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Colonels await Tide in 1A semis

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Defending state champions pose a challenge as Galax makes return to final four.

By Craig Worrell, Sports Editor

Galax and Altavista, holders of the last three Group A Division 1 state championships in boys’ basketball, will meet at 6 p.m. this evening (Friday) at the Salem Civic Center in the semifinals of the inaugural Group 1A state tournament. The good news for Galax is that the Maroon Tide holds two of those three most recent titles. The good news for Altavista is that most of the kids that won it last year are back for more.

The first year of the Virginia High School League’s reconfigured six-classification system has eliminated the state quarterfinals but those left standing in the 1A final four are still a who’s-who of recent small-school powers. Defending Division 1 and Division 2 state champs, Altavista and Radford, respectively,  are in the field along with the Maroon Tide, which won it all in 2011 and 2012. Seemingly the odd man out, Surry County rounds out the field and has been no stranger to the state tournament itself, taking the runner-up spot in 2008 and winning the Group A title in 2005.

Altavista (20-3) is looking more and more like the new Gretna as the Colonels are sitting smack dab in the middle of a silly run of success. Three months away from having won a state title in football, Altavista has four regulars back from last year’s state title basketball team, and three of them – Juan Thornhill and twin brothers Darius and Demetrius Johnson – are still just juniors. Thornhill has already committed to play football at Virginia while the Johnson brothers are in the 6-foot-4 range. The three combined for 66 of the Colonels’ 79 points in the Region 1A East finals against Surry.

“Knowing that they are the defending state champions, and after playing them in football, we know that they have a lot of athletes,” Galax coach Verl Brown said. Brown said the Johnson twins remind him of former Maroon Tide standout Lawrence Parsons in ability, if not quite in size.

Galax (19-5) enters state tournament play as a region runner-up following a 54-30 loss to Radford in the 1A West finals Saturday. Maroon Tide post Caleb Pack spoke after that loss about being prepared for Radford’s style of play, but the pace at which it came was something that couldn’t be simulated in practice. In that respect, the 32 minutes on the court with the Bobcats should be worth a lot more to Galax than a region runner-up’s trophy.

“Definitely,” Brown said. “I think that will help us tremendously. We’ve told the boys that’s the style that we’ll be facing the next two ballgames if we’re fortunate enough to keep paying that long.”

Altavista’s athleticism will match that of any small school in the state, but Radford’s intensity will be hard for the Colonels to duplicate.

“They do a  lot of man-to-man and get after you,” Brown said of the Colonels. “Maybe not as much as Radford but they will get after you. What concerns us is trying to keep them off the boards. We’ll try to switch defenses, not stay in one set, and try to slow the game down as much as possible.”

Having exceeded the expectations of many by reaching the state tournament, Galax has found success with defense, players knowing – and carrying out – their roles, and a combination of preparation and execution. In the Maroon Tide’s 50-46 region semifinal win over Eastside, four of Galax’s starters combined to score just four points, but what they and others did outside of the scorebook in the form of screens, passes, rebounding or defensive intensity were as instrumental as Clif Conley’s seven 3-pointers.

“I’m just thankful for these guys to be in the final four,” Brown said. “It’s been a good ride for them and none of these guys have experienced what they did last week and what they will this week.”