting everybody involved and I think that gave us the best opportunity to win,” Gravley said. “I was looked at to be more of a leader this year, a floor general, get people involved more, make sure we were set up correctly, things a typical point guard does. We also had a lot of good players on the team and players that could score in so many ways.”
When Gravley first came to Emory, the four-win season the year before didn’t scare him. After all, Carroll won just two games his freshmen season, and he saw the same reasons for optimism after his first year with the Wasps.
“I was optimistic. I knew we had talent and if we stayed the course and worked hard every day we could turn it around, especially this year, making it to the ODAC championship,” Gravley said.
Ironically, his head coach didn’t always share the same enthusiasm that Gravley could be one of the guys to help ignite the turnaround. The first impression, especially, wasn’t the greatest.
“I remember the first time I saw him, I ran into him on the sidewalk, he introduced himself to me and I thought, ‘There’s no way this guy could play here,’” Willson said. “Fortunately that is what opponents thought the first time he stepped on the floor, too. Boy did he prove them and me wrong. I remember the first workout we did how impressive he was as far as how coachable he was and his attention to detail. All it took was one workout. There were 25 other guys and he was the one that stood out with what he did at the workout. I still wasn’t sure he’d play for us. But then it got to the point I gave him an opportunity to get on floor (Gravley’s freshman season) and he did a good job and very quickly worked his way up on our depth chart. He helped us beat Guilford and Roanoke, and from that point he was a huge key to what we were doing. And he has just been a key part of our progress ever since I got here. I am so proud of him and I am so happy for him that he was able to experience the success we experienced down the stretch this season because it was well deserved.”
And boy was it worth it. Gravley said his senior season and the run to the ODAC Tournament Championship game was an awesome experience. He said the entire community and campus were behind the team as they competed for a championship. Coming up short was a little bittersweet, he said, but he’ll never forget the support he and the team received.
“It was especially nice to have so many people coming from back home, people coming up for multiple games, whether it was former coaches of mine, friends and their parents, or people from Carroll County when I played,” Gravley said. “It meant a lot to have so many people supporting me and getting messages on Facebook.”
As for his future plans, Gravley is about to complete a double major in the fields of sports management and business. That’s quite a chunk to bite off for a collegiate athlete with all the time demands required of them these days. And while double majors are rare in the college sporting world, it certainly doesn’t surprise Willson.
“Ryan Gravley is one of my favorite people. He’s very impressive. I could sit here for three hours and talk about Ryan. There are so many different levels that impress me about him – his work ethic, attention to detail, his unselfishness – all made him what he is and our team become what it is as well. Ryan is truly a special player, and at the end of May he will be a special Emory & Henry graduate we can all be proud of.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN